I Tried a Virtual Sound Bath—Here’s What I Learned
Sound baths are growing in popularity, thanks to their stress-relieving, wellness-boosting perks. Can a virtual version do the same?
I’m lying on my back on my bedroom floor in the middle of the day with a scarf over my eyes, my phone next to me and headphones in my ears, listening to throbbing low beats, tinkling high tones and other sounds from unusual instruments I couldn’t ID in a lineup, layered over the noise of sirens outside my Brooklyn home.
It’s my first virtual sound bath—my first sound bath of any sort, actually—and my head swirls with questions: Am I in the right position? Am I listening attentively enough? Are the chicken thighs in my fridge going bad?
I acknowledge each thought, as advised, and then gently guide my mind back to the waves of sound coming through my headphones. As they wash over me, my rapid-fire thoughts quiet, my anxiety recedes and I begin to relax.
Thirty minutes later, I emerge from the experience feeling, if not wildly transformed, then certainly less stressed, more upbeat and maybe even a little, I don’t know, tingly? It’s sort of like a low-key post-workout bliss, minus the strain and sweat. And I actually feel a little guilty. I didn’t do anything to earn it except lie flat on my back and listen.
But that, I come to find out, is exactly what a sound bath is—and its success as a transformative mental tool is predicated on the idea that less is more when it comes to effort. Here’s what else I learned.
What’s in a Sound?
If non-Western music and meditation had a baby, it would be a sound bath. And no, water is not involved. Usually experienced in person in a small group setting like a yoga studio (although also, increasingly, in boardrooms, art museums and major performance venues as well), sound bath participants generally lie or sit comfortably, sometimes using eye masks or yoga mats, and are guided by a practitioner to focus first on their breathing and then on sounds emitted from a variety of instruments, including Himalayan gongs and crystal singing bowls, tuning forks and chimes.
The idea is that as the sound vibrations wash over you, your brainwaves slow and you shift into a more relaxed or even dreamlike state. There’s also a mindfulness component, in that you take a break from the usual hubbub of your life and find a quiet place to check in with yourself.
“Many people report a calm, centered feeling, but the variety of response is vast,” says Sara Auster, a New York City-based sound therapist and meditation teacher who, since mid-March, has offered free virtual sound baths, including the one I attended, on Instagram Live. “Some sounds energize and uplift us, and some invite deep rest and relaxation.”
The first time I heard about sound baths was from a friend at a party last winter. I was intrigued. Then in a matter of weeks, it seemed like sound baths went from virtual obscurity to the hottest new trend. I wanted to try one in person, but when the world got in my way, I shifted to Plan B: a virtual sound bath via the Internet. By the number of fellow participants, it seems virtual sound baths have found an audience.
“Sound baths and sound therapy are a big, wide, welcoming door for people who feel daunted by meditation,” says Nate Martinez, a New York City-based certified sound therapy practitioner. Right now, he says, people are looking for something to help them cope with anxiety and stress. Virtual sound baths, which can be appreciated in the convenience of your home while wearing your favorite sweats, have “easily filled that void,” he says.
Benefits of Bathing
Research shows the perks of sound baths move beyond the mental, counteracting the physical effects of chronic stress that include an elevated risk of heart disease and diabetes. When the body relaxes, “your blood pressure lowers and your heart rate lowers,” explains Tamara Goldsby, Ph.D., a research psychologist at the University of California San Diego who authored a 2016 study on the effects of sound baths. “That’s one of the biggest effects we see—and it’s a pretty profound response.”
Goldsby’s study, published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, found that sound baths significantly reduce tension and lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and even physical pain. Spiritual wellbeing, meanwhile, increases. Interestingly, the positive effects are highest for beginners and occur even when participants fall asleep during a sound bath. “This isn’t something you need to learn how to do,” Goldsby says. “You just go and listen, and it does whatever it’s doing.”
Theories as to why it works vary: It may be that the sound vibrations or the perception of different tones on different sides of the head prompt the body to go into deep brainwave states or that the sound waves from the vibrational instruments played during a sound bath interact with the body’s energy field. Goldsby is pursuing further research in these areas.
Virtually as Good
Of course, you’re not going to feel the physical effects of vibrations and sound waves bouncing off the walls through a dinky iPhone speaker in your bedroom. But there are other elements of the sound bath experience that remain appealing, even if virtual.
“Many people report feeling relaxed through listening to virtual sound baths,” says Jamie Bechtold, owner of The Soundbath Center in Los Angeles. “In live sound baths, there is no ‘filtering’ of the sound and vibrations but people still feel some benefits from the virtual experience.”
If the deepest benefits are derived from the sound waves and vibrations of a live class, there may be other factors at play when it comes to the virtual version. Goldsby gently suggests that my positive response to a virtual bath may have been “more of a placebo thing.” Still, much is still not understood about sound baths, she acknowledges, and “listening to music in general can be relaxing,” regardless of whether it’s live or not.
“In a world that feels more chaotic with each passing day, it’s even more important to find moments of pause,” Auster says. “Being able to access a moment of stillness internally when everything is rapidly swirling around outside you can feel like a superpower.”
That sounds about right to me, and my virtual experience is a success enough that I’m likely to try sound baths again, with a plan to attend one in-person when that again becomes an option. In the meantime, I tried to purchase my own set of Himalayan gongs on the Internet. Turns out, they’re out of stock. Coincidence? I think not.