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A circle of translucent singing bowls rest on the floor at the front of the dimly lit room. A woman in a sundress sits behind them, while the rest of us lie on blue blankets in the low amber lighting.

We’re here for a sound-healing session. The woman will play the crystal singing bowls, cousins to the metal singing bowls often used as sound bells during meditation practice. She begins instructing us to let go of our worries and listen to our breathing so we can be ready to receive the sound of the bowls.

And then, deep in someone’s bag, a cellphone starts to ring.

I do not, as recommended, welcome this sound to come and go. Instead, my heart races and my face gets hot. My thoughts, already leaning skeptical, go on a full offensive — ruthlessly judging me, the other attendees, and the whole idea of sound healing. I feel uncomfortable and restless and angry.

When the ringing finally stops, my body’s stress response continues to reverberate like a bell. But it starts to dissipate when the singing sound of the bowls begins, a choir of gentle gongs. Before long, I have completely forgotten about the cellphone. And an hour later, when the sound of the bowls fades to silence, I feel quiet, too. Surprisingly so.

Apparently, sound has more of an effect on me than I suspected. Experts in sound healing, however, know all about it.

Rings True

Hearing is one of the first senses we develop and may be the last one we lose. When we talk to babies in the womb, or to dying loved ones who appear unconscious, they can hear and be soothed by our voices. Yet most of us spend our time bathing in sounds that are not soothing at all — traffic noise, arguing voices, and, of course, ringing cellphones.

“We are living in a society that is mainly experiencing only the adverse effects of sound,” explains neurologist Kulreet Chaudhary, MD.

In addition to every­day aggravation, people living in loud neighborhoods experience higher rates of heart disease and diabetes. Children in schools near airports score lower on reading tests than those in quieter neighborhoods. Correlation is not causation, but there are concrete reasons to believe that noise pollution affects our health. (For more, see “How Noise Affects Your Health — and What to Do About It.”)

“We have evolved to be giant sound conductors,” Chaudhary writes in her book Sound Medicine: How to Use the Ancient Science of Sound to Heal the Body and Mind. “Our skin, bones, and ears, as well as the water that makes up a large percentage of our bodies, [are] all picking up sound waves — it makes sense that both inaudible and audible vibrations would have a profound effect on us.”

Likewise, using sound to heal is not a new idea, nor is it alien to Western medicine. Ultra­sounds deploy sound waves to examine masses and monitor fetal development. A technique called lithotripsy uses sound vibrations to break up kidney and gallbladder stones. In 2015, the FDA approved high-intensity focused ultra­sound, a promising approach that can be used to treat prostate cancer.

Chaudhary incorporates sound healing into treatment plans for her neurology patients. The primary difference between Western medical techniques and traditional practices like Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine, she notes, is that Western medicine relies on inaudible vibrations, while traditional practices use sounds we can hear.

Using Sound to Heal

History and research both show that a variety of sound-healing techniques can benefit our bodies and minds, reducing stress, improving sleep, and even relieving physical pain. Many approaches involve practices we can do on our own, including these:

Mantra Meditation

Chanting a mantra — silently or aloud — helps still the mind, Chaudhary notes. And because mantra sounds are vibrational in nature, she adds, they help open the mind to the “boundaryless shared energy of the universe.”

A mantra can be simple — such as the “om” chanted before and after a yoga practice — or complex, like the traditional chants sung during ceremonies, called kirtan. This form of devotional singing centers on traditional mantras that tell a story. (You may have heard kirtan recordings played during a yoga class.)

The mental and physical benefits of mantra practice are visible in the research on Transcendental Meditation (TM), a form of silent mantra meditation from India that was introduced in the United States in 1959. Studies have shown that practicing TM for 20 minutes twice daily corresponds to improved symptoms of depression, ADHD, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.

In 2017, the American Academy of Cardiology recommended meditation as an adjunct treatment for coronary heart disease.

Sound Therapy

Sound baths like the one I attended are becoming more common in the United States, typically at spaces dedicated to healing and wellness. They might involve singing bowls, gongs, or drums, and the goal can be as simple as relaxation or as significant as altering your state of consciousness. (Recorded sound baths are abundant on YouTube for anyone who would like to experience one.)

Music Therapy

Most of us know music can affect our moods. Just consider how good it feels when a great song starts playing in the coffee shop. And studies have found that listening to relaxing music before a stressful event helps shorten the body’s recovery time.

Music as therapy is also used in clinical settings, particularly neurological ones. The Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine conducts research into the effect of music on patients who’ve had a stroke and those with epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

Because musical memories persist even when other recollections disappear, singing and other shared musical experiences are sometimes used as a means for people with dementia to connect with loved ones.

Time in Nature

There are many reasons a walk in the woods or along a beach is restorative; the soundscape is one of them. “Humans evolved, after all, to constantly process the sounds of nature; these sounds exist at the core of auditory perception,” explains Chaudhary.

A British study published in 2017 found that when we’re in nature, our attention naturally focuses outward — on the sound of birds, or water, or wind. This redirects the mind away from the inward focus that’s characteristic of anxious and depressive states.

Notably, the participants who showed the greatest calming response to natural sounds were those who were the most stressed when the study began.

“Sound impacts the reptilian brain because of its link to basic survival and needs,” says Chaudhary. “This part of the brain has a tremendous ­effect on our emotional well-being.”

 Natural Healing

Energy medicine has a long history across many cultures. Today, we also have research to confirm the value of these subtle modalities for health and well-being. Explore other articles in our Natural Healing department to learn how you can embrace these modalities in your own life.

Courtney Helgoe

Courtney Helgoe is the Experience Life features editor.

Thoughts to share?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thank you for this entry and for sharing Dr. Chaudhary’s wonderful book, one among many other informative books on the benefits of sound. While one can write a lot about the scientific and metaphysical aspects of sound and its various applications throughout history, consider the aborigines of Australia who have been using the didgeridoo for at least 40,000 years to raise their consciousness.

    The benefits of sound become clear when experienced phenomenologically. Thankfully the forward thinking Life Time is one of the places that provides sound bath events and we are grateful for sharing our sound bath presentations with the Chicago area membership. If you are looking for a wonderful way to re-balance and recharge your mind-body-spirit connection, dive into a sound bath, positively mind altering… without any negative side effects… ;)

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