Bottom Up-Top Down Scan

Standing…breathing… noticing sensations…

Here’s a valuable skill for landing squarely in the present moment, one that you can employ just about anytime. I teach it as part of a fantastic 8-week mindfulness meditation course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In the class we call it the Body Scan. For you working folks, let’s call it the Bottom Up-Top Down Scan. It can be done anytime, anywhere, in any position, for any length of time. Here’s how it goes:

You can begin by taking one or two full, maybe even delicious breaths. See if you can enjoy these breaths in some way. Now continue by bringing your attention to your feet and toes, contacting the physical sensations in this area of your body. Don’t worry about what you find, how strong it is, or whether you find no sensation at all. Right now it’s just time to notice what’s there. Pressure? Pain? Warmth? Tingling? It’s all there to be taken in, without needing to label what you find good or bad. Proceed up through the ankles, then calves, knees and so on, just observing what you feel for sensations, on the skin’s surface and also inside your body. No need to worry if you become distracted by thoughts or sounds; just as you notice this has happened, come back to the last place you can remember scanning and proceed from there. Continue right up through the pelvis, abdomen, back and chest. Notice sensation in the hands, wrists, etc., ending with the shoulders, neck and finally head. Once this is done, sweep a little faster back down your body, ending with your feet again. You can sweep up and down one or two more times, if you care to. Finally, sense the body overall and notice the after-effects of having scanned.

The amount of time you spend can be widely variable. In our class, we spend a long time on it: 45 minutes each day, lying quietly awake! On the other hand, you can easily accomplish this while standing in line at the bank or grocery store, in the 90 seconds you have. Basically, give it the time you can, whatever you have, in whatever position you’re in. It can really help to get a feel for the scan if you practice it reclining and put some time into it at first. For example, when you wake up, you could stretch a bit to rustle up enough alertness, and then spend 10 minutes doing the scan. Making it a daily act at some recurring juncture is a very good idea. Over time, the scan becomes richer with information, the critical sensory data you need to navigate your way through each day with less tension and more physical freedom. Enjoy!


6 thoughts on “Bottom Up-Top Down Scan

  1. “Your…left…big…toe.” Whenever I do the body scan, I hear your voice speaking those words from the MBSR recording. Thus my practice always begins with my “…left…big…toe” and a little chuckle. 🙂

  2. I’m chuckling back as I read this. Sweet. In my head, my toe has a lush Spanish accent, because my first MBSR teacher was Zayda Vallejo, from Venezuela, I believe.

  3. I’ve been doing the long version body scan sporadically for months now, and each time I get more out of it, and each time I wonder why I’m not doing this every day. It’s such a gift to oneself. And I think this abbreviated version is just the ticket. Thanks, Margaret. -Pam

    • Thank you, Pam! And would you be willing to say more? Because Jon was asking me about this… So, if you’re willing, can you say WHAT you get out of it?!

  4. Generally speaking, I get at least a couple important things from the body scan, and they’re not as much physical benefits as they are mental or emotional. There’s the invitation to not judge yourself, your reactions to your observations. I found that to be powerful every time. There’s also permission to feel just as you feel; that it’s okay if you don’t even feel anything as you tune into your knees or calves, etc. Because sometimes I don’t have a visceral response, I find I’m just listening, and nothing’s happening except that i’m hearing the soothing voice of my dear friend.
    More specifically, I can tell you that I’ve had important physical benefits. Due to a recent shoulder injury, I’ve used the body scan to help me pay particular attention to each shoulder, especially what feels uncomfortable, painful; and the body scan has helped me learn how to sit with that, how to adapt to that, and live with it while I have to. The biggest physical benefit from the body scan has been in the attention to breathing itself. All this discussion about tuning into each individual breath, feeling it as it physically moves your body – your lungs, your rib cage, etc., and what the breath itself feels like deep inside your body has gotten me intimately familiar with my breathing. I wouldn’t have really appreciated any true importance in this besides the benefits during meditation until it recently saved me from a sure panic. I had just started taking a new medication and began to have a severe allergic reaction. There were several aspects to it including edema, rash, and blurred vision, but surely the most alarming symptom was the effect on my chest. Suddenly I was wheezing, and eventually that familiar expression of an elephant sitting on one’s chest had real meaning. I believe I was able to stay calm while I phoned my doctor’s office during this experience because I was also able to simultaneously tune in to what felt familiar. I was able to perceive the individual physical sensations of breathing that were normal and ‘right’. Being able to feel those trusted sensations underneath the new scarier ones allowed me to know that health was also still present, that I was going to be alright. I never would have had that comfort, that peace, during such a medical emergency, if it weren’t for practicing the body scan. Thank you, Margaret, for introducing me to it. -Pam

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