What Is Sophrology? Learn All About France's Best-Kept Secret Exercise That Reduces Stress
What do many athletes and stressed-out schoolkids across Europe have in common? They're all proponents of sophrology—the mind-body practice that is essentially a smorgasbord of mindfulness meditation, breath work, visualization, and body awareness techniques.
First created in the 1960s, sophrology has since picked up a devoted audience throughout Europe—specifically in France, Switzerland, Belgium, and most recently England. And (like every other wellness practice that has France's stamp of approval) it's inevitably starting to travel stateside. Here's what you need to know about the healing practice.
What is sophrology?
"The words themselves mean 'study of conscious harmony,'" Niamh Lyons, the founder of American Sophrology, explains of the word's Greek roots. "It's working the power of the mind to relax the body."
Sophrology is the brainchild of Alfonso Caycedo, a professor of psychiatry and neurology. Fascinated by the power of the mind-body connection, Caycedo began traveling the world in the 1960s to find holistic strategies that could help war veterans get off of medication. "His idea was that they would have a source within themselves to deal with PTSD and mental anguish," Lyons says.
Caycedo pulled inspiration from the wisdom of ancient cultures across Asia and Europe to create his new practice. Then, he started to put it to the test: He used it to help one friend improve his tennis game, another relieve stress. Before long he was teaching professional skiers sophrology to help them mentally prepare for the Winter Olympics. Of the four Swiss skiers who used the practice, three of them won gold. "That's when the word got out in Europe," says Lyons.
Since then, people across the continent have used sophrology to help them navigate everything from exams to work presentations with more ease. It's also caught on as a tool for managing more generalized stress and anxiety, which is why Lyons suspects it's starting to catch on around the rest of the world too.
"The world is a funny place right now. More and more people are looking to find calm within themselves," she says. "These days, people's minds are so busy that it's important to take the time to relax and get to that Zen point. We know we physically have to relax the body, but we don't always do it mentally."
Sophrology is starting to create some buzz in America (a popular book on the practice, The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology, was just translated to English), but it's still a relatively new practice to many in the states. Lyons says that she knows of only a handful of English-speaking sophrology administrators, compared to hundreds of French-speaking ones. "I call it the best-kept secret," she laughs.
How do you practice sophrology?
Sophrology isn't something you can master in a matter of minutes. There are 12 levels of the practice, each administered by a guide called a sophrologist and meant to bring you deeper and deeper into the body. The first one is similar to a body scan. You move down the body and breathe into the areas where you're holding the most tension. The second is more mental, calling on some elements of visualization. The third brings awareness of the body and the mind together, while the fourth is all about identifying your personal values.
After that, the sophrologist will tailor further levels depending on what you are looking to get out of the practice, explains Dominique Antiglio, author of The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology.
"You learn to relax and connect to your body before anything. Then up until level 12, each level is a new guided routine to help you explore a certain level of consciousness, really," she says. "It's very deep work."
"As you practice, hopefully on a daily basis, you'll notice your energy changing," the French native adds. "You'll be more confident and grounded and capable of tackling specific challenges. It's a great technique for stress management, for example, since it helps you become aware of the tension you hold in your body and let go of it through the breath."
How is it different from other types of meditation and breath work?
Sophrology is typically more goal-oriented than other mind-body practices you might already have dabbled in, like meditation or breath work.
"The main difference is that it can program things into the future," says Lyons. For example, Antiglio first started practicing sophrology when she was experiencing anxiety about her college placement exams and her doctor pointed her to it. (Yep, it's a recognized healing practice by many health care professionals in France.) In this sense, it's a very pragmatic exercise, almost like hypnosis. "You prepare with sophrology so that in the moment you're anxious about, you can perform to the best of your ability."
Another difference between sophrology and, say, a yoga practice, is that all you need to practice it is a chair and the voice of a guide. "There's no physical work," says Antiglio.
"I know people who have done yoga, who have done meditation, who have done all sorts of mindfulness practices and never got to that Zen level," adds Lyons. "Sophrology is hypnotic in the sense that it helps you get to that deeper point of relaxation."
She adds that many people also use the practice to get to the place where they can subconsciously tackle different fears and phobias. Athletes will often call on it before a big game, and it's used for general burnout too.
"The French love sophrology: It's taught in schools, and midwives administer it to help with birth since when you're in a relaxed state of mind, your body can heal faster."
"On Amazon in France, if you Google sophrology, around 800 titles come up, to give you a sense of how popular it is there," adds Antiglio. "It's commonly used in hospitals, sleep centers, and therapists' offices. It's much more than a trend here—it's been part of the medical landscape for a long time."
I'm sold. How can I get started?
Both Antiglio and Lyons say that in order to really reap the rewards of a sophrology practice, you need an expert guiding you. Since sophrologists in America are limited, you can either use a sophrologist's audio recording, or Lyons says they will sometimes administer sessions over the phone.
But to provide a taste of some of the strategies used in the starting levels of sophrology, Lyons offers up the following practice you can do on your own any time, anywhere:
"Unwind the legs, unwind the arms, and let the body be still. Sit up and start to pay attention to where you are holding stress in your body. When you pinpoint an area, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth like you're blowing through a straw. Allow the shoulders to drop and picture yourself releasing the tension. Doing that kind of breathing several times a day is like a little spot check. Calmly enjoy the little sense of peace it gives you."