Sound healing is becoming known for its stress relieving properties. Gemma Harris discovers the positive benefits sound can have on our gut
I ’m lying down, my body melting into the ground beneath me. I can’t sense my limbs anymore, but I don’t care; I don’t care about anything anymore. Not what I have got to do at work tomorrow, not the battle of finding a parking space which I faced just 15 minutes ago and, definitely, not the fact I am lay in the dark with a bunch of strangers. This might sound disturbing, but it’s the best feeling I’ve experienced all week. I feel as though I am floating on a cloud without a care in the world. Everything is calm including my tummy. This is a common feeling experienced by people when they take part in a sound bath and one I was lucky enough to experience myself.
However, completely relaxing and letting go of our daily stresses is something many of us struggle with, myself included. In fact in a 2018 study, 74% of people in the UK admitted to being so stressed they were overwhelmed or couldn’t cope. The study also found that almost a third of people (32%) have experienced suicidal thoughts due to stress. Meanwhile, results published earlier this year suggest 12.8 million working days have been lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
All of this stress can have harmful consequences on our physical health and digestion. The Gastrointestinal Society claim stressful life events can cause the onset or worsening of poor digestive symptoms or influence us to adopt the unhelpful habit of turning to food and alcohol for comfort while the common digestive condition irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is closely linked to anxiety and stress. Of course, having digestive issues can be a source of stress itself.
But what is the answer? Could regularly attending a sound bath be an antidote to our busy, demanding and technology-fuelled modern lives and a solution to a calmer tummy? To provide hope for those of us battling everyday pressures and in recognition of National Stress Awareness Day, I tried one to find out.
The power of sound
A sound bath has been described as a deeply relaxing and meditative experience within which the entrancing sounds of musical instruments are used to relax, relieve stress and even speed up healing. As someone who can sometimes let stress get the better of me, that is certainly what I am hoping for.
The preparation of gathering the required equipment for the sound bath is more than I anticipated. It is a challenge just to find a bag big enough to take it all in. But hoping it will all be worth it, off I go on an autumnal Sunday evening armed with a yoga mat, fleece blankets, a small pillow and an eye mask. Note to self — this still isn’t enough — extra padding is needed for lying on a cold, hard floor for at least an hour.
As I drive to the quaint church where the sound bath is being held, I feel a mix of nervousness from the fear of the unknown and excitement about the rewarding relaxation that is to come. But I have one stress left to face before I can even enter the building — finding a parking space. While this may not seem challenging, as a driver who lacks confidence, this is something I can get anxious about especially in an unfamiliar place.
When I eventually make it through the door, flustered and moments before the start, any anxiety soon dissipates as a room of 35 smiling faces and music enthusiast Sarah Westwood, who has been running sound bath’s for the past three years, welcome me. I plonk down with all my paraphernalia and try to get comfy despite my insufficient back support. Realisation hits. All I have to do is lie on a mat for an hour and listen to gongs and drums? Like me, you are probably thinking this sounds like bliss, but it can be easier said than done. Initially, I question how I am going to lie still and do completely nothing for the next hour and 15 minutes. As soon as Sarah speaks, her soothing tone and calming words bring a sense of reassurance and wave of relaxation. She warns us that people may snore during the session and gives us permission to prod our neighbour should this happen.
It could be an emotional experience for some and those who suffer with pain may find it is exacerbated, she adds.
“We all tend to carry stress and tension and so as we relax, often that can be the time when we actually realise how we are feeling inside,” explains Sarah, 54, “we hold ourselves together to get through our days and when we are around people, so when we meditate or do this kind of experience, what’s happening inside can start to come to the surface.
“For some people it can be sadness, for others it can be anger. Let it come, then let it go. If you just sit with an emotion as it is arising, then it will ease because it has had a chance to be recognised.”
Similar is true for physical pain. One woman, who had suffered severe shoulder pain for weeks, had experienced it really intensify during the sound bath and the next day it was gone, Sarah says.
Following Sarah’s guided meditation which she begins every session with, gentle sounds begin to ease us into the practice and it isn’t long before my eyes feel heavy, almost as if I can’t open them and worries of the day drift away. At this point, Sarah tends to play an instrument she is very fond of — the relatively new Russian RAV Vast — to help us to become present and relax different parts of our body.
As I drift deeper and deeper into relaxation, the feeling of floating on a cloud becomes apparent. The sound of waves crashing transports me back to my relaxing Bulgaria summer holiday. I can almost feel the sand between my toes. This is the serene sound of Sarah playing her ocean drum. Prior to this, she roamed around with shamanic drums before playing gongs which sound baths are strongly associated with. While I am conscious of these different sounds moving closer and further away, I simply feel able to enjoy them without having to focus intently on what I am hearing.
“I’ve spent a fortune on gongs and people often love the ocean drum much more than anything else,” Sarah laughs.
She claims sounds of nature are really evocative for us and that listening to the wind in the trees, birds singing or the ocean are vital for our wellbeing. We can be so divorced from those, she says, often we just need to be reminded that they’re really good for us.
Among the relaxed state of my body, I notice the lack of tension in my tummy. I am also vaguely aware of a different type of sound — the rumbling of people’s stomachs. Either everyone is ravenous or the sounds are having deeper benefits.
Sarah laughs: “This is a sign of people relaxing or of things moving in an energetic sense. Stress affects digestion so anything that relaxes the body is going to have a positive effect.”
Similar to the feeling of putting my head on the pillow and the alarm going off after what feels like minutes, inevitably the session comes to an end. I reluctantly follow Sarah’s instructions to wiggle my fingers and toes, then roll onto one side. She closes the practice by telling us to picture love in our hearts radiating outwards. I have never wished more that my yoga mat could be Aladdin’s magic carpet and transport me to my bed. Once I manage to peel myself off the floor, Sarah advises us to drink plenty of water.
“The sound bath can be relaxing but it can also be very intense,” she explains, “if things are being released, then water is a great way to flush out your system. In another sense, it is a very grounding thing for people to do after a sound bath.”
Water can help to make us more alert and bring us back into our surroundings, especially as the sound bath can continue to have an effect for days to come. Even Sarah admits to feeling dreamy and the need to take time for herself the following day.
Sound night’s sleep
What began as an anxiety inducing experience, still feeling burnt out from the previous week ended as a revitalising reward. And like Sarah said may happen, I was greeted by a deeply relaxing night’s sleep. I was ready to take on the week ahead. Sarah prefers holding sound baths on early Sunday evenings to help people feel refreshed in this way, but she claims they are great any time. If you desire a sense of connection and continuity, she recommends attending on a weekly basis.
However, the alternative nature or perception of all sound baths being cultish or religious is what can put some people off. Sarah assures me that while some may be held for this reason, she approaches sound baths from a perspective of wellbeing.
“From the outside, gong baths look completely crazy,” she says, “but people are always amazed at how effective it is in getting them into a deep state of relaxation.
“[They are] very practical using sound which has been used since ancient times, all over the world, to get people into different states of consciousness.”
Sarah says the thought of being still and doing nothing for a long period of time can be another reason people are reluctant to try sound baths. “However, sound takes you without being aware. It is such a powerful way to access really deep meditative or creative states so you don’t have to work at it,” she adds.
“It is really important that [sound baths are] accessible and [the benefits] can be as simple as having a really good night’s sleep afterwards.”
Stress and tension relief, a quieter mind, a calmer tummy and improved quality of sleep. The only thought in my mind is when can I go again? Perhaps sound baths will become a regular part of my life like yoga; I will certainly value them as much. Sound holds a renewed importance in my life. I hope you will give a sound bath a try and it will for you too.
Sarah currently runs sound baths in Stirchley every month with the hope to increase the frequency in the near future. The next sound bath will take place on November 17 with a 2-hour sound bath special on December 21. Book your place. Sarah has been teaching African drumming for the past 25 years and is the founder of music Company Primal Sound UK.
Sound bath checklist
- Padded mattress
- Small pillow or cushion
- Eye mask
- Warm fleecy blankets
- Comfortable clothing
- Bottle of water
Been to a sound bath? Want to share your experience? Get in touch.