Why Sound Baths Are Making Waves

Riding the (sound) waves to inner peace

YOU GULP TWO mouthfuls of air, then release them. Inhale, inhale, exhale. You hear the sound of your instructor, teaching you and five other people how to breathe. You’re lying on your back, an eye pillow obscuring your vision and a blanket keeping your toes warm in this cold studio. You’re all breathing rapidly, open-mouthed, to the beat of percussion-forward music. For that first inhale, you’re training yourself to breathe through the belly, letting it expand like a balloon. (Something you later learn is called diaphragmatic breathing). The second inhale is with your chest. You let it puff out proudly. Then, relief comes in the form of an exhale. You don’t take a break. There’s no pause. Inhale, inhale, exhale—and repeat. 

Breathwork is harder than you expected. The modality involves changing the pattern of your breath in an effort to boost relaxation and reduce stress. But you didn’t really come to this hour-and-a-half-long session for breathwork. You’re here for the sound bath. That’s what you’re looking forward to. 

The song changes, picks up speed. Your throat is dry, scrunching up like a crushed water bottle with every sharp inhale. Numbness spreads from your fingers, which are wrapped loosely around two rods the length of a remote control—copper in the right hand and zinc in the left. (They’re called Egyptian healing rods, and your instructor mentioned something about them helping energy flow through you. There’s a chance you didn’t take him too seriously.) 

The numbness doesn’t worry you. Neither does the dizziness. This kind of rapid, deep breathing causes a reduction of carbon dioxide in your blood, which in turn causes numbness, muscle twitching and tingling. (It’s advised that you consult your physician before trying holotropic breathing, particularly if you’re pregnant). This altered state of consciousness might lead you to some sort of insight about your feelings or emotions. You’re told you might even find yourself overwhelmed by an urge to weep or laugh. 

But if you’re being honest with yourself, you’re not overwhelmed by anything other than getting this breathing pattern right. You’re sort of falling behind and maybe are a little distracted by the woman next to you, who has already broken into a belly-deep cry. The sage-infused air catches at the back of your throat, and you break into a cough. I can stop, you remind yourself. Right? The minute you decide to allow yourself to slack off, you hear your instructor’s hoarse voice: “Breathe deeper,” he commands. 

After a few cycles of breathing, the music fades away like vapor. The breathwork portion of the session is over, and you’re somewhat thankful for it. You feel the cold rods in your numb hands and hear the first muffled sound of a mallet hitting the brass surface of a gong. The sound goes through you, and your chest rattles like an old engine. You feel your body coalesce, melt into the ground. 

This sonic presentation might feel like nothing you’ve ever heard before, but the truth is, the practice has been around for thousands of years. Various forms of bell-like instruments—gongs, bowls and basins—along with chanting, were, and still are, often used for meditation and religious rituals in Buddhist and Taoist traditions. 

Even though the practice is slowly gaining momentum in the United States, sound baths still sound a bit woo-woo to folks unfamiliar with this kind of experience, and understandably so. Studies on sound therapy are limited, even though there’s some evidence of positive effects, such as reducing stress and blood pressure and easing symptoms of anxiety. (In a 2016 study that involved a group of 62 adults, “participants reported significantly less tension, anger, fatigue and depressed mood.”) 

There are, however, numerous studies on music therapy. (There’s a difference between music therapy, which has a rhythm and melody, and sound therapy, which doesn’t. Psychoacoustics, in particular, looks at how humans perceive certain sounds and focuses on the physical effects of vibrations from sound on the body). 

In the U.S., where day-to-day stress reaches falsetto levels, meditation and mindfulness are some things the country has been turning its attention to for the past few years. (According to a 2019 Gallup Global Emotions Report survey, which polled more than 150,000 people globally, about 55 percent of American adults said they had experienced a lot of daily stress, compared with just 35 percent in other countries.) The health industry is constantly trying to find new ways to get people to take a breather and de-stress—which is how you found out about sound baths and decided to try it out. No New Age trend is without its blind spots, but you remember thinking: If it’s noninvasive and will only set you back $20 to $50, what’s the harm, really? 

Before coming here, you wondered why anyone would call this experience a “bath,” even though you had a pretty good guess. You didn’t wear a swimsuit under your yoga pants because you knew there would be no water. There is, however, some cocooning involved. As the crystal bowls begin singing, the air becomes wet and slippery with sound. Then a gong’s round, booming note hugs the singing bowl’s entrancing chime. You hear different sound frequencies coming from several directions, and they all swell into a multilayered soundscape that washes over you in waves. You think of the expression “I can feel it in my bones” because, yeah, you can really feel it in your bones. 

Your mind fills the darkness with a trickle of color—glowing spots called phosphenes, which are dancing and spreading like watercolor paint feathering on paper with meditative pacing, like gently rubbing your eyes in the morning after being in the dark. It’s psychedelic, almost. 

If you let yourself, if you really commit to staying in the moment, the sound will yield depth and meaning. So you focus on your breath now and try to follow it. It takes you a few minutes, but you finally allow your mind to loosen itself from pesky little thoughts, like a dog shaking off phantom fleas. You are now listening with your whole body, in a more deliberate manner. It’s finally really relaxing, and also distantly thrilling, not unlike enjoying a moving, brilliantly atmospheric film score. 

The gong’s final note blooms and disappears. The quiet persists for a few minutes, disturbed occasionally by the sound of cars whooshing by outside. Your instructor allows you to reflect on your experience before playing an audio track of rain and birds chirping to bring you back to the here and now. “When you’re ready, come up to a seated position,” he says. 

You remove your eye pillow and rediscover your surroundings—six large gongs suspended against a golden wall, 12 iridescent crystal bowls and a couple of giant amethyst geodes split down the center, glistening innards exposed like the cross-section anatomy models at your doctor’s office. You breathe in the earthy, herbal air and find yourself wishing the bath would’ve lasted just a little longer. But it is what it is. You fold your blanket, put your copper and zinc rods back in their leather pouch and hand it to your instructor. He asks the group if anyone has any questions. 

You do, of course. 

You ask him about the benefits of breathwork, and he’s immediately aware of the fact that you’re new and inexperienced. He boomerangs the question: “Well, what did you feel?” You tell him about the physical effects—the numbness in your hands, the way your throat collapsed into itself when you tried to breathe so fast for so long. But no, that’s not what he meant. “Like, emotionally,” he clarifies. You have a hard time answering that question. 

He says it’s OK. Breathwork is hard sometimes for newbies. It takes a while to build that endurance, but once you get there, he assures you, you’ll be able to navigate your feelings. You’re not sure what that really means, and perhaps you’re a bit skeptical. But you look at the faces around you, at the woman whose cheeks are pink and eyes red from crying. You listen to a middle-aged man talk about feeling something “dark” when practicing breathwork and then again during the sound bath, and you wonder if there’s something to it. All you’re sure of is that now you know where to go when a good book, a bubble bath or at-home meditation fail to bring you some inner peace. 

Wanna test the waters while you’re homebound? Listen to this 3-hour video of crystal singing bowls: tinyurl.com/ ALSoundBaths