A couple of years back, after an unexpected and gut-wrenching break-up, I was all over the place – so I threw myself into my yoga practice in the hope of regaining some equilibrium. One day I saw a flyer on the noticeboard at the yoga studio. “Reduce stress and manage emotions,” it said. “Detach and refocus. Instil calm.” Oh yes please, I thought. But what was it? Mindfulness? Meditation? Buddhist chanting? No. Sophrology.
Soph-what? “Almost nobody knows about sophrology in the UK,” said Francoise Falaise, a Belgian who would become my sophrology teacher. “There are thousands of practitioners on the continent, but it’s still just beginning here.” The intention of our first session together, she said, would be "to take distance from tensions and refocus".
And so we began our sessions, meeting weekly. Some very simple breathing exercises and gentle body movement were followed by a guided meditation where I lay on the floor and Francoise talked me through a relaxing journey of letting go. It was very nice but so subtle I wondered if I was missing something. I did feel very calm afterwards, though.
The objective of the next session was to “install detachment”. We did neck exercises – with mindful breathing, I gently shook my head to say ‘no’ to negative emotions and nodded to say ‘yes’ to detachment. It felt a bit weird, but fine. I exhaled negativity and breathed in detachment, followed by more exercises to reinforce assertiveness (mindful breathing while stretching and reaching upwards) and a ‘virtual walk’ where I walked on the spot, visualising my capacity to walk away from emotional upset in a controlled way.
Afterwards I did feel curiously detached. Francoise said that in order for these feelings to become integrated within me, I needed to do the exercises at home too, so that they became part of my daily routine. Luckily they were very simple and didn’t take long. It felt like the subtle installation of a sort of time delay between feelings and my reactions to them – almost like a body-based cognitive behavioural therapy.
After a few more sessions, Francoise moved to Panama City and I got on with my yoga, my busted heart taped back together with sophrology and vinyasa flow.
The practice is set to expand in the UK. Swiss sophrology teacher Dominique Antiglio has just written a comprehensive English-language book, including audio, for home practice: The Life-Changing Power Of Sophrology. She has a practice in Mayfair, London.
“There are dozens of titles in French,” she says. “Sophrology for athletes, the corporate world, sleeping, pregnancy, midwifery..."
The founder of sophrology, Alfonso Caycedo, travelled around China, Tibet and India, distilling the teachings of yoga, meditation and Buddhism, and translating them for the West. It’s access to consciousness for everyone, without having to spend years meditating or standing on your head. It’s a simple, powerful technique. Having said that, there are 12 levels of sophrology, so you can go as deeply into it as you wish.
Antiglio explains: “The key differentiator between sophrology and mindfulness or meditation is the ability to take control of how we handle situations and feel about outcomes – one of the principles in sophrology states that we can decide how we are going to experience certain events even when we can't change them.
“We are therefore responsible for our experience and how we respond to situations. It is more dynamic than meditation and uses a number of techniques including breathing, relaxation, body awareness and visualisation to help you connect with your resilience and improve your mental and physical health.”
Irish sophrologist Niamh Borrel used the practice to help with chronic pain. “The main difference between sophrology and other methods is that you can reach a deep level of zen state much quicker – sometimes even in one session, depending on the individual,” she says. “We call this the sophroliminal level of consciousness. The beauty of sophrology is that you can do it anywhere. There is no need for special gear. You can do it sitting down, standing up or lying down.
“It can be easily used by someone in a hospital bed about to go into surgery, or by someone just sitting enjoying the present moment on a train, or by athletes using it to increase mental focus, or ballerinas and gymnasts. Or even parents dealing with a stressful day at work, and later on with hyperactive kids at home.”
So there you have it. It’s not yoga, it’s not mindfulness, it’s not meditation, it’s not T’ai Chi – and it’s not yet established in the English-speaking world. But if it’s used effectively by everyone from women in labour to Olympic athletes, it can only be a matter of time before sophrology enters our wellness lexicon.
6 things to know about sophrology
1. The term comes from the Greek ‘sos’ (harmony) and ‘phren’ (mind).
2. It was founded around 1960 by Colombian neuropsychiatrist, Alfonso Caycedo at the University of Madrid. He combined various influences – hypnosis, Western relaxation methods, Japanese zen, yoga, and Buddhist meditation – to treat depression, and war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
3. Unlike traditional talking therapies, sophrology is not about discussing the narrative of your life; it’s about zooming out, and creating a space between your inner emotional balance and any difficult feelings. You don’t suppress your feelings but consciously let them go and redirect them, using physical movement and breath work.
4. Sophrology is currently used by the French rugby team, its uses within sports psychology discovered when the Swiss ski team won lots of medals at the Grenoble Winter Olympics in 1968 after being coached by sophrologist Dr. Raymond Abrezol.
5. As well as being used to help treat sleep disorders and in preparing for birth, sophrology may also have benefits for sufferers of stage fright and exam nerves.
6. Such is its popularity in France and Switzerland that sophrology is routinely covered by health insurance; it is even taught in schools, to help kids manage the rigours of adolescence.