WTF Is It, And Should You Try It?

WTF Is A Sound Bath, And Should You Try It?

"A gentle, yet powerful, experience for the mind and body."

WTF Is It And Should You Try It? is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Every now and then, we take a closer look at the lifestyle trends taking over our news feeds and find out whether they're worth the hype.

No one would describe me as New Age-y. Sure, I care about wellness, dabble in yoga, and sometimes brighten up my organic cold brew with non-dairy alternatives. But I don't opt for alternative medicine, or have a crystals collection, or even know what a chakra actually is. However, I am stressed out, open-minded, and down to try anything twice. So, when I first heard about sound baths, I was definitely interested in learning more and even giving it a shot myself. 

At first, I imagined sound baths as tubs set up in a room where you take a bath and listen to music, surrounded by strangers. The truth is a bit more hygienic and a lot less naked. It's also probably much better for you, but we'll get to that.

First of all, what even is a sound bath?

To find out, I spoke with two New York City-based experts on the subject. Sara Auster, a certified sound therapy practitioner and meditation teacher, specializes in using sound as a tool to cultivate and support deep relaxation. 

She explained that a sound bath is a meditation technique using improvised noises to help participants release stress. "A sound bath is a gentle, yet powerful, experience for the mind and body," she said. "The sounds are created by a variety of instruments, including tuning forks, gongs, shruti box, Himalayan and crystal singing bowls, chimes, and voice. The aim is to invite deep rest and relaxation, and explore self-inquiry." 

The "bath" part has nothing to do with tubs or water. Instead, the participants are submerged in sound. Like other meditation techniques, sound baths are meant to mentally and physically rest you. In place of repeating a mantra or focusing on a single object, you lay down with your eyes closed and allow the various, unexpected sounds to help you relax and reach a state of awareness. 

Sound bath classes are offered at meditation and yoga studios as well as some spas, boutique hotels, and wellness events. Prices typically range about $30 per session and sessions usually run about an hour long. 

I haven't meditated many times in my life, but I feel fantastically shitty at it. Instead of becoming more present, my mind will obsess about an embarrassing thing I did in third grade, replay an argument I would've won had I said the right thing, and list out all the work I need to do by the end of the week. I will spend all of my time "meditating" thinking about these things until the session is over. 

But apparently, sound baths are an excellent option for crappy, or just inexperienced meditators, who hope to reap the benefits without trying too hard. 

Nate Martinez, certified sound therapy practitioner, professional musician, and founder of NTM Sound Healing, explained that the sounds provide an accessible way to disconnect. 

"A sound bath provides the participants with a meditative experience without having to know how to meditate," he said. "The sounds and methods used help to influence our brainwaves so they are able to shift from more active states into more introspective, relaxed states. This is called 'entrainment' and the result is that our active mind often overloaded these days with technology and information can begin to unwind; it temporarily presses pause on our current life and also events in the world that contribute to our stress levels. And the vibrations affect our physical body as well, literally moving through our body. This complete immersion in sound can provide us with much-needed perspective and give our body and mind an opportunity to process."

One common misconceptions associated with sound baths is that it's a concert and will engage a participant in the same way structured music does. "Music incorporates melody, harmony, rhythm, and arrangement and a sound bath tends to have more drone-like open qualities," Martinez explained. "The more open and less structured sounds provide the listeners' mind with less to analyze and, by having instruments that are not typically found in regular music, we're less likely to have an immediate reaction compared to say, hearing a guitar play a popular song, which can result in an instant reaction of either enjoying or disliking it. Sound baths remove that moment of analysis or judgment with the sounds and allow the listener to go deeper into their own experience." 

How does it work?

I recently decided to check out a class for myself with Martinez at MNDFL, a meditation studio in New York City. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to reap the benefits as a first-timer, but Martinez told me a sound bath "can easily produce immediate benefits as well as have residual effects." 

Because you're just going to be laying down the entire time, you can wear whatever you want which is excellent if you're like me and plan to go out immediately after. I took off my shoes, put a new pair of socks that hadn't yet battled NYC summer humidity, and was instructed to leave all my technology outside the sound bath room. 

Mats were set up around the room with pillows, blankets, and eye masks. The lights were turned off and I was instructed to choose a mat and lay down on it. I found it challenging to feel comfortable on the mat I chose because I was much too tall for it. Plus, it was in a corner where stretching out my legs meant accidentally kicking what I think was a potted plant in the room. Eventually, I found the best position to be bending my knees and placing my feet flat on the floor. 

Martinez started the class by briefly explaining what we could expect for the next 60 minutes. He told us we'd hear a variety of sounds and frequencies being introduced in succession, including ones that may be unsettling to some. He also mentioned that silence was part of the experience and we'd be hearing some of that, too. Then, he led us in a deep breathing exercise. 

After a few minutes of guided focus on breath, Martinez started to create sounds using a variety of instruments.

Unsurprisingly to me, I stopped focusing on my breathing as soon as the noises filled the room and started having thoughts that were all over the place. I thought about my stuff in the other room, and the first-generation Albanian in me wondered if it would be stolen. I remembered I really need to find a new dentist. I thought about an awkward encounter I had with a friend's ex-boyfriend earlier and how weird it is that, just a half hour later, I ran into an old co-worker at this meditation studio. Then, I remembered why I was there and thought about writing this article. 

You know when you're in bed and can't fall asleep so you just lay there as your mind races? I realized I had just paid to do that surrounded by strangers. 

All of a sudden, one of those unsettling sounds Martinez mentioned filled the room. It sounded like someone swishing ice cubes in a glass of water, which was surprisingly irritating. Other participants in the session didn't feel this way, I later found out, but I hated it. And I couldn't do anything but sit and listen to it. It was like having an awful itch you can't scratch. 

But it was this very sound that brought me back to the breath. Finally, I felt relaxed. Not because of the sound, but in spite of it. Once the next sound filled the room, I found myself relatively free of thoughts. When one did pop into my head, I acknowledged it more quickly and guided myself back to the present moment, instead of letting my mind run rampant. 

Toward the end of the hour, Martinez asked us to move parts of our body one by one, such as wiggling our toes or circulating our wrists, and become more aware of them. We finished the class sitting up and letting out a few deep, intentional breaths. 

So, what are the benefits of a sound bath?

"The benefits include feeling more relaxed — not only during, but for days afterward, being better able to manage stress and anxiety, helping with the processing of grief, sleep issues, and more," Martinez said. "These benefits are direct communications from participants."

Studies have shown meditation can lead to all kinds of benefits, such as increasing immune system function, decreasing depression, and improving your ability to regulate your emotions, to name a few. Meditation has also been found to have positive effects on productivity by increasing focus and attention and improving your ability to multitask. 

Researchers have also found that sound waves can reduce blood pressure as well as enhance sleep and memory. Binaural beats, tones played simultaneously that are close in pitch but not identical, can be found in a sound bath session. Studies show these sounds can reduce anxiety and enhance mood states

After my first and, so far, only session, I was surprised to feel physically relaxed. My body felt calm in a completely unfamiliar way, and I loved it. I'm not so sure about the effects on my mind, but I definitely slept well that night. 

Should you try it?

If you're open-minded and start a session without expectations, it's worth trying. Everyone can benefit from feeling more relaxed and taking an hour to focus on themselves. It really does seem like an excellent way to practice meditating for beginners or people who think it's not for them. 

And if you are a more seasoned meditator than me, you might be surprised by how much you enjoy this class. The former co-worker I ran into at my sound bath session regularly meditates and told me it was unlike any other meditation he's practiced because it's longer and less focused. He enjoyed being left to guide himself by using the sound or his breath as an anchor — and he even fell asleep for a few minutes. 

Keep in mind that each session may be different for you than the last. "It's not a practice that becomes easier the more time you dedicate," Martinez explained. "You'll always have a different result because you'll always have different things happening in your life. Sometimes ones that are more stressful than others. All of this informs and influences your experience." 

I'd also recommend a sound bath to anyone who sits in a class setting and wonders, "Am I doing this right?" or "Is everyone else around me judging me?" Considering there's no wrong way to participate in a sound bath and everyone is laying down with an eye mask over their face, you won't have to worry about these things. Instead, you can just focus on yourself.

If you don't have classes in your area, you can try to practice sound therapy at home by searching for recordings on SoundCloud, Spotify, or YouTube.

"We are surrounded by sound and vibration every moment of our lives and even when we're sleeping our auditory system is still listening and processing," Martinez said. "Sound therapy and sound baths can help to reorient and digest sounds in a different way and introduce us to a mindfulness experience. All we need to do is be open to it and show up." 

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