Body Scan Meditation For Sleep

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A good night’s sleep cannot be underestimated. If we are familiar with interrupted sleep patterns or struggle to drift off at night, we understand the impact that sleep quality has on our mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.

One common factor as to why many people struggle to get a solid night of rest is the active mind. Since the mind and body are highly interconnected, a restless mind leads to a restless night.

One way of soothing the mind and increasing our ability to fall asleep is a mindfulness practice known as the body scan.

Body scans invite us to shift our awareness away from the thoughts flowing through us and towards the tangible experience of our physical body.

By shifting our attention in this way, we ease the mind and our physiology as well.

The Power of Body Awareness

This type of mindfulness practice has become popularized in recent decades, but it has deep roots.

In Vipassana meditation of the U Ba Khin tradition taught by S. N. Goenka, systematic scanning of the whole body is described. In this tradition, ‘sweepings’ of the body are performed to enhance awareness of both subtle sensations and the impermanence of all things.

The body scan practice is also a considerable component of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). These programs have been widely studied, helping us to measure and understand the power that mindfulness practices can have on human wellbeing.

For instance, it has been observed that body scan practice can decrease cortisol levels, our primary stress hormone, while increasing DHEA, an important precursor for other hormones. 

Researchers have also observed that by increasing interoceptive training (through body scan meditation and breath awareness), participants become better able to manage stress, regulate emotions, and derive insight from their present state of being.

Furthermore, a study looking at the impact of body scanning on adolescents suffering from insomnia noted an improvement in sleep quality and reduced feelings of irritability beyond traditional cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTI).

It is important to note that we all have a different relationship to our bodies – and, to different parts of the body. Though body scan practices are quite commonly relaxing and supportive of sleep, they can also stir traumatic memories and should be approached with tenderness and care.

For this reason, many body scan meditations incorporate an element of loving-kindness or compassion, inviting us to befriend whatever we come across. 

Body Scan Meditation For Sleep

Two Ways to Body Scan

To practice a body scan meditation for sleep or relaxation, there are two different approaches one might consider: the first is mindfulness-based whereas the second is more active in nature.

When practiced laying down, both can help to prep the body-mind vessel for deep sleep.

Mindfulness-Based Body Scan

The mindfulness-based body scan involves directing one’s awareness systematically through the body, from toes to head or vice-versa. This can be done guided or on one’s own.

As attention is drawn to different body parts, one might simply observe the sensations that are present or offer loving-kindness to that region.

Mindful awareness of the body invites us to practice non-judgment towards whatever we notice. It helps us to be present with whatever sensations we are experiencing and, as noted in the Vipassana tradition, to recognize the impermanence of all experiences.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

On the other hand, progressive muscle relaxation is a more active technique of body scanning. Developed by Edmund Jacobson in the early 1900s, this practice elicits the relaxation response by actively tensing muscle groups and then releasing that tension.

Similar to mindfulness-based body scan meditations, progressive muscle relaxation typically involves systematic scanning of the body in one direction.

Along the way, various muscle groups are tensed and released (for example, tightening up the fists for a brief moment and then letting them go). 

Woman practices body scan meditation for sleep

How to Practice A Body Scan for Sleep

To support a better night’s sleep with a body scan meditation, it is best to practice after all evening activities are complete and you have already crawled into bed.

Again, you might listen to a guided practice or explore this on your own. If you are moving through this practice on your own, consider the following meditation as a place to start.

1. Start your practice once you are in bed.
Ensuring that your alarm has been set and there is nothing left for you to take care of for the day. This practice is best done on your back, but you can make adjustments as you need to.
2. Close your eyes and take a few cleansing breaths.
Settle in, observe each breath as an anchor into the present moment. You might also invite a sense of release to move through you with each exhalation.
3. Once you feel as grounded as possible, draw your attention to the crown of your head.
Simply witnessing whatever sensations might be present there. Refrain from judging whatever you discover. Instead, send a loving breath into that part of your body.
4. Spend one or two breaths with your crown before slowly descending into your forehead.
Repeat the process of granting loving awareness to this part of your body.
5. Continue working your way down the body at your own pace.
Once you reach your shoulders, slowly move down the lengths of both arms. After witnessing what is present in your hands, shift your attention to your chest and then continue your descent. For a longer meditation, you can choose to explore each limb on its own (for example, all regions in the left arm before all regions in the right).
7. Repeat the practice.
Perhaps moving in the opposite direction this time. Alternatively, you can stay with the natural flow of your breath, using it as an anchor until your mind drifts into sleep.

Guided Body Scan

Additional Tips for Supporting Deep Sleep

While body scan practices are quite effective on their own for increasing relaxation, you might support your practice with a few other techniques. Consider the following tips for deep sleep to enhance your sense of peace and ease at the end of each day.

1. Stretch your body before crawling into bed.

Another way to ease the mind before sleep is to mindfully dive into the body through slow and gentle movement. You might practice particular yoga asanas or simply stretch the body in any way that you intuitively feel called to.

2. Develop compassion for your wandering mind.

After climbing into bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts, turn to this inner experience with kindness and warmth.

Practice observing your thoughts from a slight distance, noting their nature and offering them compassionate words.

For example, you might silently whisper: “I see that you are struggling and I am here for you.”

3. Journal, read, or avoid screen time in some other way before bed.

Another way to support deep sleep is to encourage melatonin production at the end of the day.

We can do this by switching off our phones and computers and adopting device-free end-of-day activities.

This supports sleep since the blue light emitted by our devices suppresses melatonin production and negatively impacts circadian rhythms. 

4. Practice diaphragmatic breathing.

While in bed, you might also practice belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing.

This practice can evoke a sense of relaxation, which eases the stress response (or the sympathetic nervous system) and soothes the mind. You might practice this before your body scan meditation.

5. Consider the practice of Yoga Nidra.

Lastly, those looking to enhance deep relaxation might also explore the practice of Yoga Nidra, which translates to yogic sleep.

It is a practice that leads one into deeper levels of awareness, often experienced as a state somewhere between wakefulness and slumber. This state can support that final surrender into sleep.

As you move through a body scan for sleep or any other sleep-supportive activity, always try to cultivate patience and curiosity.

Since there are additional factors that can contribute to challenges falling asleep, our efforts might take some time and further exploration.

However, breath by breath we might just find that our hours of slumber are sweeter – and deeper – than they used to be.