Sound baths are everywhere. You can find one at your local yoga studio, trek to the California desert for a session at the “Integratron,” book one at a space like Woom Center in New York designed especially for the experience. Or you can get a ticket to the semi-regular sound baths at the William Vale, led by one of its most well-known practitioners, native New Yorker and musician Sara Auster.
As the author of the recent book (and audiobook) Sound Bath, and an instructor and mentor to many, Auster has helped to popularize the aural experience throughout the city. Last month, as sound bathers relaxed in the dimly lit William Vale ballroom, she began the evening by explaining that everyone experiences a sound bath differently. She didn’t specify how exactly, but generally speaking, the sounds can help you reach a meditative state more easily, coax you to sleep, make you cry in relief, or not do much of anything except provide a solid block of time to tune out the world (or at least try to), as you absorb the sounds of crystal singing bowls, the soft flash of gongs, vibrations from a harmonium-like instrument called a shruti box, and other transporting sound effects.
Afterward, I spoke to Auster about how she began leading sound baths, what to expect during one, and why they’ve become so popular. If you’re intrigued, you can experience her next sound bath with her partner Alex Falk tomorrow night, February 27.
I read that you discovered sound baths as a way to heal yourself, when you were a musician in your 20s. Could you describe what happened?
Yes. You know, it’s interesting, I’ve learned through the years in doing interviews and talking about the background of my work that, in leading with the fact that I broke my back, that whatever you call yourself is what people are gonna call you. And so then, you know, I began to become this, you know, broken back Sara, in a way.
It is a very pivotal point in my timeline because I was working as an artist and a musician in my studio space that was awarded as a grant, when the floor of my studio collapsed. And I fell 15 feet and broke my back.
It can be a very long story. As we all have a, you know, very unique and winding road to how we got to where we are. But essentially through the physical exploration of my body and getting out of pain, I uncovered this emotional trauma from the accident and then started to address that through meditation and sound. Sound and music have always been a source of healing for me, having a background in music and art. But I was starting to learn how and why that was, by beginning to explore the therapeutic properties of sounds and understanding more about psychoacoustics and how sound affects the brain. And then through that process and that journey, I began to teach, first meditation and yoga, and then slowly started to integrate sound into those offerings.
And the feedback that I was getting was, “I just wanna do this sound thing that you’re doing.”
You know, “Let’s just cut to the good stuff.” I mean, not that I was a bad yoga teacher, I taught yoga for ten years. But it was the request of my students and private clients, for more and more sound, and so I started to offer these sound baths in New York City, which really at the time, weren’t very common.
So what year was that, would you say? And were they called sound baths at that time?
It was 2012. [And] not to say that Kundalini [yoga] studios weren’t incorporating gongs into their practice… Many yoga traditions and lineages used sound as part of a practice, whether you’re chanting mantra or…somebody’s playing a harmonium and everybody’s singing. Sound experiences like that were happening, but I could definitely count on my hand, you know, the people I knew who were offering things that were called sound baths. It certainly wasn’t as available as it is today.
What do you tell people to expect from a sound bath?
I often will advise to let go of expectations. In a sound bath, people can potentially have very different experiences, it’s very personal.
And so the three things that I like to say to set people up is like, “All right, without getting too deep into the details, here are the things that you need to know. You need to be comfortable.” So that means adjusting your body or having as much support as feels good. But that also means be comfortable in trusting the person who’s facilitating your experience…You wanna feel comfortable enough to be open to the experience.
And then the second thing is, as a participant or a sound bather, your role is to listen. And within the experiences I give some more instruction about how to listen, suggestions about how to stay engaged with the sounds throughout the experience, and then it’s, you know, having an open mind. Because people have experiences all across the spectrum, and now that there’s such a wide range of sound experiences that are being offered, with many different types of practitioners, really no two are the same. And I often say this in the experience as well, that even if you come back to me next week, same time, same place, you’ll still have a different experience.
I look at that as a positive aspect, because it gives you so much to explore.
Do you think it helps to be a musician to play the instruments used in a sound bath?
I feel that it is helpful, 100%, to have kind of an understanding of music and how sound works. I mean, what is actually problematic is that there’s no barrier for entry to facilitate sound experiences; you can go and buy bowls on Amazon. (I don’t recommend it!)
But, you know, and I will say this too, in my trainings and workshops and when I mentor other sound practitioners is: a toddler can take a mallet and strike a singing bowl and have it make sound, right?
But you have to understand the theory and the way it works as well as be able to hold space for people in a way that makes them feel safe. So there are a lot of aspects to being able to provide a beneficial experience for people. Just to give it in a context that people might understand a little bit better—you can go and buy a set of very expensive chefs knives. And you can certainly cut things with them. But it doesn’t mean that you will be able to cook a delicious meal without understanding food and how the ingredients work together in harmony, you know? People put a lot of emphasis on the instruments and I feel that moving forward as sound baths kind of grow in popularity, the emphasis needs to be on the practitioner, and the knowledge and experience of the practitioner.
You brought around an instrument during the sound bath that sounded like wind chimes…
Those were wind chimes. [laughs]
I love this; this is one of my favorite things…The curiosity that arises after a sound bath, and the attention and the awareness that we bring in the experience. It’s like this fascination like, “What was that sound? It sounded like a wind chime.” Well, that was a wind chime.
In one of my sound baths in Martha’s Vineyard, I was up there in the fall several years ago, and I love the sound of crunching leaves. I took a branch and used it during the experience and somebody said that very similar thing, “I loved that sound, what was that instrument that sounded like dry leaves?” [laughs]
But I just see that as a metaphor for how curious and fascinated we could be with these everyday, mundane things, if we just shift our awareness and shift our relationship.
How long have you been doing sound baths at the William Vale and how many people does that space hold?
I started doing sound baths at the William Vale when they opened, I think three years ago.
Because I travel a lot, I wanted to maintain a consistent monthly offering where I could accommodate the demands of people who wanted to come and experience a sound bath with me and my partner Alex. And the capacity in there and when we’re up on the roof is 100 people. I mean, we could squeeze more people, but I feel like 100 is kind of a magic number where it still can feel a little bit intimate and also you could go and have a private, more anonymous experience if you want.
Do you ever do it in more intimate spaces elsewhere?
I don’t anymore, because I’m traveling a lot. I just wrote a book about sound baths called Sound Bath. It came out in November, and I’ve been touring with that and doing more brand partnerships, creating original content for different platforms, meditation apps and things like that. For a while I was offering weekly sound experiences. I created the sound program at Mndfl, which is a meditation studio, so all the teachers who teach there have either studied with me or I’ve mentored [them]. I designed sounds for The Big Quiet, which is another meditation experience. So you can experience my sounds in a kind of once-removed way, in a lot of different places.
I’m focusing now on a new project to be able to offer more content in the spirit of being accessible. Because the number one thing that I get asked most by people who come to my experiences is, “How can I do this on a regular basis?” So, my goal with that is exploring new ways to make sound experiences accessible.
How did the book come about? Did someone ask you to write the book or did you pitch it? And is it meant to be listened to or read?
I was asked to write it, by Simon and Schuster. The book lives as a physical copy with beautiful full-color images, photography and drawings. And it also lives as an audiobook with sound as part of the audiobook. The audiobook is actually a slightly different experience. I’m narrating it, and in the physical book, at the end of each chapter, there’s a step-by-step practice for you to try on your own. And in the audiobook, I’m guiding many of them. So I think that they’re almost like two different offerings. And I know a lot of people who kind of go through both simultaneously.
What did you think when you were asked to write it? A sound bath is such a physical experience, it’s hard to put it in words.
Were you in my head when they asked me? [laughs] Well I was like, “How do I write a book about sound that doesn’t have sound?” Of course, with the audiobook, it wasn’t as big of a challenge. But, I [tried] to make [the printed book] beautiful and [thought] about the book in its entirety as almost the arc of a sound bath. So hence the dreamy images, and the drawings that were created by a friend of mine while listening to my recordings, Noah Post. I thought that was a way to visually interpret sound throughout the book. And then these practices, you know, it’s to engage with listening, to engage with your own voice to just explore more your own personal relationship with sound, versus maybe the typical thing that people would have probably wanted from me, which is, “How do I lead a sound bath?” I mean, that’s a longer conversation. So I really wanted to start with something that was very accessible, that any person could pick up and, you know, start to explore their own relationship to themselves through sound and listening.
Why do you think sound baths are so trendy?
I have a lot of theories, so I hope I don’t go all over the place. Ultimately, I’m passionate about helping people listen with attention and intention and the reason for that is to help them make discoveries about themselves. To help them uncover layers of nuance within themselves, so that ultimately they might be able to see that in other people.
And I think we all have a desire to feel connected to ourselves and to other people.
And a sound bath experience can facilitate that in a very simple, accessible, and impactful way. I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the trend.
I think that it’s not only an excuse, but permission for people to put their phone down. And off. It’s a block of time where you are invited to not be responsive or reactive to media or incoming requests or demands on your attention. And you just get to savor in a moment that’s an hour or 30 minutes or 90 minutes, because when are we really doing that? I mean, even when we’re on vacation now, we’re documenting everything so we can share it with everybody, and so all the pressure of self-promotion and broadcasting your life and you know, all these kinds of things just get stripped away and, like I said, it’s just, it’s giving people permission to really slow down and get quiet in a way that’s accessible.
And if sound baths are trending, I mean, great, you know? Over time, I hope that this trend leads us to becoming a more sensitive and aware society. So just like one person at a time. One sound bath at a time. Slowing down. Taking a pause…
Are there any tips you recommend for enjoying it more fully? Do you think that you should try to get as close to the instruments as possible? Bring extra clothing?
I’ve been holding healing space for people for a long time, in a lot of different ways. Like I said, I have a background as a yoga teacher, I studied massage therapy, I’m a reiki master… When I first started facilitating sound baths, I would go around and personally, one-on-one, set people up in their bodies. You know, give them support for their knees and head and shoulders, and make sure that everybody was in an optimal position. And now I find that, you know, the best thing that I can say is, “You know, make sure you’re comfortable,” and often in the experience, I’m very careful to say it in so many different ways. Because people are like, “Wait, what? I can just do what feels good? If I’m laying on my side, I’m not doing it wrong?” You know?
So if that means you wanna wear a comfy outfit, you wanna bring a scarf or a blanket or you know, something that you feel will help to support your body then, you know, by all means. I’ve certainly seen some people show up to a sound bath with like, full sleepover gear.
What about proximity to the instruments?
If we’re just specifically talking about my sound baths, I don’t believe that there’s a bad spot in the room. So, just being where you feel comfortable in the room is what I recommend. Whether it’s in the back or the front, or next to your friend or on the other side. You know, just, whatever feels right. There’s no like, best seat in the house.
If someone wants to do this at home, what do you recommend?
I’ve created a lot of different types of recordings. I have sound bath recordings on vinyl. I have Sound Bath recordings available for download on my website. That’s certainly the closest you can get, listening to one of my recordings on good speakers at home, or good headphones.
And on my site, in accompaniment with the record, I have a couple of simple steps to help guide you into the experience. And, reading the book, listening to the book..the book includes a 10-minute sound bath.
Going back to your back injury…Do you think that being a healer who has experienced an injury or sickness or trauma gives you a better understanding of how to heal someone else?
So, there’s something that I always go by, especially when I’m training other people, and something that I uncovered through my own healing is that, you can’t take someone somewhere you haven’t been before.
Many friends and colleagues I have, who are incredible practitioners and healers and really powerful, have all been through some great struggle or trauma of their own. And in moving through that, you are able to kind of see more from the other side. For lack of a better way to describe it. And, yeah, I do think that 100%, it offers a deeper level of access to be able to support other people, when you’ve been there before.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.