(Mindfulness)

What Are Sound Baths? Experts Discuss The Latest Wellness Trend

No water, no problem.

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Tibetan singing bowl in sound therapy close up

In your quest for relaxation or to boost your mental health, you may have heard that “sound baths” can help. But what are sound baths? In essence, they’re a form of meditation and relaxation where the listener is "bathed" in sound, Sarah Herrington, a yoga teacher and writer explains to TZR. “They’re effective and accessible,” she says. “Basically, you lie back, get comfortable and still, and the practitioner plays a variety of gongs, singing bowls, and chimes to create layers of sound waves and vibrations that help relax the nervous system, calm the mind, and take you on a bit of an inner journey. The effect is restorative and therapeutic.”

So when it comes to reducing stress, sound baths might be the new method to try this year. “They guide participants not only into physical healing, but mental and energetic rest, as well,” adds Herrington. The instruments used down-shift the beta brainwaves we use day-to-day to alpha (relaxed) and theta brainwaves (a meditative state). “You'll notice the sound waves help you both still your thoughts and expand consciousness while encouraging healing,” she explains.

Dominca Fisher, BIAN Chicago's director of creative and meditative exploration, says all things in our universe are constantly in motion, vibrating. “Every part of you creates a frequency, and sometimes these frequencies become out of sync,” she tells TZR in an email. “Sound baths allow for synchronicity of our personal vibrations.” In a sound bath, an instrument is played not to create a melody, but to create a frequency that washes over your body. “Because there is no melody to follow, the mind lets go of getting it right,” she adds. “You get lulled into a thrum: a non-thinking mind. You may find yourself in a lucid dream or enjoying a full-body relaxation.”

Roxie Sarhangi, a sound healing practitioner and artist, says that during her sound sessions, she plays seven crystal bowls, a symphonic gong, ocean drum, Koshi Chimes, and Tibetan bowls. “I want individuals to walk into the experience and immediately feel a positive shift in their mood,” she tells TZR in an email. “Sound baths may seem ‘on trend’ currently, but sound has been used as an ancient healing modality for centuries.”

Indeed, sound healing was often used in religious and cultural ceremonies. Chinese gong chimes date to around 500 BCE and ancient Tibetans used bells and chimes for healing ceremonies as well. Meanwhile, ancient Greeks commonly used flutes and lyres — traced back to as far as 323 BCE — for music therapy and its healing effects. Researchers began to study the correlation between music and healing more closely toward the end of the 19th century. Today, singing bowls are widely used in Buddhist rituals and at meditation and yoga studios around the world, as well as in people’s homes.

And no two sound baths are the same. Holistic Coach Jennifer Herrera is trained in primordial sound meditation and uses sounds of earth and nature, such as birds or the sound of the ocean, in her sessions. “Especially for people who have trouble meditating, listening to sound can help pull an active mind away from constant thought and help create the zoned-out feeling that deep meditation can bring,” she tells TZR in an email. “Sound sessions are a favorite with my clients and students. They always ask for them and they comment on how relaxed they feel afterwards.”

How Sound Baths Can Help Your Physical & Mental Health

Even though sound healing and baths may seem like a trend, research shows they provide people with many health and mental health benefits. One study, published in SAGE Journal, found that sound meditation helped improve people’s moods and decreased their level of tension, anger, and fatigue. And because increased anxiety, stress, and poor mood can lead to other health issues, including increased blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, researchers concluded that mindfulness meditations, like the sound variety, can help quell anxiety and improve well-being. This is due to the body’s physiological response and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) instead of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”). And if you have trouble sleeping, research shows that sound baths can help you sleep better, too.

Emma Louise Hillman, an energy healer, sound healer, and energetic alignment guide says the frequencies produced affect the body on three levels: emotional, physiological, and psychological. “The rhythmic vibrations of the instruments alter your body's energetic state as the body vibrates in resonance with the sound,” she tells TZR in an email. “Because they don't require much ‘doing’ from the patient, a sound bath is perfect for overthinkers, those that struggle to relax with silent meditation, or those suffering from mental illness. As you allow yourself to get lost in the sound, it dissolves tension within the body and realigns the body's inner frequency, in turn lowering your heart rate and leaving you feeling relaxed and calm.”

A Sound Bath *In* Actual Water

If you want to try a sound bath, of sorts, that takes place in actual water, Murray Hidary, composer and creator of MindTravel, does offer a variation of a sound bath in various U.S. cities. MindTravel Underwater takes place, yep, underwater — and participants get completely immersed (no pun intended) by his music compositions as he plays piano alongside the pool. “By putting speakers underwater, people experience the music both emotionally and physically — you can feel the vibrations through the water in a much deeper way than just in the air,” he tells TZR in an email. “Water transmits sound much more efficiently, and so we combine the live piano music of MindTravel with binaural beats, which are known to facilitate relaxation and the brain wave state one achieves during meditation or deep sleep. And since the music of MindTravel is extemporaneous in nature, it requires participants to be present in a way that simply listening to music you might recognize or be familiar with does not. Similar to a sound bath, the music is constantly changing and evolving, not allowing the brain to recognize patterns.”

But beyond relaxation, MindTravel Underwater opens up a sense of wonder, imagination, and creativity, Hidary notes. “Once you can center yourself and have that experience of calm, there’s a freedom and weightlessness — both literally and figuratively — that becomes available while you float in this pool, immersed in music. Participants move freely through the water during the experience, dancing, playing, and reconnecting with their inner child.” On a deeper level, Hidary adds that the sound is otherworldly and transports participants back to the womb. “You spent the first 41 weeks of your existence in water, so in many ways, this MindTravel is like coming home,” he says. “And, simultaneously, you experience new levels of reflection and rejuvenation. Any time we can welcome more relaxation and wonder into our lives, we increase our overall sense of well-being. And over time, this can have a profound positive impact on our mental health.”

Why Sound Baths Are Worth A Try

In or out of water, sound baths are worth a try and require very little effort. “Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly running in fight-or-flight mode,” says Hidary. “The amount of distractions we experience, the demands of the day-to-day, the constant stress of the state of the world... these all create anxiety and exhaustion. But to be able to reconnect with yourself, be still, and truly relax? The benefits cannot be overstated.”

Sarhangi, too, says there is so much noise out there and it is easy to become entangled in it all. “We need an anchor — our own internal compass to ground ourselves and let go of the externals of the material world to feel centered,” she says. “It is even more vital during these times of great change and stress,” she says. “Sound healing is an opportunity to care for oneself and deeply relax and let go of stress. Self-care is always important and is an act of self-love.” She says people who participate in her sessions have said everything from “I feel at peace” and "I feel so much lighter” to “The sounds melted away all my stress” and “I have never felt more relaxed.”

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Herrington says sound baths got her through the stress and anxiety of the last couple years — even doing them online. “They’re a great way to reset and deeply heal in an exhausting world, and they’re also fun,” she says. “It’s like the healing aspects of yoga without the poses. Especially if someone isn't able to access physical yoga postures, this is a great option for meditation, deep relaxation, and healing — without moving a muscle. In fact, I just purchased my first crystal singing bowl so I can participate in creating the sounds at home.” And, no matter where we go, sound is present. “Sound is all around us beyond a designated sound bath,” adds Herrera. “These sounds, as well as listening to music, singing, or chanting mantras, can have an uplifting effect on us, as well. You just need to pay attention to them.”