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Sound baths are the latest relaxation trend for stressed-out Minnesotans

On a Friday night in spring, Kelly Smith calls her Sound Bath class to order, hushing the chatter among the two dozen women (and one man) gathered in Edina’s Barre3 studio. Each of us sits on a mat on the floor. We’d been 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’ll do in this class,” Smith says, with a smile and a dramatic pause: “Lie down.”

Amid the ensuing laughter, pillow fluffing and settling in, Smith tells us she will play the seven crystal singing bowls arrayed in a semicircle in front of her. She’ll guide us through a meditation. Our job, she says, is to relax.

“If you fall asleep and snore, don’t worry, because the sound from the bowls will drown it out.”

As she begins to play, the sound is indeed loud, and resonant — notes hang in the air, extended. Smith began the guided meditation in a jungle. And I wish I could report back on where she took us. But the next thing I knew, she said we were coming out of a cave. I hadn’t been in one. I’d been somewhere else, someplace bright and humming, where I was deeply relaxed and, yes, likely snoring.

Across the Twin Cities and the country, this form of meditation is generating buzz, with sound bathing turning up on an episode of “The Kardashians” and being touted by Adele as a way she coped with pandemic-induced anxiety.

Smith, 31, who founded Yoga for You eight years ago and the Mindful in Minutes podcast almost five years ago, thinks the pandemic increased interest in the practice. “People were left with their own thoughts and feelings. Lockdown time helped us see the value of connecting with and caring for the self.”

Primal responses

Researchers are starting to ask the same questions Smith hears from students: How do sound baths help? What makes sounds — vibration, tone, frequency — have an effect on the human body and brain?

There’s scant research on sound meditation specifically, though a couple of studies show people who give it a try say they come out of a session more relaxed than they were going in. But a growing number of studies is looking at how meditation and music effect us. Using functional MRIs, scientists can see parts of the brain light up as people meditate or listen to or play music. They can also measure changes in breathing, blood pressure, pulse and levels of stress hormones.

Jenzi Silverman has a Ph.D. in educational psychology and teaches a class at the University of Minnesota that explores the power of music to heal.

“When I use the word ‘heal,’ I don’t mean getting better from disease or disability, but maximizing well-being, feeling as good as you can in body, mind and spirit and being resilient enough to manage challenges that come up,” she says.

She sees music as a powerful tool, helping people with Alzheimer’s connect to their memories and allowing people with aphasia to regain speech, as former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords has famously demonstrated.

Music literally makes us move, as rhythm and melody stimulate the parts of the brain that control motor function. Some people with Parkinson’s have been able to walk normally as music that matches their gait plays.

“Every known culture in the world has music,” Silverman says. “In many African cultures and Indigenous cultures here and in Australia and New Zealand, they not only have believed in music as a healing tool, but they still do; music is integrated into health care.”

Good vibrations

There are mysterious and feel-good elements behind using our ears to help our brains focus and our bodies relax. Using sound to concentrate our attention can make meditation more effective, Smith says.

Beyond that, each of her seven singing bowls, she says, connects with one of the seven chakras, what yoga teaching describes as the energy points or centers in the body. Sound baths help keep the chakras open, the desired state: “It cleans out the gunk,” Smith says.

“I know,” she adds, “you can’t take an MRI of a chakra, so how do you know it’s real? There are so many things you can’t say are real, but you feel or intuit it.”

Sound waves can penetrate our bodies, which is how ultrasound works. Even people who can’t hear can feel sound, and some people with synesthesia (experiencing one sense for another) see sound as a shape or color.

When Buddhist monks chant or Catholic nuns recite a prayer, studies have shown the region of the brain that lights up during a spiritual experience overlaps with the areas that light up when people listen to music that’s meaningful to them, Silverman says, making the connection between sound and spirit.

When she’s leading classes, Smith thinks about why people show up. Yes, it’s curiosity. But they’re also looking for ways to let go of the stress of daily life.

“Maybe it’s just comforting believing in it,” she says of the idea of energy moving through the chakras and sound helping soothe body and mind.

Silverman says we shouldn’t discount the effect of belief and faith. The idea of a placebo effect is complicated, she says. If you believe that something makes you feel better, you can experience changes in thinking that shift how the nervous system works so soon you actually do feel better.

There’s also the social aspect of a class like Smith’s, where a teacher pays attention to individuals in a kind way and students have a shared, enjoyable experience — all those elements can buoy mood and give a sense of well-being. It’s the kind of experience that can, Silverman says, be in short supply in our culture.

“Faith in and of itself — you can’t prove it,” Smith says. “but there’s something special and beautiful about the comfort it can bring. That’s something unique to the human experience.” 

Curious to try a sound bath?

Kelly Smith hosts a Yoga Nidra and Sound Bath at Blooma in Minneapolis on July 15 at 7 p.m. Cost is $30; register at blooma.com/workshops.

Lakewood Cemetery repeats its popular “Processing Grief – A Sound Meditation” class in August and September; check lakewoodcemetery.org for information on dates. Fee starts at $10.

Ryan Wimperis, of Amethyst Healing in Hugo and Stillwater, emphasizes using sound baths for better sleep. He hosts group and private sessions and will travel to a client’s home. Call 651-472-4902 for upcoming classes.