Sound School

Sound School

How sound therapy can shift your mindset

Words by Rebecca Deurlein

Doesn’t the term “sound bath” sound lovely? It hints at the delight of immersing yourself in sound, swimming in it, getting lost in it. 

I first tried it in the capable hands of Elena Bradford, a yoga instructor of 15-plus years and a newly-minted sound certification practitioner. She leads a small group sound bath at Healing Arts at Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina. We had just finished our yoga practice, which Bradford says is the perfect segue into sound. “You are stretched and open to let the sound flow through your body,” she explains.

How does it work? Bradford says there are two ways of looking at sound therapy: through a scientific lens and with a nod toward mysticism. “If you run sound waves through sand, they create geometric shapes. In the same way, if you run certain sound waves through your body, that energy travels and makes an impact. If you believe in the mysticism side, certain sounds appeal to certain chakras, and that teaches you about what is going on in your body.”

Multiple studies show that sound therapy can relieve stress and anxiety, lower heart rate, minimize anger and confusion, and even ameliorate pain. Experts say that the benefits also extend to mindfulness. If you’re like most and struggle to get out of your head and into meditation, sound baths are an excellent way to reach that goal. As the sound travels through your body, it increases the chances you’ll enter the relaxed state that brings true meditation.  

In our group, we lay on our backs, eyes closed, while Bradford runs a mallet along the edges of various crystal bowls, each creating a different, soothing note, each reverberating not just through the room but through our bodies. I noticed myself responding to certain sounds—either being lulled into the edge of sleep or feeling a tingling that was warm and pleasant.

It was enough to sufficiently arouse my curiosity, and I wanted to learn more. It didn’t take long to discover that sound bath experiences can be quite different from one practitioner and setting to the next. 

On a trip to the SE Spa at Grand Velas Riviera Maya in Cancun, I choose a vibrational healing massage based entirely on its description: “The vibratory bowls are placed on specific parts of your body and the tuning forks on the meridians, or energy centers. The 432 Hz harmonic sounds of our Quantum drum will balance, relax, and attune the vibrations of your body and soul to the frequency of the Earth and harmonize your heartbeats. Our vibrational healing massage provides a deep state of relaxation, helps recover physical energy and mental concentration, and provides mindfulness of the moment.” 

Yes, please!

I find myself in a standard treatment room, with the addition of a cart filled with singing bowls, tuning forks, and chimes. My therapist combines sound therapy with traditional massage. At various times, she plays repetitive notes at various speeds—slowly, then quickening, then slow. As I lie on my stomach, she places bowls down my spine, in each upturned hand, and in the crux of my feet, then strikes them gently. They resonate down my limbs, a sensation that is odd but pleasing. Once I turn over, she places bowls on my groin, my chest, and next to each ear. The former resonate with me; the latter are, well, ear-ringing. 

While I enjoy the one-on-one experience overall, I don’t find it to be as meditative as the first. But the sound is a sweet complement to the massage, akin to adding aromatherapy or hot stones to your treatment. 

The third time really is the charm, however, because when Sound Shaman Donia Smith walks into my beach house in St. George Island, Florida, for a private session called The Sacred Sounds of Donia, it all came together. 

An intuitive, Smith explains that she reads her clients’ energy and tailors each session to the individual. No two sessions are alike, and nothing is routine or scripted. She spends a few minutes talking with me, then I lie, fully clothed, on her massage table. She begins by telling me a mythical story that quickly draws me in. I am in a cave, walking past a pool of mud, and gazing down at a deep pit. Here, she encourages me to throw anything that no longer serves me into the pit, to watch it disappear into oblivion. It is something I find extremely powerful and freeing, and a month later, it’s stuck with me. The visualization was the closest I’ve ever come to a semi-hypnotic state. I had stopped the running reel of thoughts in my head and was ready to let the sound do its thing. 

For the next 45 minutes, Smith circles my body, all the while using a repertory of equipment: sound bowls, gongs, a horn that sounds like the hoot of an owl, rattles, shakers, and drums that made me feel like a warrior. At one point, I am aware of a brush that Smith uses over my body. She later tells me it is to whisk my past, my worries, and my negative energy out the open doors and into the sea. 

I feel glorious and don’t want the session to end. Sure, it is a little woo-woo, but how often in life does someone focus all her energy and attention on you, your thoughts, and your well-being? And how often are you truly, deeply relaxed? When was the last time you were actually able to clear your mind, even for a minute? That’s what makes this such a unique and rare experience, and one I would happily repeat. 

Smith couldn’t come home to Houston with me, but she assured me that sound therapy is possible without a practitioner. There’s an app for that, as the saying goes, and she says they work. “With an intention, after 30 days of falling asleep to a sound bath, your brain will regulate itself,” she says. “Sound baths help shut down your mind so your body can rest. They put the mind at ease, which allows you to let discomfort go. They give you an opportunity to listen to what your body is saying.”

When Smith packed up to leave, I had to hug her. Her parting words spoke volumes about the importance of examining who we are and how best to take care of ourselves. “We’re in soul school,” Smith said. “It’s why we’re here.”