God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. - Reinhold Niebhur (adapted)
Autogenic Training (AT) is a method of producing deeply relaxed, peaceful states of mind and body. AT can accurately be viewed as both a form of relaxation and a form of meditation - the "Four aspects of inner focus" chart illustrates mechanisms of action. Autogenics is often taught as a method of stress management - a way of helping with a variety of "disorders of overactivation" that might manifest physically (e.g. headache, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, etc) and/or psychologically (e.g. stress, anxiety, etc). There are links to a session-by-session description of an Autogenic Training course - complete with relevant handouts & downloadable recordings - at the bottom of this page. Interestingly AT may also, at times, help with treatment and relapse prevention for depression. Probably because forms of meditative relaxation produce experiences of positive emotion and subsequent improved functioning, Autogenics can also be used to promote happiness and wellbeing. The following background remarks give more detail of both my own exploration of AT and of how it can be learned and adapted to help in a wide variety of situations.
I went up to university in 1968 and read philosophy for two years. It was a time of student activism, LSD, the Beatles and Tim Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out". I certainly turned on & tuned in and I thought about dropping out, but decided to switch to medicine instead. In 1970 I enrolled as a medical student, and began practising yoga & meditation. I took it all seriously. I went through a phase of getting up at 4.00am to do yoga and meditate till 7.00am, when I'd get ready & go into medical school. Besides yoga & pranayama practice, I explored all kinds of other approaches - Zen, Sufi, Vipassana, Dynamic, Tai Chi. I went to a series of one to two week silent meditation retreats and twice travelled to India - the second time I wasn't clear that I would come back. I did though. I taught forms of meditation & yoga through medical school and over subsequent years. As one of my main teachers put it - "If you're not really practising yourself, it's immoral to teach. If you are really practising yourself, it's immoral not to".
In the late 70's I became interested in Autogenic Training (AT). This was for a variety of reasons - AT adapted well to being taught in a time limited group format and there was research showing its value. And, in the 70's, meditation was probably considered a bit more "way out" than it is now, relaxation could be dismissed as not being "powerful" enough, and self-hypnosis often came with fear of "loss of control" baggage. I liked the way that most of my clients didn't know anything about Autogenic Training and so approached it with fairly open minds when considering skills it might be worthwhile learning.
I studied Autogenics with Wolfgang Luthe and Malcolm Carruthers. It fitted easily into the breadth of "altered states of consciousness" experiences that I was already familiar with. I began teaching classes in the early 1980's and I remember lecturing at a big international conference on Autogenics at around this time. For a variety of reasons I was clear Autogenics was useful but not uniquely so. In fact Manzoni et al's recent "Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis" suggests that Autogenics as usually taught may not to be as effective as some other forms of relaxation/meditation for anxiety problems - but then this may also be true for Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy too. It is interesting to ask why this might be so for AT. My suspicion is that the Autogenic establishment (of which I'm not a member) may have worked too hard to keep it "pure" and true to it's founder's teachings.
Scientific knowledge moves forward. I believe how we teach relaxation/meditation approaches should evolve as new evidence accumulates. So for example, traditional Autogenic teachers typically won't give trainees tapes or CD's of the practice exercises. As the Wikipedia article on Autogenics rightly points out, there are many parallels between AT and Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR). In their review of 29 controlled trials of PMR - "Efficacy of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation training: a quantitative review of behavioral medicine research" - Carlson & Hoyle found that providing training tapes was associated with better outcomes. Similarly Lars-Goran Ost's careful teaching of relaxation application during everyday life was a step forward from relaxation exercises taught without application training. And approaches like therapeutic writing are much better validated than traditional Autogenic methods of verbalised cathartic release. There are a whole series of further ways that more recent research suggests we can improve how we teach inner focus methods and happily the field will continue to evolve. I certainly found these adaptations were associated with good outcomes - for both anxiety & low mood - in a number of case series that I recorded with the AT classes I was teaching. It was good too to know that - like the currently favoured MBCT - learning AT was associated with reductions in depressive relapse. The chart "Four aspects of inner focus" illustrates a way of looking at overlapping methods involved in these kinds of practices. I've already posted on this blog more details about each of the four components of this chart - "Reducing negative states", "Nourishing positive states", "Encouraging mindfulness" and "Exploring & processing".
To learn about more traditional approaches to Autogenics, you can read the relevant Wikipedia article, see psychologist Raymond Richmond's description of his approach to Autogenics, and visit the British Autogenic Society website. The latter provide a list of accredited Autogenic teachers. Below I give an outline of an eight session Autogenic Training course as I taught it in 2008/2009 (in future I intend to incorporate AT into a broader "Life Skills & Stress Management" training). This AT outline includes downloadable MP3 practice sessions. These are recordings of my own practice of Autogenics while speaking about how I focus as I go through the various exercises. You will almost certainly gain more by attending a real life Autogenic class than by simply taking yourself through this "online training". However there is very encouraging research highlighting that we can get very real benefits through online delivery of training materials. If you want to try Autogenics to help with any particular psychological or physical problems, it would be sensible to talk to a health professional first to clarify diagnosis and recommended treatments. People vary in how easily they learn this kind of skill - just as we vary, for example, in how easily we learn to play music, drive, or type. However naturally gifted we are, learning a new skill takes considerable dedication and practice. Initially becoming relaxed may seem so unusual that we can occasionally experience relaxation-induced anxiety - "Don't ask me to relax, it's only my tension that's holding me together!" Like swallowing a mouthful of water when learning to swim, this is no big deal. If you happen to be someone who initially sometimes experiences relaxation-induced anxiety, simply take your time. As when we learn to swim, you may like to stay in "shallow water" for a while with shorter sessions, seated practice, and having your eyes open, until you gradually learn how wonderful it is to feel the profound "safety" of deeply peaceful states. Most people however quickly take to the practice "like a duck to water"!
The eight session Autogenic Training course outline that follows is intended for various different audiences. Established teachers of meditation, relaxation & stress management classes may find aspects of this material interesting and useful for their work. Clients who are currently seeing me personally may benefit from having access to this course outline. Other readers may like to dip into these practices either as a skills learning experience in its own right, or to supplement and encourage additional exploration & learning. Whether you're a member of one of these groups or simply curious - I hope you find something of interest in this material.