Who among us could not use a little more relaxation in our lives? Especially since Americans as a whole seem to have forgotten how to incorporate active rest into the quotidian, relying instead on mindless pleasure provided by one of our numerous gadgets. Dr. John Harvey, a relaxation and self-development specialist and the author of Total Relaxation: Healing Practices for Body, Mind & Spirit, directly addresses the misconception that merely zoning out constitutes relaxation:
Many people mistakenly believe that if they sit and watch TV, read a book, or go out to dinner with friends, they will somehow relax, as if relaxation is the by-product of some pleasant activity[…] The essence of deep and thorough relaxation is to direct attention inward, apply a systematic method, and consciously create complete relaxation. (p. 16-17)
The rest of the book stems from this initial premise, and in general, lives up to its promise to deliver “…effective relaxation techniques…that will allow you to achieve Total Relaxation.”
The book is organized according to what Dr. Harvey defines as the five levels of relaxation: muscular, autonomic (nervous system), emotional, mental, and spiritual. In the first chapter of each section, he describes the respective level and its causes and expressions, followed by a second chapter dedicated to techniques for releasing tension and entering a relaxed state on this level. The sections do flow directly into one another, but there is also a ‘symptom checklist’ in the Introduction. The reader can match symptoms to each given level and choose to skip straight to the sections that most directly apply.
The five levels themselves are then described, starting in the directly physical realm and moving through to the more ethereal. “Muscular” refers to tension held in the physical body, resulting in headaches, backaches, or neck pain. Relaxation techniques for this level mainly consist of “selective tensing and then relaxing specific muscles throughout the body,” which creates awareness of how to consciously diminish the localized stress. “Autonomic” involves the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, controlling everything from heart rate to digestion to immunity. Lack of relaxation here means high blood pressure, ulcers, and constant alerting of the “flight or fight response.” As the autonomic system is involuntary, direct techniques such as those used on the muscular level are ineffective, and relaxing here means using the breath and breath awareness to slow the reactivity of the nervous system and restore a sense of balance. “Emotional” tension occurs when the emotions that are useful to us in small doses, such as anger and fear, become chronic states that affect our overall well-being. Techniques suggested for this level include elements familiar to those to practice cognitive behavioral therapy: revising thought patterns and being mindful of how the mind works to overreact, creating inaccurate narratives. Harvey describes the mind as “the control room that creates tension on all the other levels of the body,” and stress on this “mental” level leads to insomnia, lack of perception, and memory problems. His suggestions for relaxing this tension center on meditation and sensory focusing, using these techniques to bring the mind into the present, erasing both ruminations on the past and racing thoughts of the future. Finally, the last and hardest to directly grasp is the “spiritual” level. Harvey uses this term to describe the sense of purposelessness and alienation one can feel when confronted with a lack of spiritual perspective. Spiritual relaxation, then, is meant to encourage faith and belief, using prayer, worship, and meditation to reach a sense of strength, support, and self-actualization.
While Harvey does separate the book along these five levels, he continually emphasizes their interconnectivity and makes suggestions to increase overall relaxation, such as exercise, which is mentioned in every chapter as a very beneficial tool for relaxation as well as explained fully in the final chapter, “Relaxation in Daily Life.”
Many self-help books make the mistake of assuming that their readers are already familiar with the subject at hand and aware of its importance. Instead, Harvey is much attuned to the fact that his readers may need grounding in the validity of learning to relax, something that a lot of people either assume is entirely natural, needing no instruction, or a waste of time, simply something that only lazy people do on a regular basis. His way of combating these viewpoints is to set a foundation in the history of relaxation, touching on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Zen Buddhist traditions of meditation, German research into “Autogenic Training” (1930), and a Harvard’s professor’s work on the integrated “Relaxation Response” (1970), among others.
Another positive aspect of the entire book is that Harvey is very effective in obtaining a balance of scientific explanation without being overly technical. For example, in explaining why autonomic relaxation is important to prevent high blood pressure, he uses both medical terminology and a relation to real life:
The sympathetic branch is designed instantly to activate the fight-or-flight response. During sympathetic activation the heart rate and heart metabolism increase to prepare the body for action. The blood vessels in the hands, feet, and skin constrict, shunting blood away from the periphery. Presumably, this would mean less blood loss in case of injury. (p. 62)
The diagrams placed throughout each chapter are helpful when encountering these more scientific explanations for the first time, but in the later, less physically-oriented chapters, they become somewhat silly. Is a picture really necessary to describe a scattered mindset? Along the same lines, the sidebar notes found along every page are more distracting than anything else. Normally when this literary convention is used, especially in a book with practical implications, it serves to summarize that page’s main points for easy skimming of the content. Here, though, the sidebar notes repeat exact sentences found on that page and at time are not even the main points.
The strongest message that this book succeeds in conveying is how important relaxation is to our health, mood, relationships, and overall well-being. Harvey continually keeps in mind that for many people, these explanations and even the basic concept of letting things go to attain a sense of peace may be foreign, and he does a remarkable job in making a relaxed way of living seem not only natural, but common sense. Near the end, he directly addresses the different factors people may face when embarking upon a regular practice of relaxation:
You should pick a program that fits your situation, needs, and temperament. Your choices about which relaxation method to use should be guided by the pattern of tension you identified […]. For example, if you suffer from frequent tension headaches, muscular relaxation would be appropriate. […] You have to consider your life situation when designing a relaxation program. If you have work and family commitments, you may need to select shorter practices that fit into your schedule. If you are older, walking or swimming might be good choices for exercise. (p. 177-178)
The CD included with the book consists of four guided practices, each around fifteen minutes long and organized according to the same relaxation levels as the chapters. The practices are: Differential Relaxation (muscular), Diaphragmatic Breathing (autonomic), Autogenic Training (autonomic), and Meditation (mental). His choice of which practices to include on the CD and which to write out in the book are somewhat odd—it would have been better to have the more complicated and long relaxation techniques set up for the reader to listen to rather than left to read and memorize for practice. Also, Harvey’s voice can be faster and stronger than what one is normally used to hearing on relaxation audio, but once accustomed to it, the practices are extremely useful, incorporating what has been taught in the book into a practical program.
Overall, Total Relaxation provides a great foundation for those who would like to live a more balanced, less stressful life. The emphasis Harvey places on the importance of relaxing, combined with a detailed breakdown of symptoms and techniques for alleviating them, results in an extremely helpful, if at times distracting, exploration of how to achieve this state.
Total Relaxation: Healing Practices for Body, Mind and Spirit
By John Harvey
Kodansha America: September 1998
Paperback, 186 pages