Recently, I started hearing about “the next big thing” in self-care, the “new mindfulness” on the block: sophrology. This naturally made me very curious about what sophrology is and how it differs from mindfulness. I had never heard of it before, and once I started doing my research, I realised that although it is very popular in France and Switzerland, not much is known about it yet in the UK. Nor do I feel like I am now an expert in this field. This blog post is simply a brief summary of the research that I have done on sophrology, to shed light on a word that you may start hearing more often over the next few years. But is it just another buzzword? Is it a fad? Or is it here to stay? That much I do not know. But here is what I do.
Sophrology was founded in 1960 by neuropsychiatrist Alfonso Caycedo, who has a background in medicine, neurology, and hypnosis, from which sophrology seems to have originated. Caycedo also spent decades practicing yoga in India, meditating in the Himalayas, and practicing Zazen in Japan (how amazing would that be?!). As a result, Caycedo recognised the importance of the body in these different practices, and thus the physical body is an important element in the practice of sophrology. In this sense, sophrology can be seen as a technique combining Eastern practices (yoga, Zazen, and Buddhist meditation) and Western approaches (psychology, hypnosis, and relaxation). Summarised in one sentence, Caycedo dubbed sophrology as “learning to live”.
Similarities with mindfulness and meditation
Based on the above description alone, it seems that sophrology and mindfulness are very closely connected. They are simple and powerful techniques that can be practiced anywhere and at anytime, not requiring any previous knowledge or a particular belief system.
Furthermore, they share many similarities in their proposed benefits, such as reduced stress and tension, improved sleep, emotion regulation, self-development, increased energy, and a decrease in symptoms related to various mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Most importantly, many exercises are shared in both sophrology and mindfulness-based practices, such as meditation, breathing, gentle movement, and relaxation.
Differences between sophrology and mindfulness
Generally, the two practices are very similar, with the common goal of introducing calm and balance to our lives. However, there are several important distinctions as well, that extend beyond the simple differences in how the techniques are practiced.
In terms of their origins, mindfulness dates back thousands of years and is firmly rooted in Buddhist traditions. Sophrology, on the other hand, is much more recent, and is based on Eastern as well as Western techniques. It is important to note here, however, that “modern mindfulness” has also taken approaches from the West, in particular elements of cognitive and behavioural psychology.
Additionally, while mindfulness helps us live in the present, sophrology also gives importance to learning from our past and projecting ourselves into the future. Dominique Antiglio from BeSophro (the leading sophrology provider in the UK) 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.”
So how is it practiced?
Summarised relatively simply, sophrology is the practice of “dynamic relaxation” – induced by breathing exercises, gentle bodywork, and visualisation. It can be practiced individually or in a group, and it is recommended for beginners to work with sophrologists to build an understanding of the practice and to receive bespoke advice.
A complete sophrology programme has 12 levels. Each level has its own purpose, and while the levels should be practiced in ascending order, it is up to each individual how far to progress in their practice and what aspects of their lives require the most attention.
An example of a bodywork exercise in sophrology is to close your eyes, breathe in, and hold your breath for a few seconds while tensing all the muscles in your body. Then, while exhaling, release all the muscles and allow the body and mind to slow down. Somewhat similar to the traditional body scan exercise in mindfulness practices, a sophrologist may direct your attention to a specific part of your body at a time. However, unlike the body scan, rather than simply observing any sensations in that area, you are actively tensing and relaxing your muscles to achieve the sensations of tension and relaxation in your mind.
Is sophrology the new mindfulness?
I personally believe that sophrology cannot be separated from mindfulness in this way. Mindfulness and meditation techniques that have been around for thousands of years, originating from Buddhism, but appearing in many spiritual and religious practices, are more than just self-help or self-care trends. Many modern therapies take on elements of mindfulness and meditation, including, but not limited to, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and other holistic approaches with various aims and purposes. The same is also true for sophrology, which includes mindfulness and meditation techniques alongside other approaches.
Research on sophrology is still relatively scarce, but it is a very interesting topic that is worthy of future study and development. My hope is that despite the rising and falling nature of self-care trends, elements of mindfulness and meditation will remain in the mainstream for years to come. In the meanwhile, it is important that such traditions are maintained and taught in a way that is pure and true to their origin.