Better Living

What Could a ‘Sound Bath’ Do for You?

Limited research suggests this treatment modality can reduce pain and more
BY Melissa Diane Smith TIMESeptember 14, 2022 PRINT

Sound baths are an easy-to-do form of therapy that’s been found to offer emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits.

Picture a scene of elephants hearing sounds from Himalayan singing bowls played near them and becoming more relaxed during medical procedures and operations such as foot care, eye checks, skin care, and even blood draws. As amazing as it seems, scenes documenting this at the Patara Elephant Farm, a health recovery and reproduction management farm for elephants in Thailand, can be seen in the 2021 film “Going Om: An Exploration of Sound, Vibration, Energy and Wellness.”

“When we saw this with the elephants, that’s what really got me interested in making the movie,” the film’s director, Christina Grozik, said.

If listening to sounds from singing bowls helps heavy, large animals such as elephants relax, feel better, and enter a more ready, accepting state for numerous health care procedures, what can it do for us? Much the same and maybe more, research shows.

What Is a Sound Bath?

A sound bath is one type of sound healing, a practice that uses sound vibrations to relax the mind and body. During a sound bath, which is sometimes called a sound meditation, participants typically recline on the floor or on a massage table, or sit, while a facilitator or practitioner plays a variety of sounds with various musical instruments. The most popular instruments used for a sound bath are Himalayan (also called Tibetan) singing bowls, quartz crystal singing bowls, gongs, bells, and chimes, but harps, Native American flutes, drums, or other instruments can also be used.

Participants close their eyes and listen. They “bathe” in the sound, and they often feel the vibrations of the sounds from the instruments inside their bodies.

Focusing on the sound keeps the mind occupied, so many people find it easier to relax, to quiet an overactive, worrying mind, and to even meditate, than when there is no sound at all.

The Need for an Easy-to-Do Form of Stress Relief

Stress can impair the immune system and cognitive function, and increase the risk for chronic disease. It also has been linked to numerous health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, addiction, and mental health issues.

When we’re stressed, there is overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system (known as the fight-or-flight response) and decreased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (known as the rest-and-digest state).

Meditation has demonstrated a significant positive impact on the nervous system, increasing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, and thereby reducing overall stress. But a common complaint is the time, patience, and discipline required to learn and practice meditation. An easy, passive form of relaxation and stress relief that doesn’t require a steep learning curve or hardly any discipline could greatly benefit human health and well-being.

Some studies suggest sound baths may be this type of therapy.

Health Benefits of Sound Baths

Though there isn’t extensive research on the health effects of sound baths, in four studies and one study review, sound baths have been shown to provide a variety of emotional, spiritual, and physical health benefits. Details and results from each study follow.

Improved Well-Being and Less Pain

One study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine in 2017 found that an hour-long sound meditation bath helped participants reduce tension, anger, fatigue, anxiety, and depression while increasing a sense of spiritual well-being. Participants in the study also tended to rank their pain lower after the sound bath than before the sound bath, although more research is needed to determine if the pain reduction is statistically significant.

The sound meditation used a range of Tibetan singing bowls, crystal singing bowls, gongs, bells, and didgeridoos. The main instrument used was the singing bowls for 95 percent of the session. People who had never before done sound baths experienced significantly less tension and anxiety afterward compared with individuals who had done sound baths before.

Reduction of Anxiety and Depression

Another study conducted across two months at a wellness center found a significant psychological and physiological benefit associated with a 40-minute seated Himalayan singing bowl sound bath, validated not only through a questionnaire, but also by using heart rate variability measures to objectively assess psychological health and stress throughout the session. The study, published in the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research in 2020, concluded that this therapy “can help in the reduction of anxiety and depressive mood and provide mind-body relaxation.”

Deep Relaxation

A comparative study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Mental Health in 2019 also found that Himalayan singing bowls can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help people to achieve deep relaxation in just 20 minutes. The relaxation provided was statistically significant compared to just lying down and closing one’s eyes in silence, even when measured using stress index and heart rate variability physiology parameters. Specifically, the stress index continued to reduce in a statistically significant manner during each subsequent five-minute interval for the sessions with Himalayan singing bowls.

Improvement in Mood, Fatigue, Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, and More

A review of four previous studies looked at a wider selection of evidence documenting the effects of singing bowls on human health. One of the included studies investigated the effects on patients with metastatic cancer, and another looked at those with chronic spinal pain. The review found improvements in self-reported well-being, including reduced distress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, tension, anger, and confusion, and improved vigor, as well as objectively measured improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and other markers that point to improved relaxation and reduced stress.

Reduction of Anxiety Before Surgery

Sound baths also help to reduce anxiety before surgery. A study published in Anesthesiology Research and Practice in 2018 included 60 participants. Half were asked to listen to the music of Tibetan singing bowls before getting surgery, and the other 30 were given headphones with no music. Researchers performed physiological and psychological tests and found that the heart rate and other vitals indicated that anxiety improved in those who had listened to the music.

This was the first study to examine the effect of listening to the music of Tibetan singing bowls on preoperative anxiety. The researchers concluded that listening to Tibetan music could help patients to manage preoperative anxiety, and that implementing this practice is a noninvasive intervention that’s easy to administer and should be considered for clinical practice.

The Physics and Biophysics of Sound Baths

In an article on the physics and biophysics of sound healing, neuroscientist and biophysicist William Softky, who spent his career studying the mathematical theory of how fluid brains interact with vibrating bodies, explained that “coherent sound patterns can help nervous systems ‘tune’ themselves, in the same general way tuning-forks help experts tune pianos or harps.”

He further explained that the nervous systems of our Paleolithic ancestors calibrated themselves well when the outdoor environment was simple and natural. But with all the sounds coming from our outside world today, including sounds we call “noise pollution” as well as artificial sounds we call “entertainment” and “connection,” our delicate vibration-managing nervous systems can become de-calibrated.

“The solution to mental misery created by a de-calibrating sonic environment is to return to a calibrating one, such as a sound bath,” Softky writes.

A sound bath is an antidote to media overload—an easy way to unplug from our cellphones and other electronic devices, slow down, and listen to healing sounds that allow the body to de-stress and become relaxed enough to more easily heal itself.

What to Expect During an Online Sound Bath

To sample a sound bath that offers some relaxing effects in the comfort of your own home, search for sound bath or sound bath meditation on YouTube, and play a video that appeals to you.

Shut your eyes, focus on your breath, and listen. We are all unique vibrational beings, so if you don’t like one, experiment with other sound baths made with different kinds of instruments to see which ones help you feel your best.

If there are a lot of other noises around you, you may want to wear headphones that can block out other noises.

What to Expect During an In-Person Sound Bath

To hear the sound better and experience the full-body feeling of absorbing the vibrations, try a live, in-person sound bath—either a group sound bath or an individualized sound bath—from a sound healing therapist in your area.

A caveat: If you have epilepsy, a diagnosed psychosis, a pacemaker, artificial valves, or metal parts due to any surgery inside the body, check with your doctor first before trying an in-person sound bath or other types of in-person sound therapy.

The format, length, and location of a sound bath can vary widely. It can last for five to 10 minutes to a few hours, but typically lasts about an hour.

A sound bath also can take place in various spaces, including meditation or yoga centers and sound practitioners’ offices. Outdoor sound baths can be held in gardens or parks.

It’s important to wear comfortable clothes and to take note of what to bring in the listings or ads for each type of in-person sound bath. Depending on the location of the sound bath, practitioners often encourage participants to bring a yoga mat, blanket, pillow, eye pillow, or folding chair, and a bottle of water to hydrate as needed.

For the greatest effect, clear your schedule before and especially after “soaking” in a sound bath to extend the benefits of feeling relaxed, serene, and tranquil.

Sources

1 Panchal S, Irani F, Trivedi GY. Impact of Himalayan Singing Bowls Meditation Session on Mood and Heart Rate Variability. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, Volume No. 1, Issue No. 4. DOI: 10.14302/issn.2574-612X.ijpr-20-3213.

2 Goldsby TL. Goldsby ME, McWalters M,, et al. Effects of Singing Bowl Sound Meditation on Mood, Tension, and Well-being: An Observational Study. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med, 2017 Jul;22(3):401–406. DOI: 10.1177/2156587216668109. Epub 2016 Sep 30. PMID: 27694559; PMCID: PMC5871151.

3 The Emerging Art of Sound Meditation interview with Lynda Arnold, hosted by Phyllis Anne Douglas. 2021 Online Sound Healing Summit by The Shift Network, Aug. 10, 2021.

4 Grozik, Christina (Director). 2021. Going Om documentary.

5 Trivedi GY, Saboo B. A Comparative Study of the Impact of Himalayan Singing Bowls and Supine Silence on Stress Index and Heart Rate Variability. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Mental Health,  Volume No. 2, Issue No: 1. DOI: 10.14302/issn.2474-9273.jbtm-19-3027.

6 AER Care Center LLC, Tucson, AZ. Stress Less/Sound Therapy brochure, 2022.

7 The Emerging Art of Sound Meditation interview. Op cit.

Melissa Diane Smith is a holistic nutrition counselor and journalist who has been writing about health topics for more than 25 years. She is the author of several nutrition books, including “Syndrome X,” “Going Against the Grain,” “Gluten Free Throughout the Year,” and “Going Against GMOs.”
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