Need to clear your head, mend your body, find your center? Escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they say, and “go to a quiet place” seems to be the starting point for every manner of spiritual and physical rejuvenation.
Except, according to hundreds of years of healing traditions from across the world, noise itself isn’t the problem — it’s that we’re not immersing ourselves with the right kind of aural inputs. That’s the philosophy behind the newly-hip practice of sound healing, found everywhere from the massive, acoustically-perfect Integratron dome in Joshua Tree, California, to healing centers and yoga studios across the country.
And while the idea that some sounds are soothing is nothing new — think of the prevalence of white noise machines to help you sleep, or the narcotizing effect of smooth jazz — the idea that the right combination of tones and harmonies can actually heal the body seems a bit, well, out there — except when you consider that Western medical science agreed with the sentiment long ago. To see if the New Age hippies have really got it right, I booked a sound-healing session at the Maha Rose Center for Healing, a lovely and peaceful oasis in the ultra-hip Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Vibrational frequencies affect mood, well-being and overall health, and a focused session of applied sounds can recalibrate, rejuvenate and heal the body and mind.
Approaches vary. Think of it like any other healing modality, with therapy being a good example. The end goal of all behavioral therapy is the same — broadly speaking, let’s call it emotional well-being — but the various disciplines like Freudian, psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral and humanistic all vary in approach. Sound healing is similar; it could involve anything from simply laying in a quiet space as someone plays an array of “singing bowls,” to a more interactive experience that incorporates elements of energy healing, word association, singing and meditation. My experience was very much in the latter camp and incorporated everything from singing bowls and crystal chimes to a small, marimba-like instrument from Bali, rattles, tuning forks and my own voice.
Where did it start?
Popular incarnations of modern sound healing seem most closely tied with the centuries-old Buddhist practices throughout Asia, but the idea that key vibrational frequencies have healing and purification properties appears in an astonishingly wide array of cultures: consider the vocalized om mantras in certain yoga disciplines, the chanting practices of Gregorian monks and Native American tribes, ceremonial bells used in Japanese Shinto temples and the role of gongs in various shamanic practices.
How does it work?
Sound vibrations transmit energy — think of placing a ringing tuning fork in contact with a wine glass, which will start to resonate together with the fork. It works the same way with the human body (bones and water, which count for a large percentage of the human anatomy, are both excellent conductors of sound) down to a cellular level, with certain frequencies helping to heal soft tissue, mend bones and reduce infection or swelling. There’s even an old wives’ tale that keeping a cat in the same room as someone with a broken bone will help the bone knit faster; as it turns out, the frequency of a cat’s purr is the same as that said to help heal bone. If that sounds a little New Age, consider that modern hospitals use sound waves to break up kidney and gallstones, and high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) is used to combat prostate cancer.
What does a session entail?
My healer, Donna, started by asking what I hoped to get out of our time together — did I want to de-stress, heal a nagging physical injury, or maybe an emotional one? I opted for stress reduction (always a good option in New York City), and spent a few minutes telling her about my work life, relationship situation and general well-being. After lying face-up on a massage table, Donna shook rattles in a circle around my body to “clear the energy,” and then we did some simple breath work. Next was vocal harmonizing as she played a large singing bowl directly behind my head — the vibration from which I could feel down to my toes.
Next came chanting and chakra work, plus a slightly awkward exercise in which, after telling her what my head, gut and heart desired (think broad concepts like “generosity,” or “peace,” or “forgiveness”), I repeated each word at various volumes and incantations as she played the small marimba and reinterpreted each word into its own jingle. (The point of this exercise relates to Donna’s concept of “mantra as medicine” — the idea that I would carry this three-word sing-song tune with me, to be repeated out loud or in my head during moments of stress. It sounds silly, but over the next few days the tune kept popping up when I was on hold with the bank or in a mad crush of people on the subway.) The session ended with some light meditation accompanied by the dissonant jangling of a crystal triangle.
Did it work?
I certainly can’t point to a broken bone, now mended after an hour session, to speak to sound healing’s efficacy, but in terms of de-stressing I count the practice as a success. At times, the combination of powerful sonic vibrations from a singing bowl plus the resonance of my own voice produced a strong physical energizing, like psychic cobwebs were literally being hummed out of my body through my fingers and toes; at other points, soothing gong tones created a potent meditative effect.
After finishing the session with a glass of hot herbal tea I walked out into the bustle and thrum of Brooklyn highly aware of — but not disrupted by — each honk and bang. More powerful than the cacophony of New York noise, though, was what lay between, and what my mind was now attuned to seek out: the potent sound of silence.