Some people unwind with a nice, long bubble bath. Others prefer a sound bath.
Never heard of the ancient sound-healing practice? The relaxing musical presentations, which predate Christ and have been scientifically linked to reductions in stress and anxiety, are becoming more popular in the United States, likely linked to the country’s increased interest in health, wellness, meditation and mindfulness.
Last week, I took my first sound bath at Recharj, an intimate meditation and power-nap lounge a block from the White House. After a few minutes of shuffling on my cozy beanbag, I settled in and focused on the transcendental tones of the Tibetan singing bowls, a collection of metal and crystal vessels that emit different frequencies and are used to encourage meditation and relaxation.
After the session, which left me feeling mentally and physically rested, I interviewed two sound specialists – session leader Robert Lee and his mentor, Monte Hansen – about the history and practice of sound baths, along with how and why they can help you achieve a zenlike state. The pair, who own the meditation company Human Activation in Fairfax County, broke down the basics and offered advice to newcomers and regulars alike.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are sound baths?
A: (Hansen) We define them as an immersion in sound frequency that cleans the soul.
Q: Why call it a “bath”?
A: (Hansen) People often tell us that they feel like they are being submerged in sound, like the sound waves created by the Tibetan singing bowls are a visceral thing and they are washed in waves of water. They use words like “cleansed” and “cleared” to describe their experience. But we advise you to leave your rubber ducky at home.
Q: Why am I just now hearing about this?
A: (Hansen) There’s nothing new about the practice. Tibetans have been using these instruments, considered sonic frequency technologies, for more than 2,000 years. Luckily, the West — America — has renewed interest in the practice, and it has quickly grown in popularity. We have companies approaching us asking to help them integrate meditation into their wellness programming. There was also a substantial influx in attendance during the political race. Our numbers increased at least 15 to 20 percent. It was insane. Clearly, people were looking for some sort of relief and clarity.
Q: How many singing bowls do you use per session?
A: (Hansen) Every meditation is different, and the number of bowls used can range from 10 to 40. Selection of bowls also varies depending upon which chakra, or energy meridian system in the body, we are focusing on that day. For example, if someone wants to have a grounding meditation, we use bowls that primarily resonate the C note because it affects that lower chakra. If they are looking for a heart-opening session, we select bowls that resonate the F note.
Q: What can I do to prepare for my sound bath?
A: (Hansen) Go on YouTube and listen to a recording of Tibetan singing bowls. While it’s nowhere near the same experience as hearing it live, it’ll give you a better understanding of what to expect from the class. Get there as early as possible so you can get comfortable with the space and calm your breathing, allowing the relaxation process to begin. We also encourage people to wear something comfortable and to stay hydrated. Sound waves carry on water, and the more hydrated you are, the more likely the frequencies will have a penetrating effect.
Q: Once I am there, what can I do to get the most out of my experience?
A: (Hansen) Follow your intuition. If you feel the urge to stand, please do. If you need to yawn, yawn — open up that tense face of yours. We encourage you to fidget and allow your body to do what it wants.
(Lee) Have a clear intention of why you are there and keep it at the forefront of your mind. Is it to let go of the stress of the week or experience a clarity on maybe something that has been nagging you? Remember to bring yourself back to that intention if you feel your mind starting to stray.
Q: What if I fall asleep?
A: (Hansen) It’s our intention that you stay present because these frequencies you are being exposed to can be takeaway tools. For example, if you hear a sound that resonates positively with you, you can remember it or take it with you, even hum it at your desk the next time you’re stressed out.
That being said, very few people completely conk out. There is something about it that keeps them right on the edge of the veil — that lucid, dreamlike state right before you fall asleep.
Q: What are the most common reactions from students?
A: (Lee) Most often I’ll get “My mind is finally still, quiet and empty.”
(Hansen) We like to joke that there’s mindful meditation and mind-emptying meditation; ours is the latter. You see, your brain is like a human computer. You have all these tabs open and, over time, your system will remind you that it’s time to reboot. When you finally allow your system to recalibrate, what happens? It comes back faster, fresher and clearer.
Q: What are some potential benefits of sound baths?
A: (Lee) There are thousands of scientific studies that prove the health benefits of meditation. It is really undisputable at this point.
In terms of sound baths, researchers have found that sound waves affect the human nervous system and decrease blood pressure more than traditional meditation.
There is also new research on the benefits of binaural beats, which is when two tones at slightly different frequencies are played in unison. These sounds have been found to reduce anxiety levels, as well as enhance mood states.
Q: What do you say to naysayers who say this is a wacky hippie ritual?
A: (Hansen) I’ll drop a few quotes from researchers, like inventor Nikola Tesla and scientist Marcel Vogel. Tesla said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
But I never start with that. I’ll just say, “Hey, we made a beautiful art installation for you to enjoy.” The last thing I want is for people to shut down and judge what we do as some weird, cultish activity or a religious practice — it’s absolutely not. We do not in any way emulate, refer to or practice anything that is religious. There is no dogma, guru, ritual, nothing.
Recharj (1445 New York Ave. NW) offers sound meditation courses weekly, $10 for 10 days unlimited for new customers, $15 per class for return guests. Lee teaches a Sound Bath Immersion class at Recharj on Thursday evenings. Hansen hosts various sound bath sessions in Virginia and Maryland. Check their schedules at humanactivation.com.