You hear the words ‘bath’ and ‘sound’ in a sentence together and you’d be forgiven for conjuring fairly idyllic images of sitting in a spa, listening to Spotify. But instead, a sound bath is a wellness practice which has gained popularity across the world in recent years and is now gathering momentum here in Aotearoa.
A sound bath, or sound therapy, is essentially a mediation class, which uses the ambient sound of different frequencies to help you fall into a deeply meditative state.
Some yoga instructors perform a little sound meditation at the end of classes, and YouTube has hundreds of videos of ‘sound therapists’ creating noise on crystal bowls and gongs if you want to experience at home.
As with any form of meditation, however you’re most comfortable is the right way to do it for you: either sitting upon a comfortable cushion or lying back on a yoga mat.
If you’ve ever felt instantly better after listening to your favourite album or cried over a particularly mournful Taylor Swift song, you’ll know sound goes hand-in-hand with emotion and healing.
But at its most ancient roots, sound has been used as medicine by cultures around the world.
In an article for Psychology Today, Dr Marlynn Wei reveals sound meditation “is a form of focused awareness in mediation” used by cultures like Australian aboriginal tribes with the didgeridoo for healing for over 40,000 years, or by Tibetan or Himalayan monks in their singing bowl spiritual ceremonies.
In more recent times sound baths have taken that spot, often using singing bowls, quartz bowls, and bells to guide the listener.
“These practices highlight [how] the experience of sound manifests not only through hearing but through tactile physical vibrations and frequencies,’ wrote Dr Wei.
She pointed to a review of 400 scientific articles on music as medicine, which found that music has mental and physical health benefits in improving mood and reducing stress and physical pain.
One study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine found that an hour-long sound meditation helped people reduce tension, anger, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
It’s a method which has now attracted thousands across the world including Google Head of Hardware Design Ivy Ross, who touted sound bath benefits on recent podcast Time Sensitive.
“Right now I’m more interested in resonant frequencies than actual tunes,” she told host Spencer Bailey. “Different frequencies can help put you in different states of mind, and, in fact, at Google now we have these two kinds of beds by Tune Studio that you can lie down on for 15 minutes.
“It uses transducers, frequencies… you can set it for ultimate creativity, and you listen through headphones. The transducers have some of the beats really to help people when they get stuck, to clear their minds.
“This idea – that you could just book a 15-minute session to lie down and be put in these states of mind through sound and frequencies – I personally think is the future.”
So if it’s the future, where can those of us just delving in begin? In an Auckland yoga studio on a rainy Saturday night in September, as it turns out.
I was invited along by Auckland woman Sophie Correia, a former lawyer turned full-time yoga and Pilates instructor, and sound healer. Correia was on a honeymoon with her husband when she first experienced a sound bath in that Mecca of crystals, green juice and good vibes – Los Angeles.
Correia describes the “incredible vibe” of the experience – 300 people all gathering in their pyjamas, holding blankets and pillows ready to listen.
“The woman who ran it I really resonated with… she was [also] an ex-lawyer,” she told me.
“It was really beautiful, everyone was so blissed out. I just thought, ‘what an accessible tool for people who like mediation or find it hard to rest and relax’.
“I went up to her after class and said ‘I just feel super called to do this’. And she gave me lessons that week.”
As a lawyer and consultant, Correia juggled her corporate profession with teaching yoga and Pilates classes since 2009. Last year, “on the brink of burnout”, she quit her corporate role to focus full-time on teaching lessons focused around breathwork, mediation, movement and sound healing.
Twice a month Correia runs her own sound baths at Basecamp Studio in Grey Lynn, an experience I can only imagine is like a miniature version of that rock concert-esque atmosphere she experienced in LA.
I arrived at my sound bath last month a little nervously, unsure of what to expect. Usually Correia sets up bolsters, blankets and mats so you only need to bring yourself; but with COVID-19 level 2 restrictions in place, I clutched the chosen “blanket and pillow” I’d been told to bring: A throw and velvet cushion, both from my couch.
I had umm’d and aah’d over which blankets to bring – didn’t want to look too keen with a full duvet set, how embarrassing! – but upon my arrival, I saw all the old hands pretty much with full camping set ups.
We settled back onto the floor and Correia gently gave us some indication of what to expect.
If, like me, you stress throughout an entire yogic Shavasana you’re not “doing it right” – ie. ridding your mind of every thought its ever experienced – Correia told us not to worry.
Although we may have a lot of thoughts racing throughout, we’d apparently still get the full benefits of the sound work.
She explained she’d be producing very ‘grounding’ vibrations, and we would get the full tilt of “her baby” – a very impressive gong.
For an hour we let a variety of sounds “wash over us”: deep gong vibrations that I felt right to the tips of my toes, and a higher tinkle of chimes I dreamily observed felt like it was travelling over me.
That was until I peeked my eyes open and realised that, indeed, Correia was walking around the room and was holding the bells over my face. I hurriedly shut my eyes in case I got in trouble for peeking.
The hour flew by, although perhaps the last 10 mins went a little longer than I might have hoped. I was acutely aware, however, that I had a flat full of people having drinks back at my house – a clear example of needing to sort out my priorities.
If you’re looking for a Saturday night activity that doesn’t hinder your health – and may, actually improve it – Correias sound bath is an ideal experience. I saw groups of friends, couples and many of us solo-soundies (hope that term sticks) all coming to it with the frenetic, pumped up energy that only a stressful week in Auckland can produce.
By the end, we were all on a similar wavelength of blissed-out relaxation, like we’d indulged in a group session of something illegal.
If you’re unsure or nervous, message Correia – everything about her is calming and will put you at ease. After all, the worst that can happen is you’ll have a bloody good nap, and will get to walk out enjoying one of the little Whittaker’s chocolates she puts on your mat.