What Is Sound Healing — and Is It Right for You?

Taking a sound bath turns on the relaxation response and may help combat chronic stress.

A sound-bath set up is pictured.

When the singing bowl rings for the first time, the chatter in the room falls silent. Ten of us are on sleeping pads and yoga mats in Frank DiCristina’s studio in a performing arts building in Minneapolis, ready for an evening of sound healing.

The concept of sound healing, also known as sound bathing and sound meditation, has roots in ancient practices. But it has gained new traction in the past five years or so as people flock to these sessions seeking stress and anxiety relief. In any major city, you’re likely to find sessions in yoga studios, open-air markets, and alternative healing centers. Early research suggests promising benefits of the practice, such as anxiety reduction, pain management, and memory improvement.

As DiCristina taps away at a large collection of antique singing bowls, eyes close and at least one person starts snoring. Listening to a variety of sounds at different frequencies seems to clear the mind, explains Deep Deoja, who has been conducting sound healings in San Diego for over a decade. Unlike listening to music, when your mind follows a melody, in sound healing “you have a variety of sounds so the mind gives up and people go deeper.”

Playing bowls in this way sounds nothing like music. Even though Deoja and I had discussed that, I was surprised to discover that the tones the bowls produce are not necessarily in harmony or rhythm, and there’s certainly no melody. The people who “play” the bowls identify more as practitioners than as musicians.

Practitioners like to point out that sound healing sessions vary greatly: Some may use singing bowls from Tibet or Japan, others use tuning forks, or gongs, or bells, or crystal bowls, or a combination of these instruments. And people report vastly different experiences even when they attend the same session. I’d gone to The Rainbow Singing Bowl Edition of the Full Moon Sonic Meditation just hours before 12/12, a day when the full moon would rise at 12:12, in DiCristina’s tiny studio — a class that seems unlikely to be repeated in exactly the same way. In January, he teamed up with another sound healer to play gongs in a much larger space because he wanted to create a ping-pong effect from one corner of the room to the other. In the summer, DiCristina offers sessions outside.

He also offers private sessions, which tend to produce the best results, he says, because they can be tailored to an individual. If someone comes in seeking relief from mind chatter, for example, he may focus on higher-frequency sounds near the head, whereas someone with physical pain may respond better to low frequencies. “The session is tailored to their needs rather than a broader approach in a group setting,” says DiCristina.

Some people seem instantly drawn to sound healing. Tamara Goldsby, for example, was hooked when she heard Deoja tap a singing bowl at an outdoor market in Southern California and started attending his sessions.

“Anecdotally, everyone around me looked so relaxed and comfortable. And blissed out,” she says. The experience intrigued her not only on a personal level, but as a research psychologist at the University of California–San Diego. Goldsby, PhD, saw anecdotal effects — such as the case of a military veteran with what she says were fairly severe psychiatric issues who was able to drop most of his medication by doing sound healing — so strong that she says it became inevitable that she would study it.

So she was happy, but not surprised, when her study validated those anecdotal effects, showing significant reductions in tension and anxiety, a decrease in depression, an increase in spiritual well-being, and even a drop in physical pain. Next, she says, her team hopes to replicate the findings using physiological measures, such as blood pressure, heart rate, EEG (to measure a potential change in brainwaves), and other biomarkers of stress compared with a control group.

“It seems clear it elicits the relaxation response,” she says, referring to the way in which blood pressure and heart rate lowers and muscles relax. “So many of us are living in chronic stress. Our bodies are keyed up for ‘fight or flight,’ and it’s very unhealthy.”

Beyond the relaxation response, the research gets pretty theoretical, she says. Some speculate that the body goes into a deep brain-wave state. Others think that the vibrations that sound waves produce affect the energy field of the body. Another theory focuses on binaural beats, or the difference in frequency your brain processes when it hears two different tones. Or it could potentially be some combination of these theories. Professor of Music Therapy Heidi Ahonen studies this concept in her lab at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. She’s found that some frequencies may help resynchronize the brain waves of people with neurological disorders in which brain waves have become desynchronized. For example, one woman with memory loss recognized her husband after a couple of minutes of listening to frequencies at 40 hertz, and the couple proceeded to talk at a level they hadn’t enjoyed in years.

Much more research is needed to understand exactly how and why this could happen. Perhaps, Ahonen says, people appear to respond to certain low frequencies so well because we are first aware of low-frequency sounds in the womb.

But even if that’s not the reason: “I don’t think you can harm yourself with this,” Ahonen says. “You may have some good results. It may not always be the one you go looking for, but you may feel relaxed or energized.”

I left my sound healing session feeling like I’d enjoyed a deep nap.

“‘Healing’ is a word people throw around, but we’re giving the tools of sound and vibration to the people,” Deoja says.

Want to try it? Here’s all you need to know:

You don’t need any experience to reap benefits from sound healing, says Goldsby, who notes that people new to sound healing report the biggest drops in tension. And it’s a therapy that all cultures seem to respond to, Ahonen says. If you’re thinking of exploring sound therapy, here are some tips:

  • Search for the terms “sound healing,” “sound meditation,” and “sound bath” in your area. Also call local yoga studios or alternative medicine centers.
  • Try more than one!
  • Try a one-on-one session.
  • Bring your own: mat or sleeping pad, blanket or sleeping bag, pillow, neck pillow, eye mask.
  • Be prepared for: falling asleep, other noises (a cleaning crew started vacuuming the adjoining room during the session I attended).
  • Consider turning hearing aids off or down.
  • If you can’t find sound healing in your area, listening to music may help, says Ahonen, and it certainly won’t hurt! You’re bound to hear some of the low-frequency sounds she studies if you listen long enough.

is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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