Bang a Gong

If you’re having trouble relaxing and letting go, a sound bath might be the ideal way to wash away your stress.

“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” —Nikola Tesla

Stress is a seemingly ubiquitous fact of life. It’s also highly detrimental to your health, causing the inflammation that ultimately leads to disease. Some of us can be so debilitated by stressful factors in our life we turn to medication, prescribed or otherwise, in an effort to “stop the noise,” with often deleterious, if not deadly results. Ironically, the world of alternative therapies may have a benign and efficacious solution to stress reduction that involves even more sound. A full body bath of sound in fact.

The idea and practice of sound therapy goes back over 2,000 years, to the ancient Egyptians, Australia’s aborigines, and Tibetan “singing bowls” that are still employed in meditative rituals today. Indian tantric traditions stress the importance of vibration in regulating the function of the body’s chakras, or energy centers. Different frequencies, it is believed, affect different centers of the body. As is so often the case recent science is confirming what ancient people came to believe through intuition, close observation, and abundant experience. According to the Journal of Anesthesiology certain tones and frequencies can help “tune” the brain, and make it easier to achieve deeply meditative brain wave states. Other recent studies have shown that resonant sound immersion can reduce heart rate and blood pressure more dramatically than meditation alone, and that binaural beats in particular—two tones of slightly different frequency played in unison—demonstrably reduced anxiety and produced enhanced moods.

Clearly there’s something to this. To see for myself I attended a recent session at Jamie Bechtold’s (formerly Jamie Ford) Sound Bath Center in Eagle Rock. Bechtold is a former biologist with a life-long interest in fitness and yoga who was introduced to the gong as therapy in a yoga class back in 2000, and as she says “Over the next year I noticed that I was feeling more confident, more peaceful, had less stress, and was able to better discern where I wanted to put my focus. These benefits were due to the ability of the sound of the gongs to more easily bring me into a relaxed and meditative state.” Fully convinced of its efficacious power she has pursued the therapeutic possibilities of sound ever since.

The evening I attended there were perhaps 15 other “bathers,” all but one a woman, and about one third of us there for our first sound bath. We sat on mats in what would have been a typical yoga studio save for the array of multiple gongs covering one wall and the display of Tibetan singing bowls on a table at the front of the room. Bechtold began by asking how many of us were new, and provided a brief explanation of what to expect.

We were encouraged to simply lay back and relax, in whatever position was most comfortable; To remain “present” and not be alarmed should different emotions surface more or less unbidden.

“Bath” turns out to be an excellent metaphor for what Bechtold and her gongs produce. It is absolutely a visceral experience with the waves of sound physically cascading down and washing over your body. Sound is propagated much more efficiently in water than in air, and our bodies are 70 percent water. With shimmering waves of sound rippling over and through me the fact of our liquid selves could not have been more evident. But even more than the physical, the mental effect was noticeable and dramatic. In meditation circles there is a clear distinction between “mindful” meditation, where the goal is focused directed thought, and “mind emptying” meditation, where the goal is no thought at all. A sound bath, for me, was definitely a path to the latter.

I have some experience with the “sensory deprivation tanks” and the mental state and experience they produce. Though counter intuitive I found the mental effect of the sound bath, and the sensory deprivation tank to be remarkably similar. Where the tank removes all stimulation and possible distraction allowing the brain become quiet, the sound bath seems to entirely occupy your brain with sonic stimulation overwhelming it into the same sort of quietude. In both cases my preferred metaphor is a “mental reboot”, or “maintenance program.” The sound bath, like the tank, left me feeling “cleansed,” “reorganized” and refreshed.

There are a lot of products out there purporting to help you relax and reduce stress. Most come with a host of side effects, or are of dubious provenance and effectiveness. Now with science beginning to understand the healing properties of sound intuited by the ancients over 2,000 years ago, a far more benign and possibly even more effective alternative may begin to get its due.

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