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Self-Soothing Techniques: Autogenic Training and Yoga

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Autogenic Training. Autogenic Training is a method for promoting a profoundly relaxed state of consciousness. The technique is very close to self-hypnosis; it is probably best considered a variation on the theme of self-hypnosis. It does not involve muscular contractions or other physical manipulation of the body as does PMR.

As is the case with self-hypnosis, autogenic training requires the practitioner to find a quiet and private spot where he or she can be alone for 20 or so minutes a day. Basically, the practitioner sits or lies down quietly and focused on inner experiences to the exclusion of outer ones. Practice starts with a breathing exercise probably adapted from yogic pranayama practice; while breathing deeply, breaths are exhaled slowly so that it takes twice as long to exhale as it does to breath in. This breathing exercise provides a centering feeling of peace and calm. Once the breathing portion of the program is done, the practitioner imagines inner sensations of heaviness and warmth in a guided fashion, and repeats suggestive phrases to this effect, "My right arm is feeling heavy". There is an entire recommended sequence of things to imaging and suggest to yourself which takes about two months to complete. The more you practice this technique, the better you become at entering into the calm and relaxed autogenic state.

A complete list of step by step instructions for autogenic training are available here.

Biofeedback and Neurofeedback, discussed previously, has a long history of use as a relaxation aide.

Yoga and Pranayama. To someone living in the developed world, yoga seems like a relatively new sort of exercise program that has a lot to do with stretching. In fact, yoga is part of a very old "self-help" sort of tradition going back literally thousands of years, which was (and still is) a means of spiritual practice in parts of India. The name yoga derives from the Sanskrit roots for "yoke" (as in the sort of wooden frame that might be placed onto horses to keep them walking in a straight line) as well as for "union". The various exercises and practices making up yoga were designed to tame the various forces inside the mind and body that want to walk in different directions and bring them together with a single purpose of becoming more holy. The system of physical yoga, known as Hatha Yoga, that has recently become popular is the most basic form of yoga designed to promote physical strength, flexibility and balance. The thinking was that physical fitness provides a foundation upon which mental and spiritual fitness can occur, and that it is therefore necessary to achieve a certain level of physical fitness before mental fitness is going to become an achievable goal. Regardless of whether you agree this is true there is no denying that the regular practice of Hatha Yoga provides its students with a wealth of benefits, among them opportunities for profound relaxation, improved mental and emotional control, and freedom from the aches and pains of aging.

The practice of hatha yoga involves the mastery of various physical postures, most of which are named in mimicry of animal motions or various images that suggest strength, flexibility or relaxation. "Downward Facing Dog", "Mountain Pose", and "Half Moon Pose" are three such names. A typical hatha yoga teacher will lead her students through a balanced range of these poses, lasting for about 90 minutes. The poses are deceptively simple to perform. It is relatively easy to approximate them, but months and years of gradually increasing strength and flexibility must occur before they can be mastered.

Yoga poses promote physical strength, balance and flexibility and do so in a gradual manner. These qualities improve slowly, over time. As they improve, so too does practitioners ability to relax deeply, to shrug off mild anxiety and depression states, and to feel more generally at ease in their own bodies.

In yoga, prana is a name given to the life force or spirit, which is thought to be allied with breathing. As students begin to master basic hatha yoga practices, they may be exposed to the practice of Pranayama, or breath manipulation. Pranayama students learn how to manipulate their breathing in a deliberate and conscious way. In so doing, they learn how to manipulate and control their emotions and mood states, for the two are quite distinctly linked in practice.

We are not aware of scientific studies validating the claims made for Pranayama. Nevertheless, our own limited experience would suggest that it is indeed a valuable practice for people seeking to learn how to control their moods to explore. Pranayama supposedly can be dangerous if taught or learned incorrectly and we have no basis upon which to dispute this sort of warning. The student is thus cautioned to only pursue the study of pranayama in its proper context (e.g., as an advanced part of traditional yoga study which must be preceded by mastery of a certain level of hatha yoga as taught by a qualified teacher). Our advice is to seek out a qualified yoga teacher and start at the beginning so that you get the full and properly balanced benefit of the marvelous teaching that is yoga.