It may seem like sound baths are yet another New Age trend, but sound therapy is as old as time, dating back over 40,000 years. Ancient Greeks used flutes and lyres to treat digestion and mental health, Tibetans used singing bowls for over 2,000 years for meditation purposes, and Australian aboriginal tribes played the didgeridoo to heal the sick.
Fast forward to 2020, and sound baths have hit the mainstream. They’re conducted in high-end studios in major cities and cost anywhere from $30 to $70 a session. Celebrities swear by them. Colleges provide them to stressed out students, and recovery centers use them for people living with addiction or trauma.
There’s a ton of research on the benefits of sound healing, which is why many health experts say sound baths are a promising tool. They’re not a magical cure — nor should they replace standard medications or treatments — but the practice can have a tremendous impact on the mind and body.
What to expect during a sound bath
Most sound bath programs last 45 to 60 minutes. The sessions are led by a sound bath practitioner trained in how to use various instruments — gongs, chimes, tuning forks, singing bowls — to facilitate meditation, relaxation and, ultimately, healing.
Anne Bergstedt, a sound bath facilitator at a recovery center in California called Alo House, said she starts each session by setting a theme, like gratitude or self love — basically something positive that people can bring their attention to throughout the session. Before she whips out the instruments, she encourages the group to get comfortable — they can sit, lay down, curl up — and focus on staying present with the sounds and vibrations.
From there, she starts using the instruments, all of which are tuned to a different note, to guide people into a meditative state.
“I kind of consider it like conducting an orchestra,” Bergstedt said. “What I’m essentially doing is recreating sounds I do find in nature.”
Throughout the sessions, people experience a range of physical and mental sensations. Most commonly, they fall into a deep state of relaxation. But participants have also had creative “aha!” moments, shed tears, and even slept. Others may feel very little.
“You never really know how it’ll penetrate the receiver,” Bergstedt said. “It’s a very internal practice.”
The power of sound on the body
It’s long been understood that soothing sounds can be incredibly healing, according to Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Late-Life Mood, Stress and Wellness Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Thousands of years ago, people used chants for spiritual healing. Research has since shown that chanting has strong physiological effects: Studies show it may improve mood and cognition, boost anti-viral activity and more.
A study from 2016 found that people reported significantly less tension, anger, fatigue and depression after doing sound meditation with a Tibetan singing bowl. Feelings of spiritual well-being also increased, and the effects were most notable among people who’d never tried sound therapy or singing bowls before.
There’s also evidence that the singing bowls can lower blood pressure and heart rate. According to Lavretsky, this is because certain sounds activate the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the body that regulates rest —which is what causes muscles to relax, breathing to slow, and blood pressure and heart rate to lower.
Soothing music also activates the sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways, according to Lavretsky. Pain is a huge stressor — the heart beats harder, blood pressure spikes and muscles ache. “What music does, it relaxes all of it,” Lavretsky said, which is why sound can ease pain.
Is a sound bath going to cure you of disease? No — at least that’s extremely unlikely, Lavretsky stressed. But it can have a soothing effect on the mind and body and help ease symptoms for many conditions, including chronic pain, insomnia, depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. (Sound baths shouldn’t replace standard treatments for these conditions, but they can be a useful complement.)
All of those sounds working together, the chimes, the gongs and bowls, essentially make it easier to meditate, to clear your mind and zen out.
Meditation has a long list of benefits for the brain, mind and body, but a lot of people struggle with the practice and have a hard time reaching a deeper, restful state. Music just helps them get there.
“All of my instruments, laid out there in front of me in a bath, they’re just tools, they’re just a vessel to guide you to that state of consciousness,” Bergstedt said.