Subway delays. Traffic honking. Nonstop chatter. That upstairs neighbor who’s apparently in a band. The bodega employee yelling that your sandwich is ready. Life in New York is loud.
There are some sounds, though, that are designed to soothe. A sound bath is a meditation practice that bathes your body in sonic waves emitting from quartz crystal bowls, Tibetan singing bowls, gongs and tuning forks. For devotees, they’ve emerged as a way to cope with the intensity of urban life.
It’s just about 7pm on a clear Sunday night, and the Maha Rose Center for Healing in Greenpoint is minutes from hosting their monthly sound bath.
Behind tall curtains is a dim room whose floor is covered by woven blankets. People are sitting or lying down and speaking in hushed voices. We are encouraged to sip water or tea, and grab a pillow or a blanket–to get comfortable. The sound bath, which costs $35 to attend, will last abut two hours, so it’s essential to settle in.
A woman unpacks bowls of varying sizes and metal instruments in different shapes. “Each bowl is corresponding to a chakra,” Katie Down, licensed music therapist and sound bath healer of a decade, tells me afterwards. “The intervals have a lot to do with it so when I play one bowl and then another bowl it can evoke an emotional quality then the vibration itself is felt through the floor so it’s like a sonic massage.”
The sonic massage and mindful listening sends participants into a state of deep relaxation, sometimes characterized by drug-like tripping “journeys” or half-asleep, half-awake states.
The row of quartz crystal bowls may raise some skeptics’ eyebrows, but while there are few studies looking at sound baths specifically, science backs the power of sound and music on decreasing stress while increasing the ability of the body’s immune system. They help “not only [with] what’s going on for [people] emotionally, but on a physiological level and to help us be able to let go and drop down, so the sound hopefully has that effect on people where…it allows the nervous system to recalibrate the way it needs to,” Down says.
In addition to Maha Rose, which opened in 2009, Brooklyn Zen Center in Gowanus and even the natural beauty brand Lush, at the Lush Spa on the Upper East Side, provide sound bath experiences, as well as practitioners who host sound baths in a variety of settings, like Sara Auster Sound. “Meditation can be challenging for some people,” Down says. “Perhaps it’s easier to let go and easier to just be in the sound itself rather than sitting in silence.”
Down asks us to turn off our phones and warns us that during the next two hours, we could experience pain or discomfort, which can come from our bodies adjusting to the relaxation, about half of us are first timers. The sound bath begins.
Down starts by dropping some lavender oil in our hands. We are told to rub our hands and deeply breathe in the flowery scent.
Then I lie back on my pillow and cover myself with the blanket. I close my eyes and I hear the deep bellowing of a quartz bowl. For the next hour or so, the room echoes with vibrating sounds that make me think of singing whales, accompanied by the backdrop of people breathing around me.
My body feels still and oddly sensational, and I become too aware of my fingertips. Then my breathing slows and steadies. My body is even stiller and I realize that I’m in the limbo of consciousness. I’m half asleep and half awake, but totally at ease. Others, apparently are deep asleep, as I hear snores break out from a few participants.
Eventually, Down gets up and walks around playing tuning forks above each sound bather. The ringing vibrates loudly in my ear, enveloping my head before echoing away.
Halfway through, my mind begins to wander. My imagination goes to just about everything and anything, kind of like dreaming, which seems appropriate–after all, I’m just hanging out in the dark. Sometimes my eyes flutter open. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the sound. Mundane thoughts come. “What time is it?” “Did I leave the stove on?” “Am I doing this right?”
Not everyone’s mind went on the capricious stream of consciousness like mine. I talked to Samantha, another participant who told me that she felt more “integrated” afterwards, that the sound bath helped her “cut off the brain chatter.”
“To sum it up, it’s really beneficial for people in the city to come and be peaceful for two hours,” says Julia, a yoga instructor who experienced her first sound bath, and drifted in and out of sleeping, she said.
Before I know it, there’s the long master bellow again, and it’s time to slowly rise up into a sitting position for breathing practices. As if in yoga, some people are stretching and kneeling, heads bowed down.
Down leads us through breathing vowel sounds. With one hand on my heart and the other in my lap, I inhale deeply through my nose and chant out each vowel in unison with the other soundbathers. I feel my heart vibrate with my voice.
I feel lethargic and slowly stand, but also rather empty of stress, a sensation that lasts until the next day. It’s dark when I step outside, and I feel a little misplaced, as the traffic, lights and people begin to flood my vision and hearing. Life in New York is loud.