Why Experts Believe This Meditative Practice Will Chill Out Your Nervous System
It's called sound bathing. And it does wonders for your brain and body.
Keeping up with the surge of “cure-all” wellness fads is a job in and of itself. In our column Wellness Inspector, we do the work for you, closely examining these trends to see if they’re worth your hard-earned pennies—or whether they’re just hype.
Stress is something we all have experienced at one point or another. There’s a healthy amount of stress that might motivate you to get certain things done, but chronic stress can take a serious toll on your well-being. As a result, people are always looking for new ways to soothe their anxieties and make everyday life a bit more bearable and enjoyable. One such way to relieve stress is with meditation—but not just any meditation. Nope; today, we’re talking about sound baths.
Not sure what a sound bath is? Or unsure how it’s different from turning your favorite song on full blast? Ahead are some of the industry’s top sound healers on what this meditative practice is, how it works, and how it’s beneficial.
What is a sound bath?
Think of a regular bubble bath. When you treat yourself to one, you’re welcoming the idea of immersing yourself in nourishing suds and soothing warmth. This same concept applies to sound baths.
“Sound is one of the most ancient, effective, and accessible tools we have for healing,” says recharj managing partner, Maria J. Hernandez. “A sound bath is a meditation class where instructors (sound healers/sound therapists) guide [listeners] into a meditative state while playing their instruments, including singing bowls (Tibetan and crystal), gongs, harps, medicine drums, chimes, and so on.”
Sara Auster—sound therapist, meditation teacher, and author of Sound Bath: Meditate, Heal, and Connect through Listening—adds to this, noting that, just as with traditional meditation, the process starts off with the listener (or sound bather) lying down or seated in a comfortable position. “After a few minutes of guided focus on the breath, the remainder of the experience is filled with different sounds and frequencies being introduced in succession,” she explains.
“As you listen, the sounds introduced during a sound bath invite you into a deeper state of consciousness, give you an opportunity to unplug from external stimuli, and [help you] gain perspective on what’s going on within yourself. The intent of the experience is to invite deep rest and relaxation and explore self-inquiry and self-discovery,” she says.
How do sound baths benefit the body and mind?
It’s no secret that sound has deeply healing effects on the mind, but did you know that it’s proven to be restorative for the body, too? According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, research psychologist Tamara Goldsby found that people who attended singing-bowl meditations (aka sound baths) reported a reduction in pain symptoms in addition to diminished anxiety, tension, anger, and feelings of sadness.
But how does this happen?
“The mind has the amazing capacity to correct physiological imbalances through a mind-body connection with sound,” says SoundFlower.life, co-founder of the sound bath studio, Maya Phipps. “Chinese medicine clearly states each organ has a unique energy structure, vibration, and movement. Certain sounds can shift these in therapeutic ways.”
Maha Rose sound practitioner, Chicago Figueroa, says that this is possible through sound vibrations. “Participants are able to calm their nervous or adrenal system by creating an easier connection to who they truly are,” she explains. “Through sound, we are also able to move energy blockages through the vibrations created by certain tones and instruments. The sound moves the energy that is no longer serving us and transmutes it into a closer vibration to [what] can be said to be love. Participants receive these waves and therefore are able to transmute energy into what best suits them.”
Pretty cool, right? But it gets better.
Figueroa explains that our brain waves exist in five different states of consciousness: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma waves. “Through sound journeys of meditation, the receiver starts in a beta state of mind, which is a high level of thinking,” she says. “In the sound bath, we then bring them into alpha (a relaxed state), theta (a meditative state), and then delta (a restorative state). In the delta, they are at the deepest level of relaxation.”
Figueroa goes on to say that the sound healer will then bring them back into a beta wave state (aka normal waking consciousness). This is when the sound bather will become aware of their higher state of thinking. “Each of these brain waves has a particular state of consciousness attached to them and going through these different states can detach us from the stress of everyday overthinking,” she explains. “They can separate our thoughts from anxiety and into a state of consciousness that is more like dreaming—and we all know how waking up from a good eight hours of sleep feels. That is what it feels like when you have a full sound bath immersive experience.”
Why have sound baths been gaining popularity lately?
Sound baths started gaining popularity in the peak of quarantine due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. “As the world felt more chaotic, we were all looking for moments of pause,” Auster says. “A sound bath offers a real moment of stillness. It provides an opportunity for authentic connection with both yourself and others while temporarily disconnecting from the digital and outside world. This deep listening helps us share and build connections based on empathy and openness, something the world needs more of right now.”
And then there’s the fact that sound baths are a more accessible way to enjoy meditation. Diving directly into breathing and silent techniques can be incredibly challenging. “I often say: If meditation is taking the stairs, a sound bath is taking the elevator,” Auster adds.
However, Phipps says that sound baths have been on the rise even before the pandemic. “The revival of sound and ceremony under the influence of breath and sometimes even psychedelic drugs (LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, San Pedro, and many more) seems to have spiked among the metropolitan [and music festival] communities,” she explains. “The reason for this is an unparalleled, multi-dimensional sonic experience where the participant is using both active breaths, vocal toning, and sound to achieve an altered state of consciousness for the purpose of self-exploration and self-healing.”
As much as sound baths are a product of the vibrational, musical experience, Auster believes that much of the healing you experience in a sound bath is of your own making. “You are the one who is nurturing and opening a path to your own state of well-being,” she says. “I am creating the space for you to do so. You are the catalyst for your own change.”
How can people create sound baths by themselves?
Auster shares how to create a sound bath experience at home, below.
1. Turn on Awake from Sara Auster’s record, “Namora.”
2. Get comfortable, either seated or lying down. Either way, choose a position that you can be still in for about 20 minutes.
3. Close your eyes or cover them with an eye mask (we love Parachute’s Merino Eye Mask) and take three deep breaths. Inhale for four counts through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Then return to the natural breath.
4. Turn your attention to your listening. Focus on the sound and the contrast it leaves in the room after it fades away.
5. Let the sounds you hear anchor you in the present moment. Try not to get caught up in judging what you hear or analyzing the sounds; just listen, observe, and experience them. If you become restless or other thoughts come in, acknowledge and allow them to, but do not react to them. Stick with this process for the length of the recording.
6. Become aware of the space around you. Consciously become aware of the space in front, behind, and to the sides—even above and below. Allow yourself to feel as if your mind is expanding into the space surrounding you, even expanding outside of the room.
7. When the recording is complete, allow yourself to sit in silence for one to two minutes.
8. Gently make small movements through your body, and slowly open your eyes. Observe how your awareness has shifted from the beginning of the practice.
Online options for sound baths:
Some meditation studios, like recharj, offer classes online. Hernandez says to check out their schedule, as they’re offering virtual sound baths for $10. However, there are other wellness spaces, like N.Y.C. studio MNDFL and L.A.-based virtual studio Copper Vessel, that also offer online sound bath options. Maha Rose sound healer Katie Down adds to this, noting that MINKA Brooklyn, WOOM Center, and Integral Yoga all offer sound baths either in-person or online, too.
So, give sound baths a try. The possibilities and benefits are seemingly endless.