I am always interested in the latest interpretation of a better life, being happy and calm. The latest buzz word is Sophrology. It’s a combination therapy that adds to traditional mindfulness using yoga, hypnosis, Buddhism and psychology. For those of you familiar with what I do, essentially it incorporates positive thinking, relaxation, REM sleep and, when in a group, positive interaction.
Whilst it’s easy to be dismissive regarding the ‘latest craze’, although it’s been going since the 60’s, these movements are typically tweaked metaphoric experiences that all essential do the same thing: stop focusing on the negative stuff, appreciate the good things in your life, and learn to relax. If a new movement connects with people then I say roll with it.
For the record, this movement is so new in this country, I cannot find anyone that practices and offers it locally, but many teaching schools for therapists. When it becomes available I’ll trundle off to experience it and see what I can get from it.
Comment by Mark Jones, Psychotherapist
A modern blend of yoga, Zen Buddhism, hypnosis and psychology, it’s huge elsewhere in Europe and on its way to the UK
Mindfulness is the tried-and-tested tool of our times for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addiction and more, but what if it’s not your thing? For those too twitchy to sit still and focus on breathing, the ubiquitous mindfulness apps, self-help sheets and courses in schools and workplaces are little more than totems of uselessness. But you wouldn’t have this problem if you lived in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland or Portugal, because you’d be doing sophrology instead. It’s the dynamic mindfulness alternative, popular on the continent. The French rugby team and media-magnate-turned-wellbeing-guru Arianna Huffington swear by this westernised amalgamation of yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Zen, hypnosis, psychology and neurology. And it’s becoming increasingly accessible in the UK, through group (or more costly one-to-one) sessions, and now via a new book with accompanying online audio guides.
Sophrology isn’t dynamic enough to warrant a shower afterwards, but even closing your eyes to start a session comes with an action that zaps you into relaxation mode and zooms your attention into the body. At my first appointment with the Swiss-British sophrologist and author of The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology, Dominique Antiglio, she tells me to hold a thumb at arm’s length in front of my face, inhale and look at it as I slowly draw it to between my eyebrows, at which point my eyes involuntarily close as I audibly exhale, as though to blow my mental cobwebs away. “It’s quite funny,” she warned me before she demonstrated it, her eyes crossing as they tracked her thumb, but it’s also a surprisingly powerful start to the 15-minute guided practice.
Sophrology was devised by Alfonso Caycedo, a Colombian doctor working in Spain in the early 1960s, almost two decades before the American professor of medicine and godfather of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, reimagined Buddhist meditation for modern life in the late 1970s. Caycedo drew together his research in India and Japan as well as the work of western thinkers, including the Swiss existential psychologist Ludwig Binswanger.
All you need to do sophrologly is an upright chair. I begin seated for a “body scan” as Antiglio invites me to relax different zones in my body, which the method divides into five “systems”. But you can stand if you prefer. “Some people don’t want to sit because they’re so agitated,” Antiglio tells me afterwards. I’m a veteran of yoga and mindfulness body scans. I often find them boring and, occasionally, actively unrelaxing, but sitting rather than reclining, and visualising the five systems, makes it sink in more somehow. That said, by the end of a week of home practice, I have to resist the urge to skip the body scan to get to the good stuff. The scan is still effective, though, and probably essential.
There are 12 levels in sophrology – and the first is about releasing tension, then pausing to “listen” for subtle sensations or changes in the body. Still seated, I put my fingertips at the centre of each system in turn, starting with the forehead, while I inhale, tense the area, and then relax with a blowy exhalation. I notice how difficult it is to hold the tension in one zone without it affecting other body parts. Because I’m prone to shoulder and neck strain, I’m also given a standing exercise in which I pump my shoulders up and down with clenched fists like an angry cartoon character, while holding my breath and picturing a source of agitation. Afterwards, warmth spreads across my shoulders and I feel a quiet, kinetic buzz. It’s engaging to have something physical to react to, rather than just being still – as in traditional meditation.
It’s not that sophrology is better than mindfulness, but while the stillness of meditation takes getting used to, and can create space for fretful thoughts about whether you’re in the zone or not, there’s an easily won satisfaction in being active and occupied. And there’s the promise of mastering positive thinking techniques, walking meditations (with open eyes), and doing some navel gazing in the name of making life feel meaningful.
Everyone has different needs, she says. “Some people want to take home a five-minute quick fix, others want more meditation because they’re used to it, and there is a wide variety of exercises for different purposes.” Rushing towards level 12 as an end goal isn’t the way to view it. The first level alone, says Antiglio, can make a “phenomenal transformation”. Level two switches focus from the body to the mind, with visualisation exercises that are particularly useful if you’re preparing for an event or exams. Three brings awareness of the body and the mind together, while the fourth level is about identifying your personal values.
Antiglio hadn’t heard of sophrology until she was an unhappy 15-year-old with fatigue. Her doctor ran tests and tried her on some drugs for low blood pressure, but while her symptoms persisted, he could find nothing else physically wrong. He suggested she try sophrology. Looking back, she doesn’t think she was depressed, but she didn’t feel she fitted in at school and was putting too much pressure on herself. “Emotionally,” she says, “I hadn’t been given the tools to manage my feelings as a younger child and when you’re a teenager you’re faced with new challenges of identity, and I think sophrology brought me the tools to know myself and trust myself and find my own way of dealing with things.” Now 41. with a young child, she says she never gets bored of the method because life is always shifting.
Antiglio’s first career was in osteopathy, most commonly used to treat back pain through massage, but she suspected that some of her clients would benefit more from learning sophrology. “When I was treating in osteopathy,” she says, “I had great results and people were feeling better, but for the chronic cases, or people who had a more complicated pattern in their body, there was always something else going on in their life and sometimes I felt that while osteopathy would support them, they needed to change their awareness so they could really overcome their issue and move forwards.”
These days, as well as running private and group sophrology sessions and corporate assignments, Antiglio regularly visits stressed-out staff at a private school in the northwest, and has worked with pupils at Richmond upon Thames college in London. The 16 to 18-year-olds were initially self-conscious, but their headteacher reported they soon felt more relaxed, energetic and confident after their sessions. In France, the method is used to help with birth preparation and she sees pregnant women in the UK, along with teenagers before exams and people with burn-out, fibromyalgia and chronic pain.
After my first week of sophrology, there’s no doubt I feel calmer, perkier, less in my own head and less likely to grope for the wine bottle after sundown, so I feel inclined to carry on and see where it takes me.
Sophrology v mindfulness
Sophrology is based on yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Zen Buddhism, hypnosis, psychology and neurology. Mindfulness is based on Buddhism.
Sophrology uses “dynamic relaxation”, with seated and standing tension-releasing exercises such as pumping the shoulders, head rotations or windmilling bent arms, along with walking meditations. Mindfulness meditation usually involves sitting still and focusing on your breathing, although there are eyes-open exercises, including walking meditations and, to acclimatise newcomers, “the raisin meditation” for which you spend five minutes studying a raisin with all your senses, eventually eating it.
Sophrology has 12 levels, starting with simple mind-and-body “awareness”, building to self-discovery exercises. Mindfulness has no graded levels – the self-knowledge comes progressively from meditating.
Sophrology includes positive visualisations and is often used for exam or birth preparation and phobias. Mindfulness doesn’t go in for this sort of thing, although the many mindfulness-based offshoots, such as Headspace, do.
The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology: Breathe and Connect with the Calm and Happy You by Dominique Antiglio is published by Yellow Kite at £14.99