Less than 150 years have passed since gurus Ramakrishna and Vivekananda introduced the Western world to the Indian spiritual practices. During this time, the West has turned what once had been a highly demanding lifestyle into an industry of spiritual wellness, with new fads arriving each year. Among the latest are the so-called sound baths. Are they as great as they are touted to be, though?
A sound bath practice is rather simple: a group of people lie down on mats with their eyes closed, and the session leader plays some music (live, i.e. not a recording). It can be a gong, Tibetan singing bowls, or chimes. You allow the sounds to wash over you, as a kind of a massage, helping you reach a deep meditative state, in which (according to the practitioners) the body can heal itself. Different terms are used, from chakra alignment to delta brain waves. But is there any science behind it?
It is true that our brain produces several types of waves:
- Gamma and beta are shorter and have a higher frequency; they correspond to intense mental activity.
- Alpha waves, with a slightly lower frequency, are produced when we rest and relax, thinking of upcoming tasks; they are associated with creativity.
- Theta waves emerge when we sleep and dream, but sometimes also during deep meditation.
- Finally, long delta waves correspond to deep, dreamless sleep: it is to this delta state that practitioners of meditation aspire. You can read more here.
So can gongs and singing bowls bring us to the delta state or affect our nervous system at all? Well, this recent study shows that certain sounds (known as binaural beats, which synchronize with different types of brainwaves) do reduce pre-surgery anxiety. On the market you can find numerous recordings containing binaural beats that are supposed to affect your brainwaves (for example, promoting alpha for study, or delta for sleep).
Another study has demonstrated that Tibetan singing bowls in particular help lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Does it work?
So different types of brainwaves are real, sounds can affect them, and Himalayan musical instruments are good for you. Does it mean you should join a sound bath session? If you find that guided sessions of yoga and meditation are more efficient for you than individual practice at home, then you can definitely try it; however, keep in mind that prices are rather high, and groups can be large. If, on the contrary, you get distracted when in a big group of people, why not try some sound healing at home? Recordings of gongs, crystal bowls, etc. can be easily obtained online.
One important thing to remember is that you should not strive to achieve the much-touted delta state. In fact, getting into an alpha state can be just as good for you, since it promotes creative problem solving (read more on this here.) And if you fall asleep instead (or start producing theta waves, in other words), it is just as good: it means that your body needs sleep!
In any case, singing bowls and gongs can definitely enhance your meditation or yoga practice. But keep in mind that you don’t have to pay lots of money to achieve a state of relaxation; after all, the art of meditation is the art of letting go.