Today, more than ever, we need all the quick and easy techniques we can to help tame stress and support us to deal with an ever-changing and challenging world.
Mindfulness-based practices have been a great support for many people in rediscovering calm and releasing the turmoil of a crazy, busy world. Now a fresh take on an old technique for bringing consciousness into harmony is taking mindfulness a few steps further. While mindfulness helps us live in the present, sophrology does both this and helps us to find peace and draw positives from our past; as well as prepare for the future. Sophrology is very good for people who find it difficult to meditate. It offers many strategies to keep the mind still and present as we tune into our inner resources to address particular life or health issues.
This method of mind-body awareness for relaxation, improved performance, and anxiety reduction, combines Western relaxation techniques with a variety of practices borrowed from Eastern philosophies, such as yoga and Zen meditation. Sophrology has been popular in Europe for decades and is now gaining traction in the UK and the US.
It was developed by Professor Alfonso Caycedo, a Spanish-Colombian neuro-psychiatrist, in the 1960s. He coined the term Sophrology using Ancient Greek roots–σῶς / SOS (‘harmony’), φρήν / PHREN (‘mind’), and -λογία / -logia (‘study/science’)–making it the study of the consciousness in harmony. Professor Caycedo originally set out to find a way of healing returned servicemen, who–though their bodies were mostly in one piece–had minds that were shattered, suffering from a common diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Professor Caycedo wanted to find a way to return them to full mental health and happiness without using drugs and other psychiatric treatments.
In his search for ways to do this, he investigated hypnosis, phenomenology, and Western relaxation techniques, including Jacobson’s progressive relaxation and Schultz’s autogenic training. Then, after his marriage to a French yoga practitioner in 1963, he began to incorporate yoga techniques and aspects of other Eastern philosophies, such as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and methods of meditation. He approached each discipline with the intention of discovering what improved people’s health–both physically and mentally–most efficiently and effectively.
Sophrology is the result of his research and the synthesis of these varied techniques. He describes the use of sophrology as ‘learning to live.’ Over the past fifty years or so, sophrology has been adopted across Europe as a therapy and a personal development technique, routinely offered to school students, birthing women and sports people.
As in Eastern philosophies, sophrology regards the person as a whole–body and mind. It is a structured method, based on a combination of techniques such as concentration, deep breathing, relaxation, visualisation and simple movements. The exercises used are simple and easy to use for everyone at any level of fitness. However, as with all Eastern practices, the techniques must be used regularly, on a daily basis in everyday life, for the best results.
The Fundamentals of Sophrology
The fundamental principles of Sophrology are easy to grasp.
The first is Positive Action. Practitioners are taught to focus not on the problem itself but on positive elements in their lives. By bringing attention to positive aspects of themselves, their happy memories or dreams for the future, people are able to feel stronger and move forward with confidence. It is by reinforcing these positive thoughts that a generally more optimistic outlook is achieved, leading to an improved experience of life.
The second guiding principle is Objective Reality, which came from Caycedo’s investigation into phenomenology. It uses techniques for helping people look at things with a neutral approach, as if for the first time, without judgement or expectations. Allowing them to experience things as they are. In yoga, we call this ‘beginner’s mind.’
The third fundamental idea is Body Consciousness. Through simple and very gentle movements, practitioners learn to know and understand their bodies and how they hold and process emotions. They come to know themselves and their bodies better, with an aim of becoming fully alive in the present moment and living in good health with harmony between body and mind. These exercises are called dynamic relaxation; with the simplest of these being breathing in, holding the breath while tensing the body, then breathing out and feeling the release of tension.
What to Expect in a Sophrology Session
A sophrology session can be done individually or in a small group. You either sit or stand with your eyes closed as the sophrologist talks you through a series of basic exercises, starting with focusing on each part of the body–tensing, releasing and energizing. You are then guided to focus on an area of your life where you would like to find relief or improvement, feeling the sensations of the body as you visualise different situations, learning to become familiar with how the body experiences emotions, and how to then bring yourself to a state of calmness. With regular training, these desired states of being can be integrated into your life. It’s like a virtual training program for whatever area of your life you would like enhanced–from public speaking to exams or sports competitions, as well as relationships with partners, children, colleagues and more.
Sophrology exercises aim to strengthen and improve our abilities and capacities. Using methods of dynamic relaxation, breath, visualisations, and meditation, balance is found as a result of becoming more familiar with your body, senses, emotions, feelings, and values. Regular practice helps to rewire the brain so that realistic rational positive pathways replace old, negative and unproductive ones. Sophrology helps you to tune into your own innate wisdom.
After starting to practice Sophrology, people generally report that they are experiencing more restful sleep, improved concentration, fewer worries, increased self-confidence, and a feeling of inner happiness. Practitioners have reported that although nothing has really outwardly changed in their life, they are happier, things seem easier, and they have more energy.
The key benefits of Sophrology include concentration, memory, physical health, emotional health, decision making, sense of well-being, relationships and self-confidence. It can be applied to everyday life, competitive sport, business, relationships, exam preparation, presentation skills, team management and childbirth.
Here are a couple of simple exercises used by sophrologists.
To release mind/body tension:
Stand in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus your attention on your body. Are you feeling any tension? Where is it located in your body? Is your mind so busy that you can’t concentrate? In an effort to release body and mind tension, bring both arms straight above your head then inhale deeply, inflating your abdomen first, then your chest, and hold your breath. While holding your breath, tense every part of your body, including your face and toes, for 3 seconds. Release the tension as you exhale and lower your arms. As you breathe out, be aware of tension being released from your whole body and let go of it.
Do this exercise three times slowly, taking the time to really experience the sensation of relaxation that occurs with the exhalations.
To calm and focus the mind:
1. Inhale for a comfortable count, then exhale for longer than your exhalation by a count or two. Breathe into your belly feeling it rise with your inhalation and fall with your exhalation. Allow 3 to 4 minutes for this exercise and feel the benefits.
2. Humming: Inhale, and as you exhale, gently hum. Make sure your humming is longer than the inhalation. Notice how the sounds make different parts of your body vibrate.
Yoga practitioners will recognise these as variations of pranayama techniques.
The exercises, such as those given above, and demonstrated in the video, are easy to remember and can be done anytime, anywhere. When practiced regularly, the exercises train your mind and body to become healthier and stronger and more focused on a rational, yet positive, approach to life. Working one-on-one with a sophrologist, you may be able to focus in on problem areas and work through them gently and without medication. As with any mind/body practice, regular practise is the key to success.