What Are Sound Baths? Plus, the Healing Benefits of the Meditation

Sound bath mediation and sound bath bowls can help you feel calm and balanced — here's how.

woman meditates with a singing bowl
Photo: Getty Images

It's Monday morning and you're feeling stressed: Your to-do list is piling up, you realize you completely forgot to buy breakfast supplies, and your office — well — it's looked cleaner. If one of your first instincts is to calm your nervous system with some low-fi beats or meditation music, you already know that sound can turn your mood from frantic to chill. Sound bath meditations take sound therapy to a whole new level — and if you haven't tried one yet, you're going to want this stress-relieving technique in your back pocket the next time you feel burnout coming to get you.

Sound baths have a long and melodious history. While the origins of sound healing are not known, researchers believe the tradition hails from the B.C. era and appears across many cultures in various formats. "It's really not possible to identify when sound baths originated, but the foundation of sound baths (and sound meditation) rely on some guiding principles which have been accumulated through various cultures throughout history," says sound bath practitioner Nate Martinez, founder of NTM Sound.

In fact, to really locate the origins of sound healing, you would have to go way (way!) back in time to pinpoint when human beings first wielded sound as a tool for well-being. "Egyptians' and Greeks' understanding of mathematics and early physics informed the use of frequencies and intervals as a tool for inducing an altered state, or as an act of healing," explains Martinez. "Sound baths in their present form can be viewed as a fusion of principals and practices used throughout history with the understanding that it is being used as a tool, not as a form of entertainment."

That said, it's known that the tradition can be traced back to the indigenous people of Northern Australia, China, Tibet, Egypt, and other ancient cultures. And in present times, sound baths have been popularized worldwide as a musical experience that reaches back through various cultures to create a relaxing, transformative experience. Ahead, Martinez and other sound healers explain the basics of sound bath meditations and how to know if they're the right healing modality for you to find some peace in the times you most need it.

What Is a Sound Bath?

As the name suggests, sound baths quite literally bathe you in sound. "Various sound instruments are played at specific intervals to guide the participant into states of deep relaxation and introspection far below the surface conscious mind," says Colleen Inman, wellness curator at Castle Hot Springs resort in Arizona. These instruments include chimes, gongs, percussion, didgeridoo (a type of wind instrument), singing bowls, rattles, and even the human voice.

Sound bath experiences can be anywhere from five minutes long to an hour or more at a time. And unlike a concert where you probably sit and watch the band play, sound baths ask you to go deep inside yourself by making sure your physical body stays as comfortable as possible. "We usually have people lay down on a cushioned mat on the floor, with their heads closest to the bowls and feet furthest away, so waves of sound frequencies vibrate throughout their body creating the ultimate healing experience," says Suze Yalof Schwartz, founder and CEO of meditation company Unplug. The lights in the room might also be off to ensure that your other four senses truly shut off.

The purpose of sound baths is to create a mindful experience that intentionally interrupts the flow of everyday life, according to Martinez. "It can also be really disruptive — because you're likely amplifying an aspect of our life that is already in a state of turbulence, but the end goal of the experience is that there's hopefully some type of breakthrough that the participant is able to achieve on their own terms and without needing to verbalize what it is that they're experiencing," he says. (Curious about float therapy? Here's how the wellness treatment can help your mind and body.)

Anecdotally, it's pretty much impossible to attend a sound bath and not feel changed in some way, but research also has some insight into the benefits of sound baths and using sound as healing, in general.

The Benefits of Sound Bath Meditation

Believe it or not, sound baths have both mental and physical benefits that you can experience just by lying there and, well, listening.

Sound baths have been shown to decrease levels of tension and anxiety, and Tibetan singing bowls — a type of bell that emits a deep, immersive tone, often used in sound baths — have been found to improve a distressed mood and ease anger and confusion. "Sound baths slow down your brainwaves and put you into a meditative state without you having to put in much effort," says Schwartz. "Different bowls play different notes that can be attributed to healing different areas of the body. They are said to tune your organs into the same frequency giving you an overall feeling of balance and equanimity."

The physical body also benefits from a sound bath the way it may benefit from an Epsom salt bath or a massage. "Long-standing medicines that have been well and alive for thousands of years use the benefits of sound bathing to reduce muscle tension, stomach pain, headaches, joint pain, and circulation congestion," says Inman. (However, it's important to note that more robust research needs to be done on all these time-tested benefits before it's fully understood how and why sound healing works so well.)

Plus, "anyone can benefit from a sound bath. There can be a stigma that it's new-agey, spiritual, or only for people who are seeking wellness, but this couldn't be further from the truth. It can be any of these things, or none of them — it's ultimately up to the participant," says Martinez.

If you're prone to seizures, currently have a concussion, or are pregnant, however, make sure you check in with your doctor before settling in for a sound experience, says Inman. (Those who wear hearing aids should also consider taking them off, she adds.) Apart from these conditions, anyone can benefit from a little dip in the world of sound. TL;DR: Sound baths are a beneficial way to replenish your mind, body, and spirit. (Want to meditate but don't know where to start? Try these best mediation apps for beginners.)

How to Experience a Sound Bath Meditation Yourself

If you're ready to book a sound bath, track down a practitioner who has received a formal sound healing and training certification, recommends Martinez. Be wary of anyone who claims to "know it all" or anyone who tries to over-define what your sounds bath meditation experience should be like.

Inman also recommends seeking out practitioners who can put sound baths into a wider context with other healing modalities. "A trustworthy sound practitioner's background will include more than singing bowls and gong training. The scope of their practice encompasses understanding and embodiment of metaphysics, energetic anatomy, a study in mantra, tones, and music, epigenetics history of the use of sound, and the inclusion of stillness or silence beneath the notes," she says.

If you can't find an IRL sound bath meditation experience near you, you can access them online via apps, or online streaming (but don't forget to choose your practitioner wisely) — two options to get you started are the Unplug app or Martinez's website. Once you set yourself up and lie down, try to enjoy the inner-experience for what it is: a pause from that to-do list and an opportunity to return to your everyday life feeling more cool, calm, and collected.

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