What is sophrology?
Sophrology is an approach that combines relaxation and mindfulness to achieve physical and mental well-being. It uses creative visualization, breathwork and muscle relaxation to guide practitioners through a series of sequences tailored to their needs and objectives, whether self-growth, performance enhancement or therapy.
Sophrology training enhances kinesthetic awareness and helps practitioners assess their level of physical and mental energy more efficiently. The ability to listen more closely to one's needs for rest or for a healthy distance from the rush of things makes practitioners better equipped to deal with daily and professional stress and can help in preventing professional burn-out.
Sophrology can also benefit learning and performance through the use of specific visualization and concentration exercises.
Etymology and definition
Sôs is the ancient Greek word for "healthy", extending to the concepts of harmony and balance. Phren refers to the diaphragm, and by extension, to the mind, since for ancient Greeks mind and breath were equivalent. The ancient Greek language also used the cognate sophrosyne meaning "moderation".
Sophrology – "study of the balanced mind" – operates as a first person investigation of consciousness and perception of the phenomenal world, in the pursuit of self-knowledge, self-growth, healing or refining of a particular skill - generally a motor skill.
Sophrology first came about in the late 1950's as a reaction to the current state of psychiatry and to treatments such as ECT or insulin shock coma: young Colombian neuropsychiatrist Alfonso Caycedo living in Madrid, Spain, strongly opposed such procedures. As psychiatry progressively moved towards new pharmacological treatment options, Caycedo's interest had already shifted towards medical hypnosis and relaxation techniques such as Jacobson's progressive relaxation and Schultz's autogenic training. At that time, Caycedo completed his curriculum by studying philosophy. Particularly interested in Husserl's phenomenological method, Ludwig Binswanger's Dasein Analysis and in the existential psychiatry movement, he became Binswanger's last disciple.
Caycedo then discovered yoga thanks to his wife, an advanced practitioner. Experiencing the calming, centering effects of yogic bodywork on the mind, he investigated further, traveling to India and eventually to Japan where he studied Zen.
Sophrology became a structured and comprehensive synthesis of all these influences, and the husserlian methodology of phenomenological reduction served as a template for Caycedo's aspiration towards a phenomenology in action.
Caycedo may be considered as a European pioneer of transdisciplinarity through his attempt to integrate Western and Eastern practices and epistemology.
It was around the same period that British philosopher Alan Watts introduced North America to Zen Buddhism and Tao, a discovery which must have resonated positively among the exponents of humanistic psychotherapies which, by the early 60's, had come to prominence in the U.S.
Sophrology as a comprehensive method was first taught to medical doctors starting in 1960. It was rapidly adopted by the medical profession in France and other romance language countries for its clinical applications: chronic pain management, acute pain management in obstetrics or dental surgery as an alternative to chemical analgesia, treatment of anxiety disorders. From the early 1970's, its applications extended to paramedical care: physical therapy, nursing, hospice care, and to the non-medical realm: stress-management, mental training and performance-enhancement for athletes, musicians, actors and dancers; sophrology has now become widely accepted as a non-psychotherapeutic approach for coping with various life changers: parenthood, relocation, unemployment, divorce, retirement, illness, grieving, caregiving.
Sophrologists come from a variety of professional venues and receive post-training certification according to their initial area of expertise. Two types of certification exist: clinical, or preventative & social. Medical doctors, clinical psychologists, nurses and physiotherapists receive clinical certification.
Sophrology bears affinities with contemporary mindfulness-based interventions such as MBSR or MBCT: it borrows from some of the same historical sources and traditions – namely Eastern meditation techniques - while remaining firmly rooted in twentieth century Western phenomenological tradition.
Beyond calming the body and mind and training practitioners towards incorporating mindfulness and non-judgment into their daily actions, sophrology also integrates a phenomenological exploration of axiology and personal ethics.
Like MBSR, sophrology can be practiced in the context of individual sessions or in small groups. Certain contexts – for instance, childbirth preparation, personal growth – are well suited for group classes.
What is a session like?
At the beginning of a session, practitioner and sophrologist discuss the objective or concern at hand, then the sophrologist briefly describes the orientation of the session, answers questions and provides basic guidelines.
During the session, the practitioner is guided by the sophrologist's voice through a series of sequences: first a short induction into relaxation, followed by one or several sequences of "mental activation" and finally a smooth transition back to everyday consciousness. The practitioner is then invited to put his/her experience into words and share it with the sophrologist during what is called a "post-sophronic dialogue". The sophrologist takes in the practitioner's oral account while remaining in a phenomenological, non-interpretive attitude.
In a group class, each practitioner takes turns verbalizing their sophronic experience, oftentimes acquiring in the process interesting insight about differences and similarities between their own experience and that of the other participants.
Whereas in clinical applications, sessions are sometimes conducted in the supine position, non-clinical contexts often call for a more proactive attitude from the practitioner and therefore tend to favor sitting and standing positions, mindful walking and bodywork.
© 2008-2014 Claire Stancu.