Sound baths, in case you haven’t noticed, have been continuously trending over the last five years. Suddenly they are everywhere: in yoga and meditation studios, churches, colleges, cruises, spas, museums, parks, retreats, recovery centers, hospitals, retirement communities and even concert halls. They pull in yogis, celebrities, hippies, and techies. Once relegated to fringe retreats or the odd dome, the sound bath has become relatively mainstream, attracting the metaphysical-curious and the bliss-omnivorous alike.
What is a sound bath?
Part meditation, part yoga for your ears, sound baths are an experience in which a group of people gather, often while lying on a mat with eyes closed, to listen to sounds produced through various instruments, typically featuring gongs or singing bowls. The ambient atmosphere, created by the sound facilitator, is designed to guide people to a deep, relaxing meditative state. At their best, sound baths offer an immersive, full body listening experience that harness the power of vibration to restore equilibrium. They can be held for huge crowds, small intimate settings, or even as private, one-on-one sessions. They cost anywhere from $30 to $70, and last up to three hours (time flies when you’re in samadhi).
Do sound baths have an origin story?
Sound therapy, sound healing, sound bath: Bonafide woo-woo or genuinely woot woot?
For those of you still rolling your eyes, let’s just say this is not the first-time sound has been linked to healing. Since ancient times, music’s therapeutic potential has been gainfully put to use. Greek physicians deployed flutes, lyres, and zithers to soothe their patients. They believed that the vibrations could aid digestion, ease mental disturbance, and relieve anxiety. Ancient Egyptian texts describe musical incantations, often accompanied by rattles, for healing the sick. Since at least 1500 years ago, Australian aboriginals have played the didgeridoo, as part of sacred ceremonies and as a healing tool.
In the key of wellness: How do sound baths heal?
While there’s substantial research on the benefits of sound therapy, studies specifically on sound baths are more limited. A 2016 study found that people reported significantly less tension, anger, fatigue and depression—plus an increase in spiritual wellbeing—after doing sound meditation with Tibetan singing bowls, gongs and bells. In general, a sound bath is conducive to a sustained meditative state that can be difficult to penetrate oneself. Considered by some as a gateway drug to meditation, sound bath participants will often fall into a state of profound relaxation and wake up refreshed, even energized. What makes sound baths unique, however, is they are specifically designed to bring people back into a balanced state through playing specially tuned instruments and acoustic frequencies. The arrangement results in an intensive envelope of sound—the bath aspect—where participants feel as if they are inside the vibrations.
What are you hearing at a sound bath?
Large flat metal gongs are primed by lightly hitting them, often inaudibly, before the main stroke, which greatly enhances the sound. The instrument responds with a surprising bloom of sound, rich in harmonic and overtones. The sound can be haunting, primal, and ethereal. Gongs also have a long, extended decay (fade) time that gets extra amplified in the reverberant spaces sound baths tend to be held in. It is precisely the intricacies of the harmonics that are thought to heal, on both the subconscious and cellular level.
Singing bowls are ancient instruments used for meditation and transformation. Their broad tonal range mean they suit the contemplative atmosphere of sound healing. In sound baths there is often a set of bowls, each tuned to a different note—or a different chakra–and the bowls are played to accentuate their complementary frequencies.
A wind instrument, the didgeridoo is played with continuously vibrating lips to produce a continuous drone while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing. Although strongly associated with Indigenous Australian music, they are now a global phenomenon. The instrument can create a range of natural sounds, like wind or animal calls. Traditionally, the didgeridoo was played in ceremonies to 'pull' the listener into the Dreamtime.