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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

Just when you think you’re putting the “well” in “wellness,” another trend comes along to put your game to shame. Though it’s all the buzz in American wellness circles, sophrology is nothing new — it’s been popular in European countries, like France and Switzerland, for decades.

A term assembled from the Greek “sos” (harmony) and “phren” (mind) to form a word that means “study of consciousness in harmony,” sophrology’s roots were planted by a scientist — not a spiritualist. The practice was founded in the early 60s by a Colombian-born neuropsychiatrist and professor called Alfonso Caycedo, who was seeking an alternative form of therapy for war veteran patients with PTSD.

So, what is sophrology exactly?

Sophrology might be best described as a stress management regimen comprised of an amalgam of relaxation techniques and dynamic movements, inclusive of components of meditation, mindfulness, breathing, visualization, phenomenology (the study of consciousness) and dynamic relaxation exercises (exercises in slow movement).

Sophrology might be best described as a stress management regimen comprised of an amalgam of relaxation techniques and dynamic movements

“It carries the spirit of some forms of meditation,” explains Niamh Lyons, founder of American Sophrology and one of just a handful of certified sophrologists in the U.S. “It has an influence of Eastern as well as Western forms of relaxation, so it’s inspired by yoga Zazen, which is the aim to sit and open the land of thought, and Tummo meditation, the practice of intense sensations,” Lyons explains. Describing sophrology as a “complete lifestyle change,” Lyons says you can apply its principles to the way you hold your body, and the way you think. And best of all, you can do it anywhere.

It's for stress you're feeling now — and later

Lyons says sophrology can be applied to present and future events, enabling those who practice to better manage stress, fear and phobias. She says you feel an “immediate inner calm, mood lifting and a sense of deep relaxation,” right from the jump. As you get into it (there are levels of proficiency), Lyons says increased concentration, motivation, self-esteem and better sleep are among its benefits.

Readily available through structured programs and self-help books in France and Switzerland where it was first implemented, sophrology is used in schools to tackle exam stress, burnout and stage fright, to help those with sleep disorders and mothers preparing for birth — it’s even covered by health insurance.

“I did my training in Geneva, Switzerland where I came across it by accident —I was working for the International Labor Organization at the time,” says Lyons. “Were it not for being there, I wouldn’t have heard of it.”

Athletes have used sophrology as well. Three of the four Olympic-winning Swiss national skiers in the 1968 Winter Olympics also trained in sophrology. Today, the Energy Centre, an accredited Sophrology and Reiki school, touts the merits of the competitive edge it provides through its sports program: “The Swiss Clay Pigeon Shooting champions were trained by Energy Centre for the European Championships 2012, going on to win 1st place.”

Though meditation has also been scientifically proven to some health benefits, studies of sophrology are scarce in the U.S.

Although there's no research that says you'll have a better chance at winning Olympic and championship medals, studies showing the efficacy of sophrology seem plentiful in France and Switzerland. A very recent French study found sophrology “a promising adjuvant therapy to current guideline-based treatment” for children with asthma. Another study touted its ability to reduce stress in cancer patients. Yet, though meditation has also been shown to hold similar health benefits, studies of sophrology are scarce in the U.S.

Will it catch on in the United States?

Even so, Beth McGroarty, director of research and public relations at the Global Wellness Institute, thinks sophrology might be poised for its moment here in the U.S. “Meditation and mindfulness have taken off so much, that they’re even parodied,” she explains. “Though we joke about ‘McMindfulness’ because it’s been commodified, it speaks to the deep need for people to reduce stress, clear their head and focus. With all the chaos in our world, anxiety is an epidemic right now.”

Though we joke about ‘McMindfulness’ because it’s been commodified, it speaks to the deep need for people to reduce stress, clear their head and focus.

Because its roots are medical, McGroarty thinks it might be more accessible to skeptics of spiritually-driven scenarios. “It has 50-plus years of solid use in Europe and it’s been used mostly in a medical environment first, so I feel like it has a solid, proven history behind it,” she says. “Some people are put off by the spirituality of certain meditation classes in the U.S., and this doesn’t have the baggage of a spiritual belief system.” And it just might help us deal with our own baggage, to boot.

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