When I am teaching a Mindfulness Basics course, I usually begin by instructing people in what I have started to call an “Active” Body Scan. This technique usually combines some gentle stretching, with self-massage as well as a technique than can help people differentiate what it feels like when their muscles are tight and what it feels like when those muscles are relaxed.
The technique involves you moving your attention part-by-part through your body either from the top-down or bottom-up. With each body part, you tighten the muscles for 3 to 5 seconds and then you relax them and try to stay with the feeling of relaxation for 6 to 10 seconds or 9 to 15 seconds (ie. double or triple the amount of time you held the muscle in contraction). Doing a countdown in your head can often help you stay in time (ie. 3..2..1 for tensing, 6..5..4..3..2..1 for relaxing). Do the tense-relax cycle 2 to 3 times with each body part before moving on. In terms of body position, I find that lying down is the most comfortable but it is possible to adapt the scan for other positions.
Try out this Active Body scan in bed each night before sleep and each morning as soon as you wake up:
Please go ahead and take a lying down position with your arms by your sides.
Now bring your attention to your toes, clench your toes as if you were picking up an imaginary pencil. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds. Then relax for 6 to10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Now pull your toes and top of feet up towards head. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Relax for 6-10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Now tighten your thighs by stretching your legs out as if you were slightly locking your knees. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds. Relax for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Now tighten and squeeze your buttocks. Hold 3 to 5 seconds. Relax for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Now tighten your belly. Hold 3 to 5 seconds. Relax for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Now wrap your arms around your chest as if you were giving yourself a big hug/squeeze. Squeeze for 3-5 secs. Then relax for 6-10 secs. Repeat 2-3 times.
Now bring your arms back down to your sides. Clench your hands into fists while straightening your arms and lifting them slightly off your lying surface. Hold 3 to 5 seconds. Relax 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Now lift shoulders to your ears. Hold 3 to 5 seconds. Relax for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Finally, scrunch up your face. Hold 3 to 5 seconds. Relax for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
Now open your eyes and simply notice the sensations in your body and how you feel.
By doing the Active body scan regularly, you will become more aware of the daily tension that builds up in your body and have a way to release it whenever you start to notice it. And with continued practice, you will build a habit as part of your daily routine, as easy as brushing your teeth. More importantly, you will gain more control over your own stress response while allowing for a more relaxed body and mind.