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SOUND EFFECTS

Sound bathing offers a new, old way to meditate and explore a deeper introspection...
By Claire Barber
Photo Courtesy - Sara Auster
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Two golden gongs propped on stands gazed outward into the crowd. Glasses of milky tea were offered to the practitioners crammed together on yoga mats and camping mattresses. Well-kept men in flannels lay beside patrons in Grateful Dead shirts and fairy wings.

I removed my shoes and got comfortable on my yoga mat, rolling up a soft, synthetic blanket as my pillow. Overhead hung an unused disco ball. 

I was here at an event space in Eugene, Oregon, for my first sound bath, a form of meditation using acoustics emitted from devices such as gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, drums, and tuning forks.

While sound baths appear to be the rage with new-age institutions like the Psilo temple, the practice itself is ancient and has been used by cultures worldwide for generations. Direct origins are fuzzy, but the practice has been linked to Tibet and dates back more than 2,000 years. Aboriginal didgeridoos (dating back 40,000 years in Australia), singing, and serene walks through nature are also types of sound baths. 

Traditional guided meditation brings your focus back to the breath, a mantra, an emotion, or a part of the body.

“But during a sound bath, the sound itself is guiding the meditation,” says Sara Auster, a renowned sound therapist and meditation teacher in New York City who provides on-demand sound baths online and travels the world, providing sound-healing experiences. “The sound helps facilitate awareness of the present moment.” 

Photo Courtesy – Sara Auster

Sound effects

My hour-long sound bath was hosted by the local Psilo Temple, a registered religious institution legally allowed to distribute psychedelic mushrooms to practitioners as part of their religious practice. Taking psilocybin as part of the sound bath is optional (it’s in the tea and I politely passed). 

As participants finished their mushroom-infused tea and settled into their mats, our facilitator, James Hin, a sound healer and founder of Psilo Temple, made his rounds, hugging familiar faces with well-tattooed arms. 

Soon, the lights dimmed. We began with deep breathing, and then the sounds began. 

Hin began playing crystal singing bowls, rattling my brain. The alien-like sounds were so intense it was difficult to think of anything else. As the session continued, Hin switched to gongs and a “waterfall disk”— a flattened wooden instrument that sounds like a deluge of falling water.

My brain drifted in and out of a meditative state. I stared up at the ceiling, where shapes like drops of water and stars danced overhead from a small projector. 

“Sound bathing is relaxing but also allows you to introspect,” says Jim Close, a volunteer and member of the Psilo Temple. “I also find it takes me to a very spiritual place. It allows me to rest and quieten my inner voice.”

In some instances, the sounds Hin played did relax me. In other moments I felt uneasy, uncomfortable, and unable to focus. I could feel my chest tighten and release tension as I worked through emotions and varying states of awareness. This reaction turns out to be perfectly normal.

“Everyone has a different experience in the space, depending on what they’re going through and what they’re processing,” says Close. “It gives people space to let their emotions out however that may be, whether that’s euphoric, introspective, or distressing.”

Research on the therapeutic benefits of sound bathing is thin. But Auster says that the meditative effects of sound bathing help deepen and slow breathing, which lowers stress hormone levels and allows the immune system’s healing power to function more efficiently. “It also can lower blood pressure and activate the centers of the brain that release natural pain relievers,” she says.

Mark Clem, owner and operator of a sound meditation service called Sonic Journey in rural Oregon, says that training among practitioners is, for the most part, “self-designed.” Finding a practitioner you trust and jive with takes time, especially since a standard certification is largely nonexistent. “Everybody has a style,” says Clem. 

Both Auster and Clem have integrated sound bathing into traditional, Western medicine. Auster has partnered with an FDA-approved migraine medication as a complementary treatment, and Clem recently began offering sound baths to patients at the nearby Siletz Community Health Clinic. 

Photo Courtesy – Sara Auster

Finding your place

No two sound baths are the same. “Although consistency is something that I strive for,” says Clem, “It’s a very fluid interaction that’s happening between the player and the participants.” He recommends that, because the experience can sometimes be both uncomfortable and deeply emotional, choosing a practitioner and space where you feel supported is essential.

Instead of focusing on certifications, familiarize yourself with practitioners with whom your provider may have apprenticed or trained. Clem, for example, has mentored and been influenced by many prominent figures in the Kundalini yoga tradition, which uses gongs in their practice.

While some facilities like Psilo Temple also integrate psilocybin or cannabis into their sound bathing experience, it is never required that you have to indulge.

Photo Courtesy – Sara Auster