Sophrology was developed by a Colombian doctor, Alfonso Caycedo, who as a novice psychiatrist working in Madrid became concerned with the effectiveness of conventional treatments for distress – insulin and electroshock therapy, drugs and ‘talking therapies’. What struck him as absurd was the way he was being asked to affect patients’ consciousness, despite the fact that psychiatric training involved no study of the phenomenon of consciousness itself. Caycedo’s mentor was Ludwig Binswanger, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, who was passionate about the study of consciousness and had founded the school of phenomenological psychiatry. This approach to the human mind focuses on subjective experience, and lies at the root of the more well-known person-centred and humanistic psychotherapies. In 1965, Binswanger encouraged the young psychiatrist to go to India, where the study of consciousness was already centuries old, and so Caycedo and his wife spent the next two years travelling in India and Japan, studying yoga and meditation, visiting ashrams and meeting with spiritual
teachers, yogis and the Dalai Lama.
On their return to Europe, Caycedo incorporated ideas and techniques from all that he had learned into an approach to healing and personal growth that he had started to develop before he had left for India, and in 1960 had named ‘sophrology’ – from the Greek, meaning ‘the study of harmonious consciousness’. With its beginnings in his researches into relaxation therapies, hypnotism and phenomenology, Caycedo was now able to introduce ideas from yoga, Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. He somehow managed to synthesise all that he had discovered into a simple and effective form of training that could be used either for healing, or for personal and spiritual development. Instead of all the different influences he had explored combining in a haphazard way, Caycedo took the core ideas and techniques from each of these to create a profound and elegant system that proved so effective that soon hundreds of psychiatrists, doctors and dentists were using sophrology with their patients, and over the following five decades his system grew to occupy a unique place in the French-speaking world.
On the one hand, Caycedo’s system of sophrology was used in conventional clinical settings: dentists used it to calm anxious patients, psychiatrists used it to heal without the use of drugs or shock therapy, doctors applied it to the relief of chronic pain and fatigue. But at the same time, lay practitioners and psychologists found it helpful in all sorts of ways, including relief from stress and phobias, and in the teaching of relaxation and meditation.
It was the application of sophrology techniques to improve sports performances that catapulted sophrology into the general public’s awareness in 1968, when the press publicised the way Swiss athletes were getting more Olympic medals by being taught its methods to increase their ability to focus and reduce stress. The success and popularity of sophrology in sports coaching led the way for the development of training institutes and the application of sophrology in many fields, including education and management, and it stimulated the development of sophrology within its initial area of interest, medicine: to help improve physical and mental health.
Confined to France?
Over the years, sophrology has gone through the seemingly inevitable phases of schisming and diffusion into different schools: there are ‘classical’ approaches that stick to the original formulations, schools that combine techniques with other modalities such as psychoanalysis; medical professionals who make use of certain techniques; lay practitioners who combine methods with alternative therapy approaches. It’s a rich and varied ecology with monthly magazines, annual conferences, dozens of institutes offering training, and thousands of practitioners offering their services. Nowadays, you can find a sophrologist in virtually every town in France, so the mystery is why it has remained such a French phenomenon. It has never really taken off anywhere else, not even in Caycedo’s Spanish-speaking world.
I haven’t come across any discussions about why it hasn’t successfully broken out of the Francophone world, but I suspect sophrology is its own worst enemy – articulating its theory and its roots in phenomenology in an over-intellectualised way that includes creating its own vocabulary of so many neologisms that its critics accused it of being deliberately obscure. Despite these hurdles, some brave souls are trying to teach sophrology in a more accessible way in the English language. Once I experienced some of its exercises, and got a sense of what was going on, I realised what potential lay in working with this modality.
Starting with this initial curiosity that got me training in it, I was fully hooked when I used it to fix a minor issue that was nevertheless troubling. In a training session to try out a certain technique, we were asked to choose a problem that bothered us. I was feeling particularly buoyant that day and couldn’t locate anything wrong to work with, but then remembered that I had a phobia about swimming out of my depth. Not a big deal, I thought, but I used the 15-minute technique suggested, only to discover a new passion in my life: swimming whenever I can. A small but significant change to my quality of life. If I could free myself of a phobia in 15 minutes this had to be an approach worth learning!
How does it work?
There are specific exercises which address specific problems, which a sophrologist will prescribe for you, explaining how each one works, how to enact it, and then taking you through the exercise, often inviting you to record the instructions on your mobile phone, so you can repeat the exercise easily in the coming days. In addition to these specific exercises, designed to address issues such as anxiety, insomnia, burn-out, or chronic pain, sophrology also offers a sequenced programme of training designed to improve your physical and mental wellbeing, and this can be followed whether or not you are also working on a specific problem. In both cases, the exercises make use of the same techniques: gentle stretching, awareness of posture and movement, diaphragmatic breathing,
visualisation, and the use of positive statements to engender a sense of hope and meaning.
Reminiscent of elements of Alexander technique, autogenic training, yoga, mindfulness and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), yet unique, flowing and elegantly simple, the theory underpinning the exercises will be familiar: so many problems, both mental and physical, are caused by stress and tension. When we teach a client how to relax deeply, and use their body awareness and cognitive abilities we start making change possible. In doing this, we are working with the power of somatisation, the ability of the mind to influence the body positively and potentially to improve mental and physical health, and quite possibly harnessing the brain’s neuroplasticity to actually re-wire the nervous system.