One Friday night in the spring, Kelly Smith called her Sound Bath class to order, silencing the gossip among the twenty women (and one man) gathered at Edina’s Barre3 studio. Each of us sits on a mat on the floor. We were reminded to wear comfortable clothes and bring a pillow and blanket, as if we were going to a yoga sleepover.
“I’m about to tell you the hardest thing you’re going to do in this class,” Smith says with a smile and a dramatic pause.
Amid the ensuing laughter, pillow flipping, and settling in, Smith tells us she’ll play the seven singing bowls of crystal arrayed in a semicircle in front of her. You will guide us through meditation. Our job, she says, is to relax.
“If you fall asleep and snore, you don’t have to worry, because the sound of the bowls will drown them out.”
When you start playing, the sound is already loud and resonant – the notes hang in the air, stretch out. Smith began a guided meditation in the woods. I wish I could report where you took us. But the next thing I knew, she said we came out of a cave. I was not in one. I was somewhere else, somewhere bright and sizzling, where I was very comfortable, and yes, probably snoring.
Across the Twin Cities and country, this form of meditation is generating a buzz, with the sound of showers appearing on an episode of “The Kardashians” and Adele calling it a way to deal with the anxiety caused by the pandemic.
Smith, 31, who founded Yoga for You eight years ago and the podcast Mindful in Minutes about five years ago, believes the pandemic has fueled interest in the practice. “People are left with their own thoughts and feelings. Lockdown time helped us see the value of connecting with and caring for oneself.”
Researchers are beginning to ask the same questions Smith hears from students: How do sonic baths help? What makes sounds — vibration, tone, and frequency — have an effect on the human body and brain?
There is little research on proper meditation specifically, although two studies show that people who have tried it say they come out of a more relaxed session than they used to. But a growing number of studies are looking at how meditation and music affect us. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists can see parts of the brain light up as people meditate, listen to or play music. They can also measure changes in breathing, blood pressure, pulse, and levels of stress hormones.
Jenzie Silverman has a Ph.D. in educational psychology and teaches a class at the University of Minnesota that explores the healing power of music.
“When I use the word ‘cure’, I don’t mean improvement from illness or disability, but rather maximizing well-being, feeling as comfortable as possible in body, mind, and spirit, and being flexible enough to manage challenges that arise,” she says.
She sees music as a powerful tool, helping people with Alzheimer’s connect with their memories and allowing people with aphasia to regain speech, explained former Arizona congresswoman Gabi Giffords.
Music literally gets us moving, as rhythm and melody stimulate the parts of the brain that control motor function. Some people with Parkinson’s disease are able to walk normally as music matches the way they play their gait.
“Every known culture in the world has music,” says Silverman. “In many African and Aboriginal cultures here and in Australia and New Zealand, they not only believed in music as a healing tool, but still believed; music is integrated into health care.”
There are mysterious and feel-good elements behind the use of our ears to help our mind focus and relax. Smith says that using sound to focus our attention can make meditation more effective.
Furthermore, each of its seven singing vessels, she says, connects to one of the seven chakras, which yoga teaching describes as the points or energy centers of the body. Sound baths help keep the chakras open, and the desired state: “It clears up the sticky substance,” says Smith.
She adds, “I know, you can’t take an MRI of a chakra, so how do you know it’s real? There are a lot of things you can’t say are real, but you can feel them.”
Sound waves can penetrate our bodies, which is how ultrasound works. Even people who can’t hear can feel the sound, and some people with synesthesia (experiencing a sense of another) see sound as a shape or color.
When Buddhist monks chant a prayer or Catholic nuns recite a prayer, studies have shown that the area of the brain that lights up during a spiritual experience overlaps with areas that light up when people listen to music that is meaningful to them, says Silverman, linking sound and soul.
When she leads classes, Smith thinks about why people show up. Yes, it is curiosity. But they are also looking for ways to get rid of the stresses of everyday life.
“Maybe just believing in it is comforting,” she says of the idea of energy moving through the chakras and the voice that helps calm the body and mind.
We should not discount the influence of faith and belief, Silverman says. She says the idea of a placebo effect is complicated. If you think something makes you feel better, you can try changes in thinking that alter the way your nervous system works so that you actually feel better.
There is also the social aspect of a class like Smith, where the teacher pays attention to people in a gentle way and the students have a shared and enjoyable experience – all of these elements can boost mood and give a sense of well-being. It’s the kind of experience that can be lacking in our culture, Silverman says.
“Faith per se – you can’t prove it,” Smith says. “But there is something very special and beautiful about the comfort it can bring. And that is something that is unique to the human experience.”
Curious to try a proper bathroom?
Kelly Smith Hosts Yoga Nidra and Sound Bath at Bluma in Minneapolis July 15 at 7 p.m. Cost $30; Register at blooma.com/workshops.
Lakewood Cemetery repeats its famous class “Healing Grief – A Sound Meditation” in August and September; See lakewoodcemetery.org for information on dates. Fees start at $10.
Ryan Wimperis, of Amethyst Healing in Hugo and Stillwater, emphasizes the use of sound baths for better sleep. He hosts group and private sessions and will travel to the client’s home. Call 651-472-4902 for upcoming classes.