Power Down - A Simple Body Scan Meditation
My second meditation for building resilience is another simple, centering technique. This time we settle our attention lightly on different parts of the body to bring us into the present moment. This kind of meditation is called Body Scan and there are many different kinds.
“Centred,” “grounded”, “rooted”, and “anchored” are all yoga/meditation terms that mean getting in touch with our core - heart, mind, body and soul. We feel more settled and calm when we are aware of how our body feels; our thoughts and feelings; and our breath. Connection to body, mind and breath help us become fully engaged in the present moment. In yogic philosophy we believe that this process can unify our experience of self, others and the natural world. It is called Brahmacharya. This stillness lays the groundwork for Isvarapranidhana - taking shelter in your higher power however you define that.
Body scanning is not just about relaxing. We are building skills that sharpen a sense many are not aware of. It is called Interoception. Interoception is best explained by example.
Close your eyes for a moment and see if you can notice the following:
Your heart beating - is it fast or slow?
Your breath - is it deep or shallow? Fast or slow?
Your muscles - any pockets of tension?
Your temperature - hot or cold?
Most of us are able to feel all these sensations. We are using interoception, our 8th sensory system, to do so. Tiny receptors in muscles, skin, bones and organs gather information and send reports to the brain. The brain decodes these signals and lets us know we are hungry or full, itchy or hurting, hot or cold, well or sick.
Interoception enables us to feel emotions too. Have your ever noticed that emotions manifest differently in the body? Think back to the last time you had to speak to a large crowd of strangers. Perhaps you remember your heart and breath race, muscles tense, palms sweat, and stomach become unsettled? We learn to recognize these sensations as nervousness.
If it is working well, interoception helps us balance our inner world. Uncomfortable sensations and their attached feeling states motivate us to adjust until we restore balance. This might be as simple as drinking or eating, or as complicated as changing jobs or ending a relationship.
Interoception helps with many life skills such as:
Flexibility of thought
Did you know that not all people have intact interoceptive skills? Those on the Asperger/Autism spectrum, for example, may have a significantly lower awareness of interoceptive signals and this may make life more challenging for them - managing their own emotions and interacting with confidence socially. Those with a history of ACE’s (adverse childhood experiences) or ALE’s (adverse life experiences) may also struggle. This is because their experiences have disturbed their mind-body signalling which can cause emotional dysregulation. Even chronic stress can result in a malfunction of neural circuits that underpin successful brain-body communication. Those who have experienced long-term stressful jobs, chronic health conditions or chronic pain may discover their interoceptive sense have become blunted as they have repeatedly tuned out their body’s messaging in order to get stuff done. Research shows adults who experienced trauma as children have a poorer awareness of stress and its effects on their body when exposed to stressors as an adult. The more unpleasant an adult survivor of trauma finds everyday life, the less likely he or she will be to interpret their brain-body signals accurately.
This is modern scientific speak for concepts yogis have long acknowledged - our mind, body and spirit are connected. Bramacharya, the right use of energy, encompasses the unity, interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things including in yogic thought the divine. For optimum health, these aspects of ourselves need coherence - that is, they need to form a unified whole. Trauma specialists are turning to yoga and meditation now as therapy to help people reintegrate.
When I first came to yoga, I heard a yoga teacher explain to a student struggling with a particular pose that her hips were tight because she was holding tension there. I literally rolled my eyes. And to be honest I still think there are a lot of possible causes for tight hips. I had been a health professional for about 2 decades but somehow the concept of embodied stress was foreign to me. In my defense I had spent a lot of that time in Arnhem Land where yoga teachers were few and hard to come by. Yet after a few months of meditating and getting in touch with my body, mind, emotions and spirit I realized that yoga teacher had a point. We feel emotions as sensations in our bodies. I feel anxiety in my neck and shoulders or I tense my jaw. I feel love, joy and awe as a pleasant ache in my chest. I’m not suggesting all illness and injury is simply somatic sensation, there are myriad other contributors and causes, but ignoring our body’s internal signalling can certainly cause and/or compound problems. And I did just that for years. When I was younger I often ignored tension or pain because there was often no quick fix. I often put work and family first before the needs of my body. I also grew up in the era of the “no pain, no gain” exercise mantra. And I absorbed an unhealthy philosophy that my job in life was to pour myself out in service to others without regard for the limits of my temporal body. What I needed was balance but I had to learn the hard way that balance cannot be achieved without self-awareness and reflection (svadhyaya). Meditation, yoga postures and breathing practices can build body awareness and quieten the mind, preparing us for the stillness that creates space for connection - with ourselves, others, the natural world and loving presence.
So here is another short meditation to help us power down, tune in, and reconnect. I hope you find it helpful.