It's ironic that people of the fitness generation still have to learn how to relax. The techniques are as old as the hills. They call for an alliance between body and mind. If anyone has ever taken steps to counteract stress, it's me.
I work out five times a week at a Toronto women's club; I also jog, play squash, take vitamins and watch my diet. So what, I asked myself, could I possibly learn from the course at the Relaxation Response Centre entitled "Beyond Stress"?
It certainly promised a lot. In the words of the brochure, students could realize "more energy and vitality, greater personal fulfillment, less anxiety, increased creativity, improved memory and concentration, sounder sleep, more satisfying social relations..."
All this and more for attendance at five three-and-a-half-hour classes held once a week for five weeks.
It sounded utopian and simplistic. I was skeptical. But at six-thirty one dismal night I climbed a narrow flight of stairs to the midtown Toronto office of the Relaxation Response Centre.
Eli Bay, the creator of the program, greeted his clients - a crew of housewives, lawyers, computer salesmen and secretaries, who all seemed quite self-conscious - embarrassed, even - to be there, as if stress were some kind of hideous unspeakable disease, like leprosy.
I had to repress the desire to announce the real reason for my presence. "I am here because I have to write about it." In fact, I felt tired and tense; my neck and shoulders were stiff; I had a vague headache and I was trying to figure out how I could slip away unnoticed.
The room was large, broadloomed, with lots of hanging plants, split bamboo blinds, and cushions. Bay, a genial fellow with glasses and a big grin, put on a cassette of dreamy, unobtrusive violin music.
Bay told us to take off our shoes and sit down. He stated that up to eighty percent of all illness is related to stress, that very few of us know "how to manage the tensions, worries and aggravations that build up year after year to produce disease."
He referred to the pioneer research work of Montreal medical research scientist Dr. Hans Selye, and explained Selye's basic thesis: stress causes the "fight or flight" response, a biological state controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
It produces such common symptoms as increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, headaches, indigestion and sweating; prolonged stress results in nausea, dizziness and depression as well.
"Picture a cat that perceives danger," said Bay. "Back arched, hair standing on end, stiff with tension, it's getting ready to run or fight.
That's what happens to us under stress, and it's a great response to a real threat (when you need that energy charge) but unfortunately our brains pick up any change or discomfort as a threat.
The fight or flight response occurs automatically: on crowded subways, in traffic jams, whenever you're frustrated, pressured or uncertain; when the boss gives you a dirty look, or dumps a pile of work on your desk and tells you to have it done yesterday; when you're not getting feedback on the job; or you don't know where you stand in a relationship; if you hear a strange knock in your car engine, or feel a strange pain in your chest; if you have a fight with your partner, friend or spouse; if you worry a lot - these are all classic causes of stress that activate a powerful biological chain reaction.
A message is carried from the brain to the pituitary gland, adrenaline rushes into the bloodstream and raises the heart rate, which causes the breathing to become rapid and shallow - like gasping for air - while the liver produces more blood sugar to deliver energy to the muscles, which tighten up, ready for action.
In a matter of seconds, the body is in a state of "red alert." Since this energy is not usually discharged in physical action, the fight or flight response gradually wears the body out, and over a prolonged period of time exacerbates nutritional deficiencies, and produces a fertile climate for disease.
According to Bay, many of us live out our lives in a vicious cycle of chronic stress reactions and exhausted relapses, which are often mirrored in emotional patterns of manic highs and depressive lows.
"Most people don't understand what's happening: they often aren't aware of how their bodies are locked with tension - and they don't know how to break the cycle" This is where the "relaxation response" comes in.
The phrase was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Hypertension Section at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and a member of the Department of Medicine at Boston University, who published the results of his years of research in 1975 in a book titled The Relaxation Response (with Miriam Z. Klipper; Avon paperback).
The relaxation response is a neurological skill that counteracts the fight or flight response. It involves activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and, says Bay, "It's a skill I can teach you over four weeks. It is triggered primarily by two techniques: deep breathing and mind focusing."
Bay emphasizes the significance of the mind. "Your own thoughts can cause stress. Chronic pain patients tend to have a low self-image, worry a lot and think negative thoughts.
That can be changed through affirmations and mind-focussing exercises, which will in turn enable you to scan your body and become aware of muscle tension in order to let it go."
He asked us to talk about where we stored our tensions and to pay particular attention to these areas - shoulders, neck, back stomach. Then he said he would guide us through "the experience of deep relaxation" (somehow the prospect scared me), but that first we had to learn to breathe deeply.
Like docile children, avoiding each other's eyes, we stood, feet apart, hands clasped in front, inhaled deeply from the diaphragm and slowly raised our arms over our heads. Exhaling slowly, we lowered our arms.
After repeating this exercise a few times, Bay led us through a series of routines I recognized as basic yoga: simple things like rolling our heads around on our necks and swinging our arms from side to side as we learned to co-ordinate breathing with our physical actions.
A tougher exercise, which Bay said would massage the internal organs, involved bending over, exhaling, and sucking our stomachs in and out rapidly. Then seated on comfortable chairs, legs apart, hands on knees, we learned "serenity breathing".
We exhaled down to the left knee, inhaled across to the right knee, and inhaled up. Alter a few repetitions, the process was reversed. Someone complained of feeling dizzy; someone else said her lungs hurt. Bay smiled: "That's quite normal. You're not used to breathing properly. Don't worry. You're not hurting yourself. Your body will adjust to the increased intake of oxygen."
I had to admit that I was feeling quite light-headed at this point. I was enjoying myself, and although there was little interaction with the other students (our eyes were closed most of the time), I was beginning to sense a kind of nonverbal communication that arose from our shared experience.
We all felt vulnerable, I think, and were only gradually learning to trust Bay, since he was, after all, leading us into unknown territory.
By now, my unspoken attitude of superiority (remember me, the Fitness Queen?) had dissolved; I realized that Bay was indeed opening up new levels of body-mind awareness.
Next he gave us a more complex task that introduced us to the technique of visualization. "Imagine a point of light on the tip of your nose, follow it around your right eye, around your cheek.
Let the light travel around your chin and mouth and up to your right cheek. Let the light travel down your neck around your entire body." We all marveled at the effort of concentration required to visualize the light moving over the surface of the body and everyone commented on the resulting sense of relaxation.
We proceeded to the final "sequence" of the evening - what Bay called "progressive relaxation." We lay flat on our backs on the floor, with small cushions under our knees.
The room was dark. Accompanied by soft music, Bay's melodious voice instructed us to breathe deeply and tense, tighten, and relax every part of our bodies, from our toes to our foreheads. "Feel the tension,"
Bay intoned. "Experience the tension. Remember it. Let it go. Feel the relaxation. Experience it. Remember it."
Uninhibited, floating, surging with energy, I imagined myself (according to his directions) lying on warm sand, feeling the hot sun on my body, listening to waves lap on the beach and wind rustling the palm trees.
I allowed all thoughts and worries to drain out, I felt my body to be heavy and empty and warm; I scanned it for tension. I felt myself dissolving, yet I wasn't sleepy; my mind was alert.
Suddenly at 10:30, Bay warned us he was turning the lights on. I wanted to stay there forever. I couldn't believe that three-and-a-half hours had passed so effortlessly. We stood up, shook ourselves out and compared notes.
Everyone was amazed. The combination of so much deep breathing, body awareness and the curiously relaxing sound of Bay's mellifluous voice had produced in me a state I can only describe as calm euphoria - quite different from the high of frantic exercise.
As we prepared to leave, Bay reminded us to stay tuned in to our bodies, to be aware of tensions, to breathe deeply. "Now you know what to do if your boss gives you a dirty look," he grinned. "Take a few deep breaths - no one will notice - and focus your mind.
Tell yourself, 'I am calm.' Release the tension. Keep breathing." He emphasized that it was important to practice the routines every day, and that we would find it progressively easier to achieve a state of deep relaxation.
I was impressed with the eclectic nature of Bay's program: as he acknowledges, there is nothing new about it. The techniques are as old as the hills, and have been culled from yoga, transcendental meditation, Zen, contemporary psychology and various holistic philosophies concerned with mind-body integration and mind expansion.
Even good old Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking fit into this "new age consciousness," except that Peale and other positivists of his persuasion neglected to ally their techniques with body skills. For Bay - and most stress experts - the two must go together before any significant benefit can be achieved.
In succeeding classes, Bay built on the basic skills we had learned the first night. He expanded the mind focusing, "I am calm" routines, increased the length and complexity of visualizations and reiterated positive affirmations.
By the fourth week, I was a convert - along with the rest of the class. Although I found we never spoke much to each other, we developed a strong sense of kinship. When I later called some of my fellow students to ask how they felt about the course, they were all extremely friendly and favorable.
Vic Thompson, an IBM systems engineer, told me that he'd signed up reluctantly, even though IBM paid his fee. (Like every smart corporation, IBM is prepared to investigate practically any method that could improve employees' productivity.)
"I always pooh-poohed that stuff about different levels of consciousness," Thompson said. "I figured you were either awake or asleep, and that your consciousness altered if someone hit you on the head with a stick" Ray Murphy, a colleague, talked him into taking the course.
Thompson had been suffering from occasional tension headaches and regularly experienced pain in his neck and shoulders.
After completing the program, he felt like a new man: "It was an amazing experience," he says, shaking his head, grinning, at a loss for words to describe it. "It's made me a believer in yoga and meditation. Now I know there is such a thing as self-hypnosis and mind-expansion."
The final exercise, taught in the fifth week, was particularly exhilarating. The class was instructed to imagine climbing a hill on a late summer evening. "It was a steep hill, but I had no trouble climbing it," Thompson says, recalling the ease with which he could follow and visualize Bay's words.
"At the top of the hill there was a campfire. Beside it sat an old man. He was a wise man. His image was so clear in my mind. I could see the crow's-feet around his eyes, the deep lines on his face.
The man invited me to ask him the most important question in my life. I knew he would answer me, and he did. Thompson paused. "That's an incredible concept," he said, "that you can be your own wise man and answer your own questions."
Ray Murphy explains Thompson's experience as "proof that you can reach a different level of consciousness. You tap a source of knowledge that was previously unavailable to you - your own subconscious. The only way you can get there is through deep relaxation."
As a result of the course, Murphy stopped smoking and feels more confident and energetic. "Bay taught us to picture ourselves as we want to be," he says. "It's not easy and you have to work on it, but the benefits are real.
I changed my image of myself. I pictured myself as a nonsmoker. When a tough job comes up at the office, instead of worrying about whether I can do it, I'm able to harness my energy and forge ahead, because I now see myself as someone who can get the job done."
Red-blooded Canadian businessmen - and even fitness fanatics like me - tend to dismiss slow-moving, contemplative, inner-directed programs. Until, that is, they've tried them.
"If I'd been told in advance what Bay was teaching," Thompson says, "esoteric stuff like yoga and meditation, I would have said to stuff it in your ear. But once you've got a taste of Bay's idea of relaxation, you're hooked.
Now I realize what he says is true: we have the tools; all we have to do is learn how to use them."