Sound baths – where you’re literally bathed in sound – are hailed as the meditation method for those who find it impossible to meditate. Holly O'Neill dips her toe in.
In the lead-up to trying a sound bath, everyone I’ve told about it has either become (a) concerned about my state of mind for seeking out something so blatantly ridiculous or (b) really hung up on the “bath” aspect.
“No, there’s no water or getting into an actual bath,” I explain wearily, multiple times. “You’re, eh, bathed in sound.” At which point they revert to (a).
“Most ancient cultures identified the power of sound both in ceremony, community and in healing,” says sound healer Laura Murphy. “The use of sound in healing has been noted with the Aboriginal people, the ancient Egyptians and the Tibetan monks. Sound baths cleanse the aura or energy field, whilst balancing the chakras – it acts like an internal massage for the muscles, tissues and organs, plus it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, turning on the relaxation response.”
I have tried some version of a sound bath before. A few weeks ago, I was at a yoga class up a mountain in Madeira (note, this was part of a trip – I assure you, I don’t tend to travel to foreign mountains for a yoga class) when the instructor said, “Please give me a moment to prepare my instruments.” Christ.
We laid down in a circle with our eyes shut and she walked around us, shaking instruments over our heads. Whatever she was shaking sounded so bizarre – one sound was like lashing rain and another, a tinny sound, bounced from ear to ear, like when you listen to Bohemian Rhapsody with earphones on.
It was after this taster experience that I decided I wanted to try a real sound bath. Which is why I’m now in the River Holistic Centre in Raheny, surrounded by crystal bowls, gongs, shakers, Tibetan bowls, rattles, chimes and pipes, wondering how high I was on mountain air that day in Madeira to sign up for this again.
“Have a nice bath,” my boyfriend texts before the class.
“I’m not having a bath!” I send back in exasperation.
The group is made up of me, six other women and one man. Laura Murphy fusses around, making sure everyone has blankets and cushions. She’s warm and smiley, like your nicest primary school teacher. We begin with a guided meditation. Five minutes in, the man starts to snore heavily.
“Sound and music play a central role in our daily lives, whether we are aware of it or not,” Laura explains. “Some sounds offer a sense of relaxation, others – such as a horn beeping – can invoke tension. Just like the everyday sounds we encounter, the instruments played in the sound bath have an effect upon us. I play the instruments over and around people, so they experience the gentle vibration and sound frequency while sound fills the room, offering the mind a point of focus as the body deeply relaxes into a meditative state.”
Lying flat on my back on a mat, cosy under a fluffy blanket, I feel I’m drifting in the quiet space between sleep and wakefulness, but once or twice I’m jolted back to reality: I’m lying on a floor, in Raheny, beside seven strangers, while a woman strokes bowls with a fluffy stick.
“People come to the sessions because they are curious, stressed out, exhausted, seeking to restore their balance,” Laura told me before the class. “Afterwards, they feel restored, relaxed, like they’ve had the best night’s sleep, switched off their thoughts, or found clarity on a situation.”
So I shut off my cynical thoughts and let the sound wash over me. A sound bath is like meditation for people who can’t meditate. You don’t need to focus on silencing thoughts, because your body and brain are entirely captivated by the sound. At one point, the noise of one gong hits me so intensely that it feels exactly like my brain is being squeezed (it sounds outlandish but this is exactly what it feels like).
Laura places a bowl on my stomach and the vibrations seem to travel right to my core and drift out of my body. With one hit of a pyramid – a 3D triangle-like instrument – a tolling bell gets louder and louder in my brain instead of quieter. Sound vibrations from one bowl travel in waves through my body, a sensation exactly like the spinning feeling you get when you lie down drunk. When it ends, I feel like I’m being irritated out of a deep, cosy sleep.
“Don’t drink alcohol, and be gentle with yourself for the next 48 hours, as you might continue feeling the vibrations,” Laura tells us, advice that for some reason I immediately put out of my mind as mystical waffle. Later on, I’m picking up a takeaway — ever the wellness guru — when something clangs on the metal counter. The force of the clang in my body nearly knocks me over.
I get home and tell my dad where I’ve been.
“So she plays you music while you’re in the bath?”
You can find out more about the sound healing class I did at loveyourlife.ie.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of IMAGE Magazine.