Sound It Out

Science and popular culture are on the same wavelength when it comes to a practical interest in the connection between sound and the brain and body. So interested, in fact, that the National Institutes of Health along with the National Endowment for the Arts has recently awarded $20 million to research. Has science influenced culture, or culture influenced science, because a quick Google search for sound healing in New York City yields more than 20 options. A conservative number, considering it doesn’t include music therapists or the many yoga studios that incorporate sound into classes or offer workshops. As further evidence of the growing trend, a recent New York Times article titled “How Sound Baths Ended Up Everywhere” chronicles the history and even offers readers a sample recording. Check it out!

Is it any wonder that NYC residents are seeking asylum from the destructive sounds of the urban environment? Not only is sound pollution distracting, annoying and often abrasive, but it is also linked to stress, hypertension and even heart disease. And it is on the rise. It’s a serious problem, and not just in urban areas. While noise-canceling headphones and earplugs can help, judging from the outright proliferation of sound sanctuaries, there is clearly a need for something … more. Sound baths and sound healing, the popular terms for the growing sector of the wellness industry, may be the antidote to many modern ailments, as well as a much-needed respite from the noise—machines, phone pings or just the noise in your head.

See for yourself. Take a moment now to listen to all the sounds entering your awareness.

The construction across the street, the dog barking, the whistle of the tea kettle, the drip of the water faucet, the refrigerator whirring, the classical music playing to help smooth over some of the more irritating sounds. Which sounds are soothing and which sounds a not? Noticing how sounds make you feel can be a first step, to what Sara Auster, a New York-based sound therapist, calls deep listening.

This article will give you the short and sweet lowdown—on sound, plus some ways to incorporate healing vibrations into your life.

What is sound healing?

First of all, it is nothing new. Many of the instruments common to modern sound healing have been used for thousands of years throughout the world for the purpose of creating altered states of consciousness. Like meditation, sound vibrations help relax the body and tune the mind, called “entrainment,” so that the parasympathetic nervous system has time and space to “heal” the body. Sound healing can include music, voice and various instruments—tuning forks, singing bowls, gongs, shruti boxes, chimes and more. In a deeply relaxed state, breath rate, heart rate and cortisol levels all decrease, which leads to a reduction of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is linked to all kinds of diseases, so reducing it is really good for you.

Why you should try it

It’s a simple, noninvasive, pleasurable (at least for many) way to alleviate symptoms of chronic pain, stress, anxiety and depression.

Much of the current scientific research examines the relationship between sound therapy and chronic debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s, and so far, it is promising. Patients facing the trauma of treatment, hospitals and long, sometimes terminal, illnesses can find improved mental and emotional health, as well as quicker response to treatment.

But it isn’t all about illness. Sound healing is also a great way to celebrate and enjoy life, too.

Basia Blonska, a practitioner in New York and classically trained flautist from Poland, enjoys working with small groups for special occasions like graduations or an alternative to ladies’ nights out. She has collaborated with the Rubin Museum of Art and students at the Fashion Institute of Technology using sound to stimulate creativity and community. “It is a wonderful way to create (or deepen) authentic and meaningful connections with your loved ones, friends, family or co-workers,” she says.

Auster is also a musician and artist whose book “Sound Bath: Meditate, Heal and Connect Through Listening” (Tiller Press, 2019) describes her own healing journey with sound after a debilitating accident left her in chronic pain. She says, “Even the best listeners among us can struggle to quiet the mind and be fully present. But when we tune out from constant status updates, nonstop news cycles and instantaneous access to every song/movie/show ever made, we can clear mental space to listen deeply.”

Listening deeply can lead to increased empathy, better cognition, improved mental focus, feelings of greater joy, peace and life satisfaction.

Where and how to experience sound healing

Interest piqued? Fortunately, there are many ways to incorporate sound healing into your life. And as the research and interest grows, there promises to be even greater expansion of sound experiences available in coming years to a wider range of people.

Perhaps you have noticed the dramatic difference between live and recorded sound, and even between digital and analog. Having a first-person sound experience with a qualified sound therapist is simply the most powerful. These sound baths and sound therapists are cropping up everywhere—in cities, suburbs and even way out in the desert. If you want a truly unique experience, check out the Integratron in the California desert past Joshua Tree National Park. You also can search for yoga studios that incorporate live sound.

Trained sound therapists are also available for private or semiprivate sessions, similar to how you might hire a trainer or private yoga instructor, during which you get personal customization and more intimacy with the instruments and their vibrations. The therapist, with your permission, might even place an instrument directly on your body for an even more intense vibrational experience.

At home, there are also ample opportunities to use sound for your own healing. Of course, there are endless recordings, from binaural beats to monks chanting to Tibetan bowls singing. A simple search will yield thousands. Find one you like and relax with it for a few minutes, or longer—go ahead and indulge! Purchasing a singing bowl (they range in price) for your home is a great and fairly inexpensive option. Simply ringing the bowl in the morning can set the tone (pun intended) for your day. Sound also can help prepare you for a meditation practice or serve as a bridge for those struggling with meditation. The Breathing App, created by Deepak Chopra, Edwin Stern and Moby, incorporates sound with resonant breath.

According to Blonska, the best way to approach a sound session is with an open mind. Make yourself comfortable and set an intention. A good sound therapist can help with creating a wonderful, safe-feeling setting, but even if you are practicing on your own, taking the time to set the right mood and “create the space” will increase both the pleasure and effectiveness.

Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, acclaimed doctor, author of “The Healing Power of Sound” (Shambhala, 2002) and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, said it best: “If we accept that sound is vibration and we know that vibration touches every part of our physical being, then we understand that sound is heard not only through our ears but through every cell in our bodies. One reason sound heals on a physical level is because it so deeply touches and transforms us on the emotional and spiritual planes.”

Good vibrations, indeed.

Photo credit: Dynamic Wang, Unsplash