Upon arriving at the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a sound bath, I was immediately offered a “Sound” chamomile-vanilla tea. During the summer, the hotel’s sound baths take place on the roof, but since it was a frigid evening in the middle of December, the confirmation email directed me to the ballroom in the basement. There, nearly a hundred towels were arranged around a tableau of tuning forks, a shruti box, crystal singing bowls, and triangles. Gongs of varying sizes encircled lit candles. Guests were encouraged to leave their belongings near the wall, along with their shoes. Some brought their own yoga mats, eye masks, and weighted blankets to help them get into a deeper state of relaxation.
As you might have gathered, a “sound bath” has nothing to do with water. Instead, it’s a literal bath of sounds of varying frequencies created by instruments such as Himalayan singing bowls, with about 50 to 100 other people lying nearby. The goal is to get into a deep meditative state aided by the sounds as a method of de-stressing. A friend from Los Angeles, who had attended a handful of these sessions at a yoga studio in West Hollywood, called the experience “bizarre” and “transformative.” The people around her, she said, were “screaming and weeping.” Towards the end of her sound bath, she had “some moments of mental clarity about [her] current romantic relationship” that may or may not have “opened her heart chakra.” The whole episode sounded like an ayahuasca ritual minus the drugs — so I signed up immediately.
If traditional meditation is taking the stairs,” she said, “then a sound bath is like taking the elevator.
The William Vale session was led by Alex Falk and Sara Auster, the latter of whom facilitated a sound bath at Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health summit in 2017. Both Falk and Auster taught at the trendy meditation space MNDFL. “Every person has a very individual and unique relationship to sound in general, and so to say that each person who goes to experience a sound bath is going to have a ‘blank-blank-blank’ experience would be a false statement, because people have all different types of experiences with sound,” Auster told me. She explained that the practice of using sound for healing and therapy is “an ancient concept” that’s been gaining popularity in recent years “because people are seeking new and different ways to easily access meditative states. If traditional meditation is taking the stairs,” she said, “then a sound bath is like taking the elevator.”
Everyone at William Vale was either lying horizontally on a towel or sitting in lotus position, as if meditating. Auster and Falk opened with a series of guided breathing exercises and then started introducing the sounds one by one. This went on for about an hour, the sounds punctuated by a snore here and there. (Yes, a handful of people fell asleep.)
For me personally, the sound bath wasn’t necessarily relaxing, but instead, creatively stimulating. I eventually got bored, and started free-associating. About ten minutes in, I sat up and withdrew a notebook from my tote bag and started jotting down my ideas, sort of like channeling a spirit through automatic writing. It was almost impossible to think about “real life” for the first several minutes, so instead, I thought of colors and people and places and film scenes. It was all very productive. Once I got used to the noise, I wondered if my roommate had remembered to feed her cat. And then I wondered how animals might react to the sounds. My dog would hate this. I unscrewed the complimentary vial of essential oil, applied some to the bridge of my nose and tried, once again, to relax. I thought about what I would tell my coworkers who asked for a full play-by-play of the experience. At one point, I remembered to do laundry because I was wearing my last clean turtleneck.
Some sounds felt as if they were very close, while others felt farther away. During the moments I opened my eyes and turned around, I saw Auster and Falk walking around the ballroom activating the instruments near or above certain guests’ heads. I wondered what would happen if they dropped one on someone.
It’s difficult to map out a timeline as to when sound baths went mainstream, but they’ve been popping up in newspapers and magazines with some frequency since at least early 2005. Then, the New York Times called it a “new kind of sound therapy” and “vibrational medicine.” Sound therapist Monte Hansen told the Washington Post in 2017 that “Tibetans have been using these instruments, considered sonic frequency technologies, for more than 2,000 years.”
Generally, a guided sound bath costs between $30 and $50. Because that range can be cost-prohibitive for some people, I asked Auster if you could give yourself a sound bath. “I love this question,” Auster responded. “I have recordings [on my website] that you can listen to at home that are close to a live sound bath — they’re all recorded live with minimal after-effects in post-production. It’s not the same, but it’s similar, and you can still experience many of the benefits just by listening through your headphones or a great sound system.”
When seeking a live south bath, Auster advised: “Look for information about the practitioner. Who is this person you are going into a space with and trusting with your mind and emotions and physiology?” Auster was the Sound Director at MNDFL and The Big Quiet each for two years, according to her website, and has led sound baths at the Museum of Modern Art, the Rubin Museum, and Lincoln Center. However, as Stephanie Rosenbloom at the Times pointed out in 2005, the certification process is not standardized, and many of the healers training new sound therapists have “no medical or scientific background.”
“The sounds of these harmonic vibrations that are created by these particular instruments are intended to stimulate the alpha and theta brain waves,” Auster explained. “These are the brain waves that are associated with deep meditative and peaceful states, and when we can access the brain states, then we can access a more conducive environment for healing in general in the body, the heart, the respiratory rate, breathing slows down, and can potentially create a therapeutic effect on the mind and body.”
The sounds of these harmonic vibrations that are created by these particular instruments are intended to stimulate the alpha and theta brain waves
However, David Austern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health Department of Psychiatry, said he has never prescribed sound therapy to a patient, because it’s not yet proven to work, and there are no studies backing up these purported effects. Earlier this year, a study on sound and stress was published in Medicine, but it was very preliminary. “I don’t know that any of [sound baths’] purported mechanisms of action are supported. It hasn’t been studied scientifically the way we would hope.” He explained that the field is still lacking studies driven by randomized clinical trials. “People are subjectively saying they’re benefiting from [sound baths], but we just don’t have those controlled studies. It’s tricky because when it comes to complementary alternative medicine, people might like some of these things, yet it’s not clear whether or not they’re providing the same type of quality care compared to things we know work” for coping with long-term stress and anxiety issues. He emphasized the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy, and pointed out that some people who choose to engage in alternative medicine long-term might be missing out on the effects of traditional therapy. (In other words, if you’re dealing with ongoing stress or anxiety issues, it’s best to see a licensed therapist.)
Following the sound bath, Auster encouraged her charges to discuss the experience with one another. I met two fellow sound bathers, Prima and Danelle, on the way out.
“I had no expectations,” Prima said of her first sound bath experience. “I was kind of going in and out of consciousness. At some point I got into the zone.” When it was over, she said she felt more relaxed, and more focused. Danelle said she attends about six sound baths per year, and uses them to explore her sound-to-color synesthesia.
As for me, I found the experience grounding — while the sounds themselves didn’t exactly help me de-stress, I walked away refreshed and a little dizzy, just enough to make me want to return to real life.