In times of heightened anxiety, meditation can help quieten frazzled minds.
But what if you constantly struggle to switch off? Well, there is a meditation method for that, too.
It’s called “sophrology”, and it has been around for decades.
If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone: despite being widely practised in France, Switzerland and increasingly in the UK, the practice remains relatively unknown in Asia. So what is it?
“Sophrology is a modern form of meditation,” explains Swiss sophrologist Dominique Antiglio, founder of the London clinic BeSophro, and author of the book.
“It uniquely blends relaxation, breathing, visualisation and gentle movement.
“You are guided through a simple sequence of exercises that you do to connect with yourself, connect with your body, connect with your mind …”
The goal? To “find within yourself the positive resources to deal with daily life.”
Colombian-born neuropsychiatrist Alfonso Caycedo founded sophrology, “the study of consciousness in harmony”, at the University of Madrid in 1960, after trips through India, Tibet and other parts of China to learn the foundations of yoga, meditation and Buddhism.
Though grounded in science, his technique is influenced by elements of these spiritual practices, including the Tibetan breathing exercises known as Tummo, and is a holistic therapy that focuses on body and mind.
Caycedo used it initially to treat patients with depression, and war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Decades on, it has been embraced by athletes including the French rugby team and the Swiss national ski team.
Sessions often involve identifying areas of physical tension, as well as using breathing techniques, gentle movements such as raising and lowering the arms and tensing and relaxing the body, and visualisation, to achieve a state of relaxation and well-being.
It can be done anywhere, while standing, sitting or lying down.
Widely taught in European schools, hospitals and corporate settings, it is helping to prevent burnout, manage stress, overcome difficulty sleeping and alleviate anxiety.
It is also a common way to prepare for events such as sports competitions, exams or giving birth.
In France and Switzerland where it was first implemented, it is even covered by health insurance.
Aude Garderet, a French-born practitioner of psychotherapy and hypnotherapist, is one of the few sophrologists practising in Hong Kong. She describes sophrology as life-changing, and says it can result in having more control over reactions to daily ups and downs.
“Personally, it allowed me to live my life free from my past issues, things that would hold me back, things that would make me miserable. So you enter a world where you’re responsible for your own life and the path is free in front of you.”
Garderet stresses that sophrology can help boost feelings of control when it comes to dealing with the challenges that form daily life. “Of course you always have problems, like we all do, but there’s an empowerment,” she says.
“What we try to do is say: how can we react? How can we be inside, so that we’re as peaceful as possible with whatever happens outside? I can’t change what happens, but I can change the way I deal with what happens,” she says.
Garderet sees clients at the Vitality Centre alternative health clinic in Central and runs private sessions in Discovery Bay. Although sophrology shares similarities with mindfulness, such as a focus on breathing techniques and learning to feel present, she says sophrology takes the practitioner deeper.
“Mindfulness is the part where, in sophrology, we tap into our sensations, and we feel what is within.”
A 2019 trend report from the Global Wellness Institute called “Meditation goes Plural” suggested that sophrology could appeal to people who find sitting in silence to ‘empty’ their minds difficult.
“Practitioners agree that it’s a powerful way to reach calm and self-awareness for those who may struggle with meditation,” the report declares.
“No complex thinking or postures required, it only involves 20 to 30 minutes a day, and, because it has 50 years of solid use in Europe and its roots are medical, it may appeal to sceptics or those put off by the spiritual vibe of some meditation classes.”
Better yet, sophrology can be efficient: Antiglio claims that beginners who practise daily will start to feel a shift after a few weeks.
“After the first session, you will feel a sense of relaxation, of calm, of centredness, but the more you practise, over a few weeks, the deeper the changes are,” she says.
“It’s a lot about rewiring the brain to strengthen your mindset.”
Demand for learning how to develop a strong mindset is growing, but with people all over the world observing social distancing, opportunities to learn well-being techniques face-to-face are scarce.
Virtual resources help plug the gap: Garderet regularly conducts sessions over Skype, and Antiglio runs an online course comprising guided video and audio exercises.
She has also been offering regular free live sessions on Instagram since the coronavirus pandemic brought lockdown into effect in the UK.
The group sessions, which have seen participants tune in from Mexico to Dubai, focus on specific issues such as feeling calm, boosting productivity or encouraging healthy sleep.
“It’s a fun way to get through lockdown and just connect with other people as well, and do something positive,” Antiglio says.
At its heart, sophrology is a non-invasive self-development technique designed to help people of all ages build resilience and find stillness in an often frantic world. And, according to Garderet, it’s a way of getting back to basics, in terms of connecting to ourselves.
“Naturally, we know how to go deep inside and find peace,” she says.
“We used to have it through prayers – or meditation for some people – so it’s just a very natural thing; it’s very easy. It’s accessible to everybody because we’re wired like that, but our society has lost that path.
"Sophrology just guides you very gently towards this path again, to go deep inside and learn to relax, completely naturally and simply.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.