A hit with A-list celebs, sound baths are balm for the soul
Sound baths soothe and relax by using sonic frequencies. Katie Byrne dives in and soaks away the strain of a working week
It's 7pm on Friday evening and I'm unwinding after a long week's work. I haven't followed the after-work crowd to the nearest pub. I haven't collapsed on the couch for a marathon of Netflix viewing and online shopping.
No, I'm lying on a yoga mat in The Sanctuary in Dublin 7, ready to wash away the stresses of the week with a restorative sound bath.
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Sound baths don't involve water - although that would be quite nice. The 'bathing' refers to the sonic frequencies that wash over the body, leading to deep rest and relaxation. The sound is produced by world instruments like gongs, shamanic drums, Tibetan singing bowls, chimes and shakers.
Sound healing has been used by indigenous cultures for millennia - and it's long been a mainstay of the New Age scene.
Over the last five years, however, the once esoteric practice has captured the cultural zeitgeist.
Kim Kardashian invited guests to a sound bath to celebrate the arrival of her fourth child; Gwyneth Paltrow incorporates them into her Goop wellness summits and experimental Icelandic group Sigur Rós are presenting their own version of a sound bath in Hyde Park next month. "Music heals. Sound heals," they said, when they announced details of the sell-out show.
Sound baths are huge events in cities like London, New York and Los Angeles, where they can be attended by 100+ people and go on for six to eight hours.
These epic happenings are few and far between in Ireland, but that doesn't mean that sound baths are any less popular here.
There's a full house of 17 people when I arrive for a Friday night sound bath at The Sanctuary - a blissful meditation centre founded by Sister Stan - and according to facilitator Simone Meschnig, they tend to be sell-out events.
I've attended sound baths in other cities around the world but the crowd at The Sanctuary is different. There are considerably more women than men, and the age profile is slightly older.
I was expecting at least one Instagram spiritualist in a pair of Aztec leggings but the people sitting around me are as down to earth and unpretentious as it gets.
Simone and her co-facilitator, Sarah Long of Inner Key Sound Healing, get things underway with a brief description of what's about to unfold.
They tell us to listen with our whole bodies - not just our ears. And they recommend that we don't fall asleep. If anyone falls asleep, says Simone, she'll give their toe a little squeeze to wake them up again.
Briefing over, it's time for us to lie down and close our eyes. There's a brief kerfuffle as limbs are stretched out and blankets are pulled up to chins. And then there's an almost reverential stillness as the otherworldly sound of a Tibetan singing bowl penetrates the room.
Singing bowls produce layers and layers of sound that build up and envelop a space. It's not a particularly loud sound, but it's a powerful one - especially when it's coupled with the ocean drum, an instrument designed to mimic the sound of waves crashing against the shore.
It's deliciously soothing - so soothing, in fact, that it sends a man at the back of the room to sleep. The sound of snoring ripples through the room for a minute and then stops suddenly. Maybe he got a pinch.
The thick and swirling sound of the gong comes next. I've heard people say that you don't play a gong - it plays you. And while that might sound a little woo-woo to some readers, it makes perfect sense to me as the overtones vibrate around the room. It's as if I'm immersed in the sound - and it feels profoundly relaxing.
The sound bath concludes with the delicate sounds of Koshi chimes and shakers and a short vocal toning exercise. Sound therapists believe that the voice can be used as a healing instrument so we're encouraged to sing different vowel sounds as Simone plays the shruti box. Group singalongs usually terrify me, but tonight I'm happy to sing my heart out.
Afterwards we sit down for a cup of tea and a chat. People share their experiences and the differences are fascinating.
The ocean drum - to my ears - sounded like rain gently beating against a windowpane, yet to another woman, the sound was "irritating". She just wanted it to stop.
Another participant - a first-timer - says she found the gong overwhelming, if not a little frightening in parts. "I felt like I was this small," she says, as she raises her arm and squeezes her fingers into pincer grasp.
Overall, though, everyone says that they feel considerably more relaxed and ready to sink into their beds when they get home.
Simone, who works as a sound therapist, yoga and meditation teacher, attributes the sudden popularity of sound baths to the noise pollution of big cities and the incessant beeping of gadgets.
"We're bombarded by sounds that are making our bodies tense," she says. "Whereas the sounds at a sound bath are pleasant - even a child can recognise that they are relaxing."
The trouble, however, is that it's an unregulated industry - and sound baths are increasingly being led by facilitators with limited training and experience.
"As it gets more and more popular, people are thinking, 'I can do that. I have a few singing bowls and I've watched a few videos'," says Simone.
"I've heard from people who went to sound baths that were too strong for them. One person had a headache for three days afterwards. And this probably happened from the over-playing of certain instruments - especially the quartz singing bowls."
Simone advices people to do their homework: ask the practitioner where they did their training, find out how many sound baths they have led and, if it's a larger sound bath, make sure they have a co-facilitator who will be available to participants should the instruments stir up strong emotions.
As for the skeptics, my advice is not to knock it until you've tried it. Sound baths are for people who know how it feels to be inspired by a classical opus, invigorated by a chunky bass line or moved to tears by a love song.
Put more simply, they're for everyone.
For more information, see the sanctuary.ie and academyofsoundhealing.com