Sound Baths

Your guide to sound baths

What is a sound bath?

A sound bath can take many forms, but, generally speaking, they all have certain elements in common with one another. They utilise sound, or audio waves, to create an atmospheric effect that can be used to augment a feeling of calmness, well-being and contemplation. In many people's eyes, therefore, they are a means of helping people to enter a meditative state more quickly and more easily than would otherwise have been the case. The use of audio waves is said to have several functions, including allowing the waves to penetrate the body of the person being exposed to them such that they have a physiological impact on them. Merely listening to the sounds, however, is enough to have a psychological effect, perhaps by blocking out extraneous noise and, therefore, thought responses to them. Sound baths are becoming an increasingly popular form of alternative medicine therapy in the West.

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 How do sound baths work?

As mentioned, sound baths make use of audio waves to help people to feel relaxed and calm so they can empty their minds and gain a therapeutic outcome. There are many types of sound that are good in this regard. Some people will find that white noise – a kind of static sound – is effective. Other people will play a gong of a particular attunement to help people focus on their inner selves. What both such approaches take is to overpower the listener with a wall of different frequencies within one sound type, or timbre to use the musical term. By listening to the sound of a gong being repeatedly struck, for example, you will hear undertones, overtones in many, many other frequencies, some at sub-sonic frequencies that can only be felt. This sensory overload must be given into, like accepting the temperature of bathwater around you until you feel comfortable. This is why many people refer to this form of audio therapy as though it were bathing.

What do sound baths do?

For some, a sound bath will create an energy field that connects the listener to the instrument or other audio source in a spiritual link that lasts as long as the sound is ongoing. For this reason, the audio tends to be continuous in a sound bath rather than full of dynamic changes and rests as might occur in a written piece of music, for instance. Others think that it is simply a means of loading up the brain with sensory information so that the conscious self is occupied, leaving the subconscious more space within which to explore itself. In this interpretation of sound baths, they have more of a psychological effect that helps to promote meditation. Benefits include the ability to gain self-insights, a deep sense of relaxation and sharing in a joint spiritual experience where no one is speaking, allowing for much more personal interpretations of what has been going on.

Where did sound baths originate from?

People have used droning sounds to create music since prehistory. Some of the earliest human-made musical instruments were only capable of producing a single tone. Although instruments like drums have been around a long time, they can only make rhythmic patterns. However, wind instruments, such as Aboriginal didgeridoos can make long sustained notes that alter in timbre but rarely in pitch, thereby creating the wall of sound effect that many sound bath practitioners are looking for. In the western tradition, folk instruments like hurdy-gurdies and dulcimers often have droning strings for a similar reason. The ancient Greeks thought certain frequencies, or notes, were good for people and encouraged the use of them to help with digestion and other bodily activities. It wasn't until the 19th century, however, that medical scientists started to look seriously at the connection between healing and sound waves.

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How do you run a sound bath?

Most sound bath practitioners will have their preferred instrument or sound source. Some use digital equipment, which they play back using an audio system, perhaps tweaking the output with effects and loops as it is played back. Others will use the pure types of a standing bell, sometimes referred to as a prayer bowl. These metallic objects are struck on their rim, and then the sound is manipulated by circling the inside of them. They're widely used in yoga and among music therapists as well as at sound baths. Gongs are also often played at sound baths. So-called gong baths may involve the use of one or more gongs. They are particularly effective since they create many different frequencies and can be played in a variety of ways for subtly differing effects. In the main, attendees will be invited to lay on a mat on the floor with their head towards the sound source. This allows the body to absorb the sub-sonic frequencies that cannot be heard by the ear.

What are sound baths good for?

A sound bath is a great way to relax and to meet like-minded people. Unlike many other forms of alternative or complementary therapy, they tend to be social affairs where people will gather together – albeit in silence – to enjoy a group therapeutic effect. Most people find that attending one allows them to switch off from the stresses of the day and, in some cases, will even lead to them experiencing some inner insights about themselves which they can use in their daily lives. They are known to elevate feelings of well-being and positivity as well as decreasing feelings of tension. Many people report that they get better sleep after a sound bath, as well. This fact alone may account for why they are so closely associated with mental health improvements. Even people who don't find their sleep improves will often say that they feel more rested as a result of their sound bath experience.

Are sound baths safe?

Yes, they are. Sound baths are carried out all over the world in some form or other, and there is no evidence to suggest that people suffer from any negative outcomes as a result of either staging them or attending them. The only minor concern you might have is if your ears are particularly sensitive and you are too close to the sound source. In such circumstances, all you would need to do would be to move away a little to prevent any potential ringing in your ears later on. On the whole, however, there is nothing going on other than the sound waves that are penetrating your body and causing your eardrum to vibrate. In this regard, they are no more dangerous than experiencing the sounds of everyday life, only doing so in a calm, relaxed and meditative way.

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Can you attend sound baths during pregnancy?

As previously mentioned, attending a sound bath is a perfectly safe thing to do whether you are elderly, a child or in middle age. Nevertheless, some people consider whether or not they should take part in a sound bath when they are pregnant. After all, sound waves can enter a person's body which might mean that they are felt by the unborn baby. In fact, this is something that happens to unborn babies all the time during their mother's pregnancy. In particular, low frequencies can be detected by babies who are still in the womb. Therefore, sound bathing is a perfectly safe thing to do if you happen to be pregnant. Of course, if you still have doubts or have particular medical issues that mean you still retain concerns, then there is nothing to stop you from consulting a doctor prior to attending a sound therapy session.

Is receptive music therapy a type of sound bath?

It is reasonable to distinguish receptive music therapy from sound baths even though there are some commonalities between the two types of therapy. To begin with, receptive music therapy uses specific pieces of music to provide its therapeutic effect. Although the music chosen might be relaxing, perhaps with a slow tempo and an ethereal timbre, it is often not the same as a sound bath which is more likely to use a wash of sound. In short, sound baths may make use of drones and musical instruments, but they tend not to be musical in the sense that they don't have movements, scales or harmony structures. Instead, sound baths rely on overtones, undertones and numerous frequencies that are outside the conventional 'language' of music. Furthermore, whereas receptive music therapy tends to be used to treat disorders, sound baths are there to offer restfulness and spiritual awakenings, in the main.

What does attending sound baths feel like?

This will differ depending on the personal experience of the attendee. Nevertheless, many people who try one out for the first time will report that they tend to be a bit more intense than they had first bargained for. Given that a typical session will involve you lying on your back for 40 minutes to an hour listening to much the same sound, it is easy to think that you might get bored or restless. However, this preconception tends to be because we often associate listening to sounds with musical performances. Instead, what often happens is that people attending a sound bath allow the audio they are being exposed to wash over them, filling up their auditory input such that they then allow their minds to calm. In turn, this allows more contemplative thoughts to develop and for spiritual notions to come to the fore. It is from these processes that the deepest senses of calm tend to occur. Not everyone who attends one will feel this way, however.

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Can sound baths heal?

Many people believe that they can. Despite the fact that the physiological effects of being exposed to sound waves do not have any known healing properties in medical science, lots of spiritual healers argue that vibrations cause health benefits. Rather like other alternative therapies – such as reiki, acupuncture and so on – there are said to be chi meridians that run through the body. In ancient Asian traditions, notably TCM traditional Chinese medicine, manipulating these energy flows helps the body to self-heal. What is going on during sound baths for many people who perform them, at least, is that this energy, or chi, is being influenced by the vibrations caused by the source of the sound. For some, it is more of a spiritual healing process whereby people feel more relaxed and at one with themselves that causes the healing effect. For others, it is purely psychological, and no actual healing occurs, only the perception of it. In any case, many believe in the healing abilities of sound baths.

Can sound baths lessen feelings of anxiety?

Yes, they can and do so in many cases. For the reasons given above, healing can occur when people attend a sound bath, especially if they have the right attitude – or intentionality – going into the process. When people are suffering from a psychological disorder, such as general anxiety disorder, they can receive a benefit from numerous types of alternative therapy. Sound baths are particularly strong in this regard because they don't involve talking about oneself, as CBT cognitive behavioral therapy would, for instance. Indeed, passive attendance and merely lying down on the floor to allow sound to wash over you is all that is required. This means that there is very little to be anxious about from the therapy itself. What's more, giving in to a process and feeling relaxed while so doing can help to lessen anxiety even if you don't believe in any of the healing processes that might be going on.

What books on sound baths are worth reading?

Published in 2019, 'Sound Bath: Meditate, Heal and Connect Through Listening' by Sara Aster is a good self-help style book that covers all of the basics associated with audio therapy. Another one to look out for is 'Gong Baths: A Guide to Sound Healing' by Stephen Hill. This one offers insights into sound baths using gongs from the perspective of the recipient as well as the practitioner. In addition, 'Sound Healing for Beginners' and 'The Seven Secrets of Sound Healing' are both worth reading if you are interested in the healing nature of sound baths. These are by Joshua Goldman and Jonathan Goldman, respectively. For people more interested in the spiritual nature of sound, then 'Mantra, Yoga and Primal Sound' by D Frawley is worth seeking out.

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Sound baths in summary

For some, a sound bath is a chance to enjoy a relaxing session in the company of others without the need to socially interact a great deal. As such, it provides a shared therapeutic – and even spiritual experience – without the group dynamic of a religious service or a group therapy session. In this regard, they are unlike many other types of alternative therapy, which are more of than not carried out on a one-to-one basis. Perhaps this is why they are so popular these days. Of course, given that sound therapies have been around for a very long time indeed in one guise or another, you could argue that sound baths are nothing new and their popularity is very long-standing. However, this would miss the point that in western culture, at least, music has been the predominant form of shared audio experiences for many years. Only since the 1960s has it been commonplace for people to bathe in sounds without the need to also listen to musical structures.

However, the connection between sound, music and spirituality should not be overlooked. Certain ragas in Indian music are more spiritual in their nature than performance pieces, for example. Indeed, droning sounds like that which are produced by Indian shruti boxes are often the sort of audio that is used in New Age sound bath sessions. Indeed, classical western music began to engage with these washes of sound from the late 1970s onwards when minimalist music began to appear for the first time. For many, though, a sound bath will never be a type of concert but a therapy session that seeks to heal both body and mind or, at least, provide some respite from the stresses of modern life.

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