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Sound Healing: What Is It, How Does It Work, And How Can It Help You?

A fast-growing wellness trend in the modern day, sound healing has actually been around for centuries - and it can soothe your mind, body, and soul. Let's explore the science, the history, and practical applications of this holistic healing modality.

It all started when a massage therapist placed a giant golden bowl on my head and struck it with a felt-tipped mallet. A young travel journalist at the time, I had flown to Kathmandu for a travel piece on Nepal's capital for a glossy magazine. I was staying at the The Dwarika's Hotel in Kathmandu for a review, before moving on to their other location in the stunning mountains of Dhulikel - which, at the time, was still under construction. One of the city's most beloved luxury hotels, the brand is committed to reflecting the country's rich heritage while offering delicious food made with fresh produce from their own eco-organic farms, serene spa treatments, and plenty of holistic wellness options from Himalayan salt-walled steam rooms to traditional Singing Bowl Therapy. It was there that I had my first true taste of sound healing, and from that first strike of that bowl, I was hooked.

For the next 6-7 years, I sought out sound healing more and more regularly. I listened to some on YouTube, leapt towards yoga sessions that incorporated it at the end of class, and luxuriated in sound-based meditation events. From gongs to crystal bowls and harmoniums, these sounds would sometimes take me away to other dimensions that I'd only experienced through my deepest self-meditation sessions, or my journeys with plant medicine. It helped me through everything from managing anxiety to healing from break-ups, physical pains, and coping with grief. I bought my own mini sound bowl and a hang drum, and then another instrument, and another. When my chance to become a certified sound healing teacher (or facilitator, as I prefer to call it) came along - with teachers that I respected and had the right values, which was very important to me - I took it immediately. In the years since I began holding sound healing sessions for others, my appreciation for this healing modality has only continued to grow. And one of the most common questions my "students" have asked me is, "How does it work?"

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

The Physics Of Sound

It all begins with energy and vibrations. Albert Einstein once famously suggested that everything in life is vibration, and this is the simplest or quickest way I can explain it: everything in the world is made up of atoms, and these atoms are in a constant state of motion. The speed at which these atoms vibrate is what determines how they manifest as the physical matter we can touch - like solids, liquids, and gas - and sound is no exception. A sound wave is made up of energy. If something - like an instrument - can make a sound, its energy will be either be in the state of potential energy (i.e. the potential to be played and generate a sound wave), or kinetic energy, which is what happens when a sound wave is actually generated. As the atoms within the object or substance vibrate, the energy moves through it, as well as the air, our ear drums, and all of the little bones, membranes, hair cells, and other bits in our ears take in and "read" these sound vibrations, converting them into signals that are interpreted by the nerves in our brain. This is, in essence how we perceive the sounds we hear.

It is understandable, then, that we don't only hear sounds, we also feel them. I remember once watching an amazing audition for America's Got Talent in which a woman named Mandy Harvey explained how she had tragically lost her hearing - and in a truly inspirational five-minute performance, she removed her shoes and sang an original song. And she sang utterly beautifully. She had removed her shoes so she could feel the vibrations of the sound through her feet, she'd said - it was how she could still "hear" even when her ears couldn't do it the same way as other hearing-abled people anymore. Sound can even take a physical shape - when we see snowflakes, their beautiful patterns are a response to sounds found within nature (even if we can't always hear them with the human ear), and some remarkable experiments have been done showcasing the patterns of soundwaves made visual through sand and in water.

Another thing that vibrations can affect? Our thoughts and emotions. Within cliché hippie phrases like "Feel the vibes" there is science, and once again, it is all about energy and vibrational frequencies. Sound frequencies can affect our moods and influence our emotions, and studies have shown that they can do everything from energize us and wash away fatigue, ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve memory, to inspiring feelings of pleasure or comfort, aiding sleep, and helping us process emotions. And the sounds that can have these effects don't only come in the form of what we popularly define as "music" - any tone that has its own specific pitch or timbre can have an effect on us, whether that's the whistle of the wind, the soothing lap of ocean waves, the deep rumble of a lion's roar, the infectious tinkle of laughter, or the erratic beeping of a car's horn. It is also through the effects that vibrational frequencies can have on our mental, physical, and emotional state that the "law of attraction" or "manifestation" occurs - by aligning these components with frequencies that offer us a more optimal sonic signature.

Photo by Julio Lopez on Unsplash

From Ancient Practice To Modern Phenomenon

In the modern day, sound healing has become one of the fastest-growing wellness trends across the world, and over the past decade, Google searches for the terms "Sound Healing" and "Sound Baths" have skyrocketed. Sound therapy was even declared to be an "uber trend" by the Global Wellness Summit in 2020, and this aural revolution in wellness shows no signs of slowing down. Although it's only in the past several years that it seems to have really taken hold of the West's new age well-being landscape, the practice of sound healing has actually been around for thousands of years. Evidence of its existence has been found in ancient cultures and civilizations across the world, from the Aboriginal peoples of Australia more than 40,000 years ago, to Ancient Egypt - where chanting and toning, and instruments such as the sistrum, harp, lyre, and drums were used in various temples, and to help people reach expanded states of consciousness. In Ancient Greece, instruments such as lyres, flutes, zitters, and the human voice were used as remedies for sleeplessness, digestion, and issues of the heart and mind. Numerous tribes across Africa have also used music in therapeutic practices, involving drums, flutes, and even the sounds of nature, while in India and South Asia, the voice has been employed in chanting and mantras, sometimes accompanied by instruments such as the Sitar, flutes, and more, or paired with other historical healing practices such as yoga. Now, the healing effects of sound have even been recognized by some scientific researchers, medical professionals, psychologists, and other types of therapists. In fact, the word "Om" - a sacred symbol of Hinduism that has been described by some believers as the original vibration of the universe - has powerful effects in modern applications, too: research on neurodynamics has suggested that chanting the word repetitively can stimulate the vagus nerve and in doing so, communicate to the brain's limbic system to relax.

The type of sound healing that has found popularity in the modern day has its roots in East Asia, where countries from Tibet to China have used metallic sound bowls, gongs, and chimes as a means of stimulating deep relaxation, meditative states, and regeneration of the body and soul. Often used as a principal feature in temples and meditation centres, they've long been used in tandem with other integrative medicine and healing medicines, including Traditional Chinese Medicine. While the origin of the singing bowl is most commonly said to be Tibet, this fact is still up for debate, and instances of their oldest use for this purpose has yet to be confirmed. During my meditation teacher training, I learned that some historical accounts claim these bowls were first used for food, until people discovered - likely by accident - that the harmonic frequencies produced from striking them or drawing other tools along their rims could also be used for healing.

Gotta Keep Lovin' Those Good Vibrations

In a present-day sound healing class, you will typically find the classic metal sound bowl (commonly known as a Tibetan or Himalayan Singing Bowl - whether or not those names are truly historically accurate!), which is actually a type of bell. These can be made of different types of metal, most commonly brass or copper, and are sometimes infused with other more precious metals such as silver or gold. You will also often find other idiophonic instruments - these are instruments that create sound through their own vibrations - such as gongs, chimes, rattles, rain sticks, digeridoos, percussion instruments (such as ocean drums or Shaman drums), flutes, kalimbas (sometimes described as "hand pianos"), handpans, hang drums, harps, monochords, and crystal singing bowls. The latter - typically made with a combination of 90-99.99% pure quartz crystal and some silica sand - were actually products of the same silicon industry from tech wonderland Silicon Valley, when workers realised that the silicon metal they were using to create computer chips could also grow crystal ingots that produced quartz crucibles. When these were shaped into bowls, they could produce similar tones to metal singing bowls - and in my experience, these can actually be louder, and carry a resonance for longer.

Another curious instrument - which I've heard described as "acupuncture without the needles" - is the tuning fork. A two- or three-pronged metal fork that produces the note of a specific pitch when struck, these are often used by musicians - but they can also be used in healing therapies in conjunction with the body's energetic pathways.

Whichever instrument or type of sound healing you use - even if that's sound waves with a more constant or prolonged frequency such as white noise, brown noise, pink noise (a personal favourite of mine - this is the sounds found in nature), or binaural beats - all of them "work" in the same way: by affecting our brainwaves and/or physical state through their vibrational frequencies.

The human brain operates under five main types of brainwaves: Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Theta. At 35-100Hz, Gamma is the highest - this is when we're in extremely deep concentration and are super-focused. Beta is next, at 12-35Hz, and this is when we're awake and alert, exhibiting dominant behavior that is very responsive to our external world. It's great for focus and things such as pounding out productivity at your "day job" and doing exercise, but it can also be a frequency of anxiety. Alpha runs from 8-12Hz, and is the very relaxed state we feel when doing something requiring passive attention, like doing the dishes or folding laundry. Theta, from 4-8Hz, is often what we feel while going inwards during meditation or dreaming (in that lighter phase of sleep), and Delta, from 0.5-4Hz, is when we're in deep sleep. Alas, if you're wondering what's at 0Hz or if it goes into the negative, I asked this question of a teacher once, and their response was a dark giggle, followed by: "Well, then the brain is dead."

During a sound healing session, the instruments that the teacher or facilitator plays will be resonating at different frequencies, with the goal of helping our brains sync up to those same frequencies, so that we may feel their effects more. That's not to say that if you play a certain bowl at a sleep-encouraging frequency you will automatically pass out each time you hear it - it takes time for us to align with these sound frequencies, and this can take a different amount of time for each person, or vary from day to day, even depending on what mental or emotional state you're in at the time of "receiving". Whether you prefer sound bowls, or the surprisingly joyful catharsis of listening to sad pop songs or ballads when you're feeling down, there's no denying that sound can have a powerful effect on us. It's not a cure-all (is anything?), but it can certainly have an impact on our mental, physical, and emotional health - and I'm looking forward to seeing how many more scientific findings on it will be discovered as the popularity of sound healing continues to grow. As with most holistic therapies and healing modalities, sound healing is best used as part of a greater integrated approach to one's health, well-being, and lifestyle, if you're open to it. And that's the beauty of it: the ability and importance of finding the sounds and types of sound healing that you can practice regularly, in a way that benefits you.


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