The sound of ocean waves overtook everything. I was laying quite still, on my back with my eyes shielded by a mask, hearing them grow louder, as if the tide was coming in at my feet. Without the benefit of sight, I tried to listen for their approach rather than watch them roll in. Just when I thought a wave would break over my head, the crash and retreat slid further from my ears until it stopped, only to be replaced with the sounds of chimes. I felt, however, as refreshed as if I’d taken a dip in the salt spray.
But I was not at the beach. I was at One Thousand Birds sound studio in New York City. On a recent Thursday night, I found myself there in the company of a dozen strangers, one of whom was a musician named Alex Beckmann leading the others through a 45-minute sound bath. The tidal swish and crash were mimicked by an ocean drum, one of many instruments Beckmann used to create resonant chords that create a concert of vibrations designed to change the frequency inside the listener’s mind.
At the outset, Beckmann asked each participant to say what they hoped to gain during the session. From clarity to calm, their responses echoed a larger cultural need to access more mindful behavior—especially in light of the alarming number of us who are stressed at work. Achieving a level of blissed out serenity is the goal of a sound bath, which is growing in popularity once again. The Integratron, a domed listening space located in the California desert, is booked months in advance, for example.
For the uninitiated, the playing of instruments is supposed to assist with healing by inducing a meditative state. The practice has ancient roots in multiple cultures including Egypt, Tibet, and Greece. Greek physicians, for example, used vibrations from flutes, lyres, and zithers to promote digestion, treat mental disturbance, and induce sleep. Flash-forward to Paris in the 19th century, when the scientist Diogel brought musicians to patients’ bedsides and recorded their responses, which showed that music lowered blood pressure and pulse rate and generally assisted the work of the parasympathetic nervous system. Most recently, research shows that listening to the sound of water has helped reduce stress more than music or silence.
Like many ancient healing practices from acupuncture to yoga, the sound bath has made its way into the 21st century to help the overworked and overwhelmed achieve a more serene state of mind and its attendant physical side effects. The instruments typically used harken back to the roots of traditional meditation aides and range from Chinese gongs and Indian shruti boxes, to tuning forks, chimes, and Tibetan singing bowls.
How is it different from listening to recorded music?
At One Thousand Birds, cofounders Laura Dopp and Andrew Tracy say sound baths aim to combat burnout by encouraging the world the take a step back and appreciate the calm that comes with listening. Tracy say that he had his first sound bath about three to four months ago. “It was so wild,” he exclaims. Tracy also describes the same sensation of hearing certain sounds as though they were directly over him, while others bounced around the room.
“The constant creation of these sound waves build in the space and get louder and quieter until all of the air molecules in the room are vibrating, no matter where you are standing,” he explains. It’s an effect that can’t be achieved with recorded sound, Tracy adds.
The two founders say they wanted to bring this way of experiencing mindfulness to the community by hosting sound baths for employees, colleagues, clients, friends, and the general public. They enlisted Beckmann, who is a percussionist by training and maintains that his musical background has informed what he plays during a sound bath.
The challenge of just being present
During the course of the 45-minute session I attended, Beckmann started by asking us to make our own sounds by humming while we were sitting cross-legged on the floor (yoga mats, blankets, and eye masks were provided). Once everyone was vibrating in “harmony,” he asked us to lay down and don the masks to block out the light. From there, we were instructed to listen to the sounds around us, paying attention to what was closest and furthest away. All we had to do was listen, be present, and let the sound wash over us.
This sounds like a simple directive, but it is the place where most people trip up in any sort of meditation practice, including me. Sounds can be distracting, especially when they come from street noise like car horns or fire trucks. But I noticed that the sound receded the more I tried to pay attention to it. Then Beckmann started using the instruments, including the ocean drum.
It was at that point that I knew I was totally immersed in the experience, something I’d never had success with even in guided meditation practice. I was zoned out but not unconscious, deeply present but also sort of floating in some liminal state. I don’t think I fell asleep, but Beckmann quipped at the outset that some people do and the snoring adds to the vibration.
At one point, he walked around with a tuning fork, striking it and placing it gently in the middle of each person’s forehead. The effect was strange but not unpleasant. I could feel the vibration but also hear the ring, which was radically different than just listening to it.
When the session was nearing completion, he asked us to slowly come back by sitting up. We all hummed again, this time accompanied by more robust playing of the shruti box. “This one is so good to have because when you play it, you instantly want to sing,” Beckmann explains. That’s because it has a similar sound to a harmonium, but it’s set up to create “lovely drones.” Again the vibrations rose and filled the room until they diminished naturally. And then it was over.
Looking around the room, I could tell that many of my fellow participants were feeling the same way I did: slightly woozy, as if waking from a good nap. People discussed how deeply they felt the vibrations. One confessed to falling asleep but magically waking up just when the session was about to come to a close. I was feeling more deeply relaxed than I’d felt in a very long time.
Beckmann says his sensitivity to sound as a drummer helps him be able to play at just the right volume for people in different parts of a room. For the most part, he says each session is improvised, but humming to start is standard practice. He cites a book called the The Humming Effect that details how vocal toning can help with stress, sleep, blood pressure, lymphatic circulation, endorphin release, and create new neural pathways in the brain.
“Ideally I’m not thinking about any of this,” says Beckmann, “I’m just acting as a conduit for the sound to come through and holding space for the attendees.” He says he does observe the participants’ reactions throughout because some are intense while others just snooze.
This is the reason that Tracy contends that the sound bath wouldn’t draw the same results if the instruments were recorded. He notes that most of us wear headphones or earbuds regularly, and that delivery system of sound is radically different than hearing instruments live, or as he puts it, “this experience of sound waves in air touching your eardrums.” But he also says that going to a destination like One Thousand Birds to have the experience really helps pull a person out of their everyday routine, which helps ground the practice of being present even further.
The problem with being so relaxed
The problem was that despite how amazingly Zen I was feeling, I still had to commute home after a long day. Although, I can say that the train ride was enhanced by my state of grace. But I couldn’t imagine feeling this way and having to switch gears to focus on my regular job during the day.
For these reasons, no matter how stressed to the breaking point we are at work, a midday sound bath may not become the latest hot office perk. Although Tracy says it’s quite possible to bring the instruments to different venues, scaling it would be challenging because live musicians can only be in so many places in one day. “You can’t commoditize it too much,” he maintains. “When people start making a digital representation, it’s not all that interesting anymore.”
The beauty and the benefit, he suggests, is in the spontaneity of the session. “If you go in with expectations to have your mind blown, you’re going to be let down.” Keeping an open mind is key, Tracy adds, both for the instructor and the participants. “You could have a good experience anywhere.”