They call them sound baths because the sonic waves wash over you, rippling on your skin and penetrating your pores until they’re scrubbing your mind of the stress-worry-striving dirt that builds up day after day.
At least that’s what it felt like to me during a private session I had recently with Nate Martinez, the founder of NTM Sound Healing, where I laid on the floor as he played singing bowls and tuning forks (among other instruments).
Martinez is one of a few driving forces behind a sound bath boom that’s currently happening in New York City (and in Los Angeles, according to the Times), as more and more venues, from yoga studios to boutique hotels, bring in sound healers like him to play traditional instruments for a room filled with people seeking relief from stress, anxiety, and other ailments modern living bestows on us.
“There’s been a crazy explosion of sound baths,” says Sara Auster, a sound healer who leads many of the baths around the city. “For whatever reason it’s happening, I think it’s amazing.”
Last month, meditation group The Big Quiet even hosted one on a boat, and the event drew more than 2,000 RSVPs (for just 700 spots). “People are definitely seeking it out,” Martinez says. “I was talking to Jesse from the Big Quiet, and he said, ‘So many people are asking about the sound bath, way more than the meditation.’”
Why are sound baths so popular?
In many ways, the popularity of the experiences seems like an outgrowth of the also ever-expanding interest in yoga and meditation, and the worlds overlap a ton. Auster is also a yoga teacher and often combines yoga and sound therapy into one experience, and instruments like the harmonium and gong (especially in Kundalini) are often found in yoga classes throughout the city, where they can have a calming, healing purpose.
Martinez says many yogis and meditators find sound baths to be a natural complement to their other spiritual practices, but that sound can also be a more accessible way for those who aren’t as involved in new-agey experiences to disconnect and look within. “It’s a vessel,” he says. “It provides the container for you, and then you’re just giving in to the experience.” (In other words, you don’t have to know how to quiet your mind or how to get into crow pose. I’m guessing you already know how to lay back and listen…)
The chill-out power of sound
So what are sound bath enthusiasts getting from the experience? “Mostly, I hear ‘I had the best night’s sleep of my life, I was so relaxed,’” says Auster. “That’s probably the most common effect that people experience—an overall state of relaxation.”
Similarly, Martinez describes going to a sound bath as something you might do like getting a massage in order to tap a “blissed out” feeling. I definitely felt that personally. Laying down with an eye mask on, letting the sound wash over me, no iPhone in sight, felt incredibly luxurious. After, I felt like I’d had a long rejuvenating nap, even though I never fell asleep.
Auster says sound bathers she’s worked with have reported even deeper experiences, too. “Sometimes people go on trippy journeys and see stuff. Sound affects every part of your brain, it’s a pretty powerful tool.”
This is your brain on music
She’s right. While there’s little scientific research on sound baths and sound healing specifically, more and more studies are pointing to the profound ways music affects the brain. Some have shown sick patients exposed to music reporting less pain. And one review of over 400 studies that looked at how music affects physical and mental health found that it reduced stress and improved immune system function in significant ways.
Of course, there’s also value in much simpler effects, like allowing yourself just one hour to forget the work-related things piling up in your inbox. “That’s sometimes all you need,” says Martinez. “It’s literally you have one little experience that shifts your perspective, and you’re looking at a whole different wall that you never looked at before.” Or whistling a whole new tune. —Lisa Elaine Held
(Photos: Sara Auster, The Big Quiet, Winona Barton-Ballentine for NTM Sound Healing)