Gong baths, crystal bowl meditation and chanting sessions are shaking off their rainbows and kaftans image and are now firmly on the schedule of London’s best yoga and meditation centres. Recently, the uber luxe Edition Hotel played host to a month of sound healing evenings where the hipster wellness crowd lay supported by Tempur pillows, wrapped in soft woollen blankets with silk masks covering their eyes as good vibrations from singing crystal bowls washed over them. So what’s drawing the in-crowd and how does sound help us relax our body and mind?
We instinctively know sound in all its forms has the power to transport us – we often automatically use it to self-medicate on many levels. Think of a mother’s voice soothing an upset child; singing in unison in a choir, at a festival or concert; the hypnotic rhythm of Tibetan monks chanting. Because sound is vibration, it’s not just heard through our ears, our whole body is affected. And we know this has tangible effects on stress levels. For example, a recent study showed that playing music to breast cancer patients could help them manage pre-operative anxiety when going through surgery, and another showed that stress hormones including cortisol are reduced in audiences at a live concert, producing relaxation effects.
The Alzheimer’s Society offer Singing for the Brain courses because it stimulates all areas of the brain (think of it as regular exercise for the mind), and linking music with daily activities can help recall memory of that activity to cognitive function over time. But as important is the emotional connection and they quote the Neurologist Oliver Sacks on this: ‘Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.’
Similarly, it is the vibrational quality of the rhythmic sound of gongs and singing bowls which seem to relax the mind and body, encouraging the balance between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and para sympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems to help the brain become efficient at producing Theta and Delta waves which invoke a meditative state similar to deep sleep. Practitioners can use different sized gongs or bowls to resonate at various frequencies to build up the intensity to release tension and bring on relaxation in waves throughout a session. The beauty of it is that it’s a direct connection – you simply lie there as the sound does all the work, a kind of ‘automatic’ meditation.
In a different context, the power of vibration has been tapped into by the health and beauty industry in recent years. For example, Power Plate to tone our muscles; electric toothbrushes which have now become an essential part of dental hygiene; not forgetting facial gadgets such as the Foreo and Clarisonic which vibrate the skin on a minute level to cleanse, plump and generally create a healthier, smoother looking complexion.
I’ve been a convert to all of the above but my most profound experiences have been with sound baths. One time I found myself being wafted around a swimming pool in Ibiza by a massage therapist, as another charged up the water with vibrations from singing bowls. I fell straight into a deep trance like state, but also noticed the next day that a deep cut I’d had on my foot seemed to have healed overnight. Could it have been the session? Well, it is thought that vibration can intensify the healing properties of water.
In Thailand, I was meditating with a Tibetan monk, who used the sound of a massive gong which literally shook me into a beyond relaxed state. He then asked me to meditate on a Yantra (a visual interpretation of a mantra) which moved and morphed in front of me like a psychedelic film. It was an incredible experience and convinced me of the power of sound.
Now sound baths are not just an esoteric niche thing for hippies or the hipster crowd – we can all benefit from their relaxation and healing effects. See you there on the next Full Moon!