Technotox was asked to write an article for Everyday Mindfulness about the power of the body scan…
I used to suffer from severe pain in my left shoulder. I would walk for 50 minutes into work each morning with a strappy bag casually hooked over my left arm. It was a beautiful vintage mulberry, so what did it matter that it was causing shooting pains deep into my muscle tissue? For weeks and weeks I ignored it, mindlessly going about my business, caught up in the busy cycle of day-to-day life, oblivious to the long term damage this pain might be causing.
Three months later, I joined a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course with the aim to make mindfulness a part of my daily routine. I had heard a lot about its benefits and read plenty of books on the subject, but now it was time to put it into action and to be held accountable for my daily practice.
During the first week we carried out a 20-minute body scan. Something I had grappled with before but never really had much patience for. The body scan encourages us to bring moment-by-moment awareness into our bodies, moving slowly from one part to the next with full attention and observation. It requires discipline and patience. Feeling into each and every different part of our body, noticing any sensations, vibrations or throbbing and really getting curious around what these feel like. Observing the quality of the sensations rather than the labelling of them.
When we reached the shoulders and neck, I was reminded of the pain I so often felt in my shoulder blade but had all too easily grown to ignore. It was stronger than ever and I specifically remember thinking to myself, “why have I not done anything about this?”
The body scan is an integral part of the 8 week MBSR course and for that very reason taught early on in the syllabus. One of the theories behind it is that if we can change our relationship to our body, i.e. what we notice, how we listen, what we find, we can start to make wise choices around how we choose to react to it. Through learning to tune into its wisdom, we gain knowledge, and with knowledge comes power. The power of choice. i.e. we can make mindful choices around how we treat, feed and love our bodies. Beneficial choices that will help us to thrive and flourish as best as we possibly can.
During and after the body scan, we feel a heightened sense of awareness of our body, something we rarely allow ourselves the time and space to do in every day life. Room to reconnect to its wisdom.
It was working for me already as I was questioning this all too familiar pain and feeling it in a way that I could no longer ignore. The following week as I practised the body scan day after day, the pain sensation seemed to be growing with each sitting. Or was it just that I was becoming more aware of it? I eventually decided to make an appointment to see the doctor and as a result, was forced to ditch my ‘fashionable’ mulberry and invest in a double strapped ‘sensible’ backpack to walk to work with everyday. In a matter of weeks, the pain had subsided altogether. Relieved and grateful for the awareness the body scan had given me, I was in awe of yet another benefit of mindfulness.
In this information age, our worlds are built around planning, analysing, creating, working, striving – the list goes on and on. All activities of the mind, so it’s not a coincidence that as a society we’ve become increasingly divorced from our bodies, unable to tap into their wisdom and deaf to the signals they send us. In essence, most of us walk around like digital clouds on sticks, rather than fully embodied human beings, so one of the many benefits of a regular body scan is becoming more in-tune with our bodies. Through doing this we can learn to spot our stress signals early on and choose how we respond to them. We can try to counterbalance stress before it causes us any longer term issues, like high blood pressure, heart disease, depression or anxiety.
Some of my favourite body scans are offered by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams. Kabat-Zinn is a pioneer in mindfulness research and focusing specifically on mind and body interactions, while Mark Williams co-developed MBCT for the prevention of depression.
Kabat-Zinn explains that very slight changes in our bodies can have a significant impact on our thoughts and feelings. Highlighting a famous study carried out where two groups of participants were given a pencil to hold in their mouths while watching cartoons and rating the degree of humour. The first group held the pencil between their teeth which encouraged a smile and the other just with their lips which produced a frown. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the group with the pencil between their teeth thought the cartoons were far funnier than the group who mimicked the frown.
This is something I personally came to realise as I watched my body during times of stress, through body scans I was able to become aware of the impact my solid shoulders and tension headaches (my personal stress signals) were having on my mood. I would become grouchy with others and snap at them, which would then lead to feelings of guilt and self-sabotage. Feeding the stress.
Nowadays I’m far quicker to spot my stress signals, I’ve learnt to tune into them and make a habit of allowing myself a wide-berth when they’re present. I try to delay time with close friends and family while I address my stress with a massage or gentle swim.
Another benefit I’ve experienced from continuing the body scan long after my shoulder pain disappeared, is knowing the impact of external stimuli on my internal landscape.
I now have a magnified awareness of the impact of scary situations (like talking in front of a room of people) on my internal world. For example, I had never noticed the tight knot in my tummy and weight on my chest, like I do now. I have started spotting patterns, like having an upset tummy the morning of a big presentation (something I wouldn’t have associated with fear before). And as a result of this knowledge and observation, I’m now able to make tiny adjustments to ensure this impact isn’t any worse than it needs to be. Like not drinking any coffee that morning, or having rich food the night before. I’m also able to treat myself with greater kindness and compassion, and often stop and take the time to really feel into the anxiety, which ironically, helps to loosen it.
Body scans make me feel much more connected to my body. More grounded, centred and accepting of who I am and what I’m made up of. The state of the current media is one that pressures us to look a certain way. For women in particular we are made to feel inadequate; over weight and under par compared to the beauties that rein over the fashion and gossip pages. It’s a very unhealthy perception to have and as a result, most young women learn to dislike their bodies in comparison. Through the body scan I’ve learnt to connect and respect my body on a much deeper level, one that I hadn’t previously realised was possible. Once you’ve made that connection, it becomes impossible to judge or berate yourself, because it’s almost like a skin of respect and love that grows, and with continued practise it only gets stronger.