A few years ago, sound healing was an obscure practice that conjured images of new-agey types howling at the moon. Today, sound baths are attracting people of all ages and walks of life. At Pure Yoga in New York City, attendance at my monthly sound bath steadily grew from five participants to 45 within its first year. So what turned this fringe practice into a formidable fad?
The practice of using sound as a tool for transformation is by no means new. The prescription of music for mental illness by early Greek physicians, the chanting of mantras in India, digeridoo playing by Australian Aborigines, the Icaros (medicine melodies) of Central and South American shamans, African drumming, Hebrew prayers, Gregorian chants, and Sufi zikrs (hymns) are just a few examples of how different cultures have harnessed the power of sound and music to alter consciousness and uplift the spirit.
We’ve all experienced the healing effects of sound: a song soothes the heart in the midst of a breakup, the lapping of waves against the shore quiets the monkey mind, a mother’s lullaby calms a crying baby. Back in the womb, sound was our very first connection to the outer world. At 20 weeks in utero, our ears were the first sense organ to fully develop, and we soon began to distinguish between familiar and novel sounds. As one of my teachers Silvia Nakkach says, we are “vibration-sensing sound beings”; in other words, we are made up of vibrating atoms (sound), as is everything around us. For better or worse, we hear, feel and interact with sounds every day that affect us mentally, physically, and emotionally. Even if we were to spend time in an anechoic chamber, insulated from all external noise, we’d still be privy to the thrum of our hearts, blood, and nervous systems.
Exploring Sound’s Effects on Us
One proven way sound affects us is by altering our brain waves through entrainment, the natural process of things falling into step. Picture yourself on a dancefloor as the DJ drops a great up-tempo beat. The whole room starts to move in sync, your feet can’t help but move in time; in other words, you’re entraining to the rhythm. The human brain works the same way, changing its dominant frequency according to the frequency of an external stimulus, like sound. Specific sounds can therefore help us down-shift from our day-to-day, alert beta brain wave state to the relaxed consciousness of alpha, the meditative quality of theta, or the deep, regenerative sleep of delta. The frequencies produced by Himalayan and crystal singing bowls, voice, drums, gongs, and tuning forks all encourage this kind of brain wave entrainment.
Another way sound is known to work on the body is through the vagus nerve, which starts in the brain just behind the ears and connects to all of the body’s major organs. Since it directly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system—the “rest and digest” versus the sympathetic or “fight or flight” mode—the vagus nerve is key to a healthy system. Soothing sounds, and particularly our own voice in the form of humming, send a message of calm via the vagus nerve and act as a fast track to the body’s relaxation response.
Additionally, humming and the therapeutic use of tuning forks, have been shown to stimulate the release of nitric oxide, a molecule fundamental to the healthy function of all organ systems. For this reason, toning—vocalizing a sustained tone like a long hum on an exhale—is one of the simplest, most effective forms of sound healing self-practice.
The Magic of Intention
When we use the word “healing,” we nudge therapeutic sound out of the realm of pure science. (This is when skeptics tend to go glassy-eyed.) Healing, which refers to wholeness—a union of mind, body, and spirit—does not necessarily mean curing or fixing. It’s at this crossroads that science ends, magic begins, and the cynics—if they dare—must suspend disbelief and surrender to the experience.
As with meditation, rarely do two people have the same response to sound. The intense vibrations of the symphonic gong are heaven to some, sonic assault to others. Sound bathers report everything from experiencing deep relaxation and bliss, to having dream-like visions and even receiving messages from loved ones who have passed away. Less often, I see participants who seem unable to let go, restless and agitated throughout the session.
One of the basic premises of sound healing is that everything in the universe, including the human body, thoughts, and subtle energy centers (chakras), has its own resonance; that is, it vibrates at its own individual frequency. If part of our body is unwell, stressed or out of balance, then we come out of our optimal vibration. Since we’re all “tuned” differently, sounds affect us differently as individuals, and can even affect us differently on different days. The piercing screech of a subway car might derail us one day, and on another, we might not even notice it. There’s no scientific way to measure the vibration of an in-tune heart chakra, for example, so how can we predict exactly what sound or vibration will help to heal a broken heart?
This brings us to a key ingredient in sound healing: Intention (with a capital “I”). Although the term “sound bath” suggests passive immersion, the experience is made far more potent when both the giver and receiver hold an intention for the sound. As Steven Halpern, Ph.D., composer, and sound healer, says, “sound is a carrier wave of consciousness.” When intention merges with sound, we create the conditions for manifestation.
Here’s a little assignment for the sonically curious: Set a timer for five minutes, and with each exhale, let out a relaxed hum on one long, sustained tone. Notice how you feel. Now, set your timer for another five minutes, and do the same practice, this time adding an intention, perhaps a part of the body you want to send vibration to, or a quality you’d like to cultivate in yourself. If this piques your interest, try it again tomorrow, and observe your response.
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Perhaps you’ll notice a shift in your physical or emotional state and a subtle or pronounced difference between the two versions of the exercise. Science tells us that the simple act of humming affects us on a physiological level, by stimulating the vagus nerve and the release of nitric oxide. And then there’s something else, an unquantifiable, often ineffable magic: the potent mix of intention with sound’s innate capacity to turn us inward to find a rare stillness.
After a sound event of mine, a yoga class guided by a fellow teacher during which I played an improvised therapeutic soundscape, a guy in his 20s thanked me profusely. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been able to be present for an entire yoga class,” he said. “My mind always wanders, but the sound kept me here.” Sound and music have been used for millennia to access higher states of consciousness; what is new and exciting is that so many of us are waking up to its potency and seeking out ways to immerse ourselves in its healing frequencies.