When you envision someone meditating, you probably think of them sitting in silence, focus on clearing their mind. They might hear or chant the mantra "Om," but for the most part, sounds are distracting when meditating, right?
Maybe not. Chances are you might be able to clear your mind — and body — equally as much by sound bathing. Yes, sound bathing. It's a meditation-like therapy that dates back more than 2,000 years and it could totally defy your preconceived notions of a professionally led relaxation and de-stressing experience.
What Is a Sound Bath?
Some might dismiss the practice as trendy, but sound bathing is becoming more popular in the West. During a session, an instructor uses various instruments — think gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, crystal bowls and tuning forks — to produce noise and vibrations, and some instructors may accompany the sounds with singing. Participants typically lie on the floor and let the soundwaves "wash" over them.
Sound baths are believed to have numerous healing properties, including reduced anxiety and stress, better mental clarity, improved energy and more restful sleep. Participants also report alleviation of physical pain, positive emotions and inspiration of creativity.
Because sound bath sessions are most often found at yoga or meditation studios, many newcomers sometimes expect a movement-based class. And because the word "bath" is in the name, some expect to get wet. But neither is the case, says Bernadette Doran, director at Equilibrium Energy + Education, a studio in Chicago. Equilibrium opened 10 years ago and has been offering sound baths for the last five.
"Students just lie on mats and enjoy the sound and vibrations washing over them," Doran says. Though some first-person accounts describe sound bath classes with yoga poses and other types of movement, Doran says that her sound baths require no physical activity and participants need only to wear comfortable clothes.
Like yoga or meditation, most practitioners offer solo sound bath sessions, in which the participant is one on one with the instructor, or group sessions, which are typically limited in size. Doran says her group sessions are no more than 20 participants.
The Science Behind the Beats
So how do we know that sound bathing helps relieve anxiety? Well several studies have demonstrated that certain sounds do reduce stress. For example, a 2005 study at Sunderland Royal Hospital in the U.K. observed a group of patients preparing for anesthesia before surgery. Shortly before anesthesia was administered, the groups were split up and asked to listen to different types of sounds. One group listened to music, one group listened to binaural beats, and a third group watched TV or listened to the radio. (Binaural beats are described by the study as "beats ... produced within the brain in response to two similar pure tones being presented separately to each ear.")
In other words, binaural beats are "when two tones at slightly different frequencies are played in unison," Robert Lee, a D.C.-based sound bath practitioner told The Washington Post.
Those who listened to the binaural beats reported that the levels of surgery-induced stress they experienced were somewhat alleviated. Lee says he thinks such scientific research demonstrates that sound can enhance meditation by reducing anxiety.
Of course where there's a new trend, there's bound to be knockoffs, so if you're interested in trying a session, be sure to check your instructor's qualifications. Doran says that sound bath instructors are required to have special training. She says that Equilibrium's sound bath instructor, Lisa Ahkeahbo, is a "vibrational sound therapist." Ahkeahbo has been practicing energy healing since 2004, and her training includes certifications in meditation, New Paradigm MDT, reiki, crystal healing and more.
Experts caution that there are a lot of providers who advertise their services with sound bath terminology, but they may not actually be qualified. So research the studio you plan to visit to ensure you have a genuine sound bath experience with an instructor who pays attention to your needs.