Autogenic Therapy and Yoga

Ruth Komon, Australia

Autogenic therapy, currently practised by the medical profession mostly in Europe, Japan and Canada, bears many similarities to yogic practices. It emphasises techniques of relaxation which lead eventually to training in meditation. This is not surprising when we realise that it arose out of studies into yoga and meditation.

The term autogenic refers to a 'self-produced' altered state of consciousness which the subject learns from a medical practitioner. The doctor's role is thus that of a teacher and guide whom the patient becomes less dependent on as he realises that his life is in his own hands, and as he learns to practise the technique for himself.

Autogenic training arose from studies in medical hypnosis by Oscar Vogt at the turn of the century in Germany. He observed that some of the more intelligent of the patients he had hypnotised were able to put themselves into a trance-like state, and that feelings of warmth and heaviness in the limbs always accompanied this. Such patients reported feeling free of fatigue and loss of disturbing symptoms they may have previously had.

Johannes H. Schultz, a researcher and a psychiatrist who had worked with Hans Berger, the pioneer of brainwave studies, followed up Vogt's work. His aim was to develop a therapeutic approach which would avoid the great dependency that a patient had on the hypnotist. Schultz studied raja yoga and from 1910 made investigations into various psychological systems he had found in yoga. He actually coined the term autogenic training.

The training

The trainee is first required to complete a most comprehensive questionnaire on 'things that happen to people in the course of their lives'. This includes not only most detailed questions on orthodox medical history, but also enquiries into religious education and emotional experiences. Initial training consists of learning the six autogenic standard exercises which use specific formulae. These are taught by the doctor one at a time, and the trainee is sent away to practise one exercise about eight times a day for at least a week. He is required to keep a most detailed written report on all of his sensations immediately following the performance of the exercise. At the following session with the doctor, these sensations are discussed.

The six formulae are as follows:

  1. My right arm is heavy, my left arm is heavy, both arms are heavy. My right leg is heavy, my left leg is heavy, both legs are heavy. My arms and legs are heavy.
  2. My right arm is warm, (continued as above).
  3. My pulse rate is calm and regular.
  4. It breathes me. (This formula particularly resembles the yogic practice of watching the breath.)
  5. My solar plexus is warm.
  6. My forehead is cool.

The trainee is also instructed into the three postures he may adopt while performing these exercises with closed eyes:

  1. Simple sitting posture, on front of a chair, legs slightly apart, feet flat on the floor, knees bent, hands resting on the legs.
  2. Armchair position similar to above but leaning back.
  3. Horizontal posture (as in shavasana).

The importance of regular sustained practice and recorded notes of one's experiences were continually stressed by Schultz and Luthe. They were also adamant that only doctors who themselves had undergone a course in autogenic training should teach the techniques. Apparently many medical schools in Europe today are including autogenic training as part of their medical courses.

The second phase of training includes the formulae 'My neck and shoulders are heavy, I am at peace' and various formulae relating to space visualisations 'I imagine the space between my ears'. There is also the so-called intentional formulae relating to a specific problem that the trainee in question may have. Much of this and the following phase of training has close parallels with yoga nidra and the resolve.

The last phase of autogenic training is referred to by Schultz and Luthe as the advanced meditative phase. The exercises taught involve visualisations of colour, objects and people. The experience of selected feelings is also practised. The last of the meditative exercises involves answers from the subconscious. Throughout the entire training, the recorded experiences of the trainee are discussed regularly with the therapist and modifications in the exercises may be introduced. Schultz and Luthe refer continually to the possible hazards to the' subject if training is attempted by an unqualified person, for example, palpitations, high blood pressure and intense feelings of anger are commonly experienced where there is a lifting of the lid from repressions too rapidly in the relaxed state.

In their six volumes on autogenic therapy Luthe and Schultz discuss their findings with patients suffering from a huge range of medical disorders. There is also discussion on its applications to those who are not clinically ill, most particularly in the training of athletes, astronauts, and those involved m activities such as public speaking where a relaxed attitude is of prime importance.

The close parallels between autogenic training and yoga are clear. Various European writers (e.g. Bossard, Bruno, Das, Geissmann, Hauer) have presented comparative accounts from their research. It is also of interest that Luthe is a student of Zen and spends time working in association with Japanese doctors. Other systems aiming at increasing self-knowledge by means of relaxation include primal scream therapy, hypnosis, Jacobsen's relaxation methods, biofeedback and the 'mind games' described by Masters and Houston in their book of this name. It is probably unprofitable to try to prove the merits of one system over another when all of them are essentially trying to help man to discover his true nature. It certainly seems true that more and more westerners are discovering yoga and obtaining great benefit from it. But it is also true that cultural differences will prevent others from doing so, and that autogenic training may attract this sort of person.

'What works for an individual must be the ultimate criteria'. It can only be encouraging to know that the western medical profession is offering self-help through autogenic training, which is basically a yoga orientated therapy.