Progressive Muscle Relaxation vs. Body Scan Meditation

DJ writes: “Could you explain the difference between Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Body Scan Meditation? They both seem like the same thing to me.”

Great question!

There are very important differences between body scan meditation, which is associated with the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) which is a therapy aimed at helping people to learn how to relax. They are both used to treat anxiety, and both involve focus on body parts, but that’s as far as the similarities go.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique in which people are taught to systematically tense particular muscle groups in the body, such as the neck and shoulders, then then to release the tension so as to become familiar with what it feels like to relax.

The following is a description, courtesy of Anxiety Canada, of how this technique works:

“The first step is applying muscle tension to a specific part of the body. This step is essentially the same regardless of which muscle group you are targeting. First, focus on the target muscle group, for example, your left hand. Next, take a slow, deep breath and squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about 5 seconds. It is important to really feel the tension in the muscles, which may even cause a bit of discomfort or shaking. In this instance, you would be making a tight fist with your left hand.”

The next step involves a quick release of the tensed muscles. “After about 5 seconds, let all the tightness flow out of the tensed muscles. Exhale as you do this step. You should feel the muscles become loose and limp, as the tension flows out. It is important to very deliberately focus on and notice the difference between the tension and relaxation. This is the most important part of the whole exercise” (emphasis in original).

Notice what is the most important part – or intent – of the exercise; to learn how to recognize the difference between tension and relaxation.

Now let’s take a look at the body scan meditation which is associated with the popular version of mindfulness.

This type of meditation is a form of Vipassana (Buddhist) meditation that is used to “help expand mind/body awareness, release tension and quiet the mind.”

The person is instructed to lay on the floor, arms at the side, perhaps covering themselves with a blanket to stay warm, and keeping the palms facing upward in a “receiving fashion.”

“First, simply lie there and notice what it feels like to be connected to the ground,” this site directs. “Start with your left toes. Don’t visualize them, just check in and see how they feel. Are they cold? Are they holding tension? Focus your exhales on the point of your attention, directing your breath deep into your toes. Let your awareness of your toes go and move your attention to your heel, focusing your breath to your left heel.”

This same pattern is applied upward through the body, from arch to ankle to calf to knee, etc.

“Once you have scanned the individual body parts, unite them, focusing on how the fingers connect to the hands, which connect to the arms and so on and so forth. Be aware of sensations — the feel of the blanket or the chill of the air on your skin. The objective of the body scan is to see the body as a perfect whole, united by the breath flowing in and out of the body.”

Notice that the objective is not about relieving stress and tension – it’s about seeing the body as a perfect whole united by the breath. This kind of hyper-focus on the breath, “directing” it into body parts, is designed to facilitate an altered state of consciousness that Buddhists believe will aid in enlightenment.

The introduction of a Buddhist spiritual practice into the exercise should not surprise us, however, because body scan meditation is only being true to its roots in vipassana. Needless to say, this spiritual dimension does not enter into the picture of a typical session of PMR which is not rooted in a religious practice.

Although PMR and body scan meditation seem similar on the surface, a closer looks tells a much different story.

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