If you’ve ever turned on a calming song during a time of stress, or hummed to yourself while rocking back and forth, or chanted “Om” in a community of yogis or meditators, you’ve experienced sound healing. I’ve attended Native American drum circles where the beat of the drum is meant to symbolize the beat of a heart, inducing grounding and relaxation, reminding the listener of their mother’s heartbeat while they were in utero. I’ve chanted at a Hindu ashram, where the vocalized sounds are meant to align the chanter with the Divine. Across the world, cultures use sound to form bonds with their community, connect to Spirit, and, yes, heal suffering.
You might be asking yourself, “What the heck is sound healing?” On her website, Harmonia Alto, sound healer Minna Sivola describes sound healing as the use of sound vibration to enhance wellbeing in a multidimensional way: “Sound activates the wondering vagus nerve, which starts behind the ears and travels through all our organs. When the vagus nerve is activated, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes us out from the fight or flight response by balancing our heart rate and enhancing relaxation. When our body is relaxed it is easier for the mind to relax as well (source).” Her site links to many helpful resources and studies showing how sound baths — live sound healing sessions where the receiver relaxes in order to receive the vibrations from the instruments — can reduce blood pressure, increase oxytocin, and promote empathy. Although Minna is based in Oakland, California, I was lucky enough to snag an hour-long session with her while she was on one of her trips to New Mexico.
I seek to venture on spiritual journeys and document my own healing journey, while inspiring readers who may not yet feel comfortable doing the same to crack their minds open a bit more. When I told a dear friend that I would be receiving sound healing later that day, she said to me, “Do you believe that stuff actually works?” It’s a question I am familiar with, as someone who used to ask it quite a bit — our capitalist conditioning urges us to weigh the value of every dollar we spend on a service against the question, Will this fix my problem(s)? What’s more, the word “healing” will trigger for Westerners the image of going to a doctor and walking out with a prescription drug that promises to cure our specific ailment and relieve our suffering.
I also seek to challenge these automatic associations. And what I’ve found is that healing is something much larger, and a path more winding and elusive and mysterious, than simply taking a pill, or even exercising and eating right. Healing is something our bodies are fully capable of doing on their own, when our brains and nervous systems allow. As Minna describes on her site, when our bodies relax, it allows the parasympathetic nervous system to activate, bringing us out of our evolutionary conditioning to the flight, fight, flee response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and relaxation, and only when we are in this state are our bodies able to focus on repairing themselves, because they are no longer in a state of panic and survival.
Healers, then, are the guides that create optimal environments for relaxation and hold the necessary space in order for our brains to allow our bodies to heal themselves. If someone is a true healer — it doesn’t matter what their occupation is. They might be a teacher especially skilled at deep listening; a doctor with more than a good bedside manner, who makes you feel seen; a therapist who holds beautiful space for you to release your deepest thoughts; or a sound healer who plays various instruments so that the vibrating waves naturally relax your body.
I pursued sound healing, not because I was suffering from a specific ailment or pain, but rather because the session was gifted to me and I had always been curious. Also, I believe we can all be on a continuous healing journey, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There is always room for self-improvement, more work we can do, and we can always benefit from the assistance in relaxation and letting go that healers can provide. We had met before, and I felt an immediate state of calm and presence with my sound healer. The session took place in a private room at a friend’s house; many sound healers will travel to clients’ homes so that they can be in a familiar setting. She had set up the room to have the lights dimmed, with the massage table in the center of the room, flanked by small tables with Tibetan singing bowls and other instruments on the right and left sides, as well as the head and feet of the table.
Before I got on the table, we sat together, and she shared with me a new mudra she had been playing with. “Mudra” is a Sanskrit word meaning a symbolic hand gesture that has the power of producing joy and happiness. It has roots in both Hindu and Buddhist rituals, and stems from the philosophy that our hands and fingers are a link between individual Pranic (life energy) force and universal cosmic energy (source). She had me place my thumb into my palm, at the base of my pinky finger, as this position is meant to signify letting go of what no longer serves us. She asked me what I would like to let go of, and I decided we could focus on my impatience. Cultivating patience was my birthday resolution last April, and I tend to feel intense impatience this time of year. I began with forming the mudras with each hand, relaxed in my lap while seated. Breathing in, she had me gather my four fingers into my palm over my thumb, one at a time (index finger, middle, ring, then pinky). I held the breath at the top, and on the out breath, she instructed me to release the fingers again back to the original position, one at a time. On the in-breath, I visualized gathering in patience and on the out-breath, I visualized letting go of my triggers for impatience. It was as though I was gathering in the energy of being and releasing the energy of doing. It was a lovely practice, one I plan to repeat and highly recommend.
Next, she had me sit on the table and explained what she would be doing — I think this is very important for healers to do, as it eased my mind and prepared me to receive the healing, and relaxed a bit those thoughts of What will she do next? What am I going to experience? She began with ringing a tuning fork, like the one musicians might use to tune their instruments, and then placing it down my spine along the pressure points identified in Chinese medicine. I’ve since read that using a tuning fork on these points is a form of accupressure — much like accupuncture, but less invasive. The benefits of the tuning fork include relaxing clenching, relieving tension, and easing muscle cramps, among others (source). It felt wonderful, I could feel the vibration from the fork radiate from the point deep into my body and out to my extremities.
Then I laid down on the table, and she covered me with a blanket. I lifted my legs onto a bolster, and my head was supported with a pillow. I can’t remember if she covered my eyes, but this can also be a helpful way to shut out visual stimuli to more acutely experience the sound. She asked me to choose a color to represent patience for me, since that was what I had chosen to work on, and I chose blue. She said at first I should visualize breathing in the color blue, and once I felt settled, to release the visualization and allow my mind to settle completely. I struggled a bit with this practice, as I was visualizing blue I was also intensely curious about what was happening with the sounds at first. Then Minna began to play the Tibetan singing bowls positioned around my body in various patterns for varying lengths of time. She eventually was walking around me in circles, striking and circling the different bowls (if you are unfamiliar with these bowls, read this). Later she told me, she was listening for the vibrations that would tell her where there were imbalances in my body and energy. At one point, she placed 2 smaller bowls on my chakras — I believe it was my Manipura (solar plexus) and Anahata (heart) chakras — and struck them to read where there were further imbalances. She told me afterwards the bowls not only give her the information she needs, but that through the vibrations, balance is restored, or at least put back on track to be restored during the session.
All I know is, the experience of the grounding sounds and feeling the vibrations pulse through my body put me in an intense state of relaxation and full-body awareness. If you’ve ever practiced Yin Yoga and have gone to that beautiful dreamy space between waking and sleeping, that’s a very similar state of relaxation I experienced. And if you’ve ever practiced a body scanning meditation and experienced the buzzing feeling of your hands or feet or other part of your body from the inside-out, it was a similar state of vibrating full-body awareness. The combination of the the relaxation and full-body awareness was intensely profound and unique. I still wasn’t completely able to tune out my cycling thoughts, as I have experienced with Yin Yoga, but this might be due to the fact that it was my first sound healing experience and I was so intensely curious about the various instruments and methods she was using.
There are specific sound frequencies that sound healers can use to treat discreet imbalances. The tuning forks and bowls and other instruments produce these frequencies. This reminded me of some binaural beats meditations I had done through Insight Timer, so I did a little digging and learned some fascinating facts behind this newer form of sound therapy here and here. The frequency we listen to actually changes our brain’s frequency! You might remember this study that determined the 10 most relaxing songs in the world. Apparently, the secret to the most relaxing song is a continuous rhythm of 60 BPM, which causes brainwaves and heart rate to synch up with the rhythm: also called “entrainment.” According to the study of one song — Weightless — “Low underlying bass tones relax the listener and a low whooshing sound with a trance-like quality takes the listener into an even deeper state of calm” (source). Check out the playlist here or meditate to binaural beats here to experience some sound healing for yourself. Then book a session with your local sound healer, because there is no substitute for a live sound bath with an experienced guide.
If you do have the opportunity to receive sound healing, I recommend wearing comfortable clothing, learning a little bit about the process and benefits beforehand, and — above all — maintain an open mind throughout the process. Remember your intention is to care for yourself and challenge yourself to experience something new. Even if the healing doesn’t address what you had hoped for, or seem to have a lasting affect on your health, remember: it is a practice in letting go and letting your body do the healing. And hey — we could all use that! Peace is just another word for healing. And as the Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah said, “If you let go a little, you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely, you will have complete peace.”