Music + Meditation: How Sound Baths Wash Away Stress

The sound bath setup: Gongs, singing bowls, tuning forks, and other instruments.  (Photo: Instagram.com/saraauster)

I’ll be honest — there are three things I don’t particularly like: meditating, loud music, and baths (long story, but I never feel clean and just prefer a good shower).

So when I first heard about the latest wellness craze — sound baths — I wasn’t too eager to experience one … until I called Sara Auster, a highly regarded yoga and meditation teacher who is also a certified sound therapist. She explains that sound baths are actually “an improvised meditative concert that supports states of deep relaxation where stress release and healing can occur.” Or, in layman’s terms, you go into a room, lie down, and are treated to soothing sounds — without chanting, going to a club, or getting wet. OK, sold.

I hightailed it to the Springs, a healthy-living oasis in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. While most sound baths have an instructor who plays sound bowls and chimes, I decided to try Torkom Ji’s electronic version, the Springs’ most popular class. 

Ji had us all lie down on mats (in the yoga pose known as savasana) and put eye pillows on. Then he started to play some ambient music; it was loud enough to block out the yoga class in session next door but not so loud that I couldn’t tell when the guy next to me started snoring.

The healing powers of sound baths

After about 20 minutes, I began to understand why sound baths are catching on faster than hoverboards (celebs including Robert Downey Jr., Charlize Theron, Laurence Fishburne, and Metallica’s Robert Trujillo have all supposedly dipped into sound baths). The music was peaceful yet varied enough to keep me distracted from my own thoughts. But unlike in yoga, where I worry I have the poses wrong, and meditation, where I wind up making mental to-do lists, I actually just relaxed.

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And the purported benefits of this passive pastime extend beyond relaxation. The belief is that specific sounds can stimulate alpha (conscious relaxed state), theta (dreamlike state), and sometimes even delta (deep sleep) brain waves. “When the brain waves and body are synchronized, balance can be restored and stress released,” Auster explains. “Sound is vibration, and vibration can be ‘heard’ not only through the ears but through every cell in our bodies. Sound reaches the body at all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.” 

(Photo: Instagram.com/saraauster)

Other practitioners say that sound has a calming effect on our nervous systems — helping to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for triggering a relaxation response. 

Suze Yalof Schwartz, the owner of Unplug Meditation studio in Los Angeles, says one of the reasons sound baths are so popular is that they deliver a healthy dose of stress relief in a short amount of time. “People need to take a time-out and hit relaxation quickly because they are so busy with life and stress! A sound bath is not only an easy way to do that but it is an altered experience,” she says. “You achieve something substantive for your health and well-being and feel like you are part of performance art.”

How did it feel?

By the end of my two-hour session (sound baths can last from 30 minutes to several hours), I felt refreshed and more focused. Has my stress dissipated? Not so much. But I find doing anything for two hours a little taxing. I can’t say I felt any vibrations pulsing through my body, but I did enjoy the music, the relaxation, and the beautiful room. I can see how more soulful seekers could find themselves on an inward journey, or reach a meditative place. For others, like me, it can simply provide a time and space for a nice — and much-needed — nap.

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