Sound healing for the mind and body
By Juliana Clark
Using a white suede mallet, Jhené Aiko slowly circles the rim of a citrine crystal singing bowl. She’s on stage at her NPR Tiny Desk (Home) concert, swathed in seafoam green taffeta and standing barefoot as her masked band members await their cue. Her dress accentuates the eight-spoke boat wheel tattoo on her right shoulder, a depiction of the dharma chakra, which represents the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.
Aiko makes a few rotations on the citrine bowl. A member of the quartz family, citrine is used as a catalyst for new beginnings and to enhance optimism, balance, and personal power. Its yellow light energy is believed to align the root and solar plexus chakras, vital energy centers in the body. Then, Aiko moves onto the morganite singing bowl, which promotes “the Oneness that allows us to hold the love frequency with clarity,” according to Crystal Cadence, a singing bowl catalog and digital shop, and the realization that life’s hardest lessons are essential to our alignment.
It’s no wonder that Aiko chose these specific bowls to start a virtual concert promoting her latest studio album Chilombo, a reflection on love, loss, and spiritual rebirth. The sound envelops the listener in a wave of serenity. They instantly become focused on their pulse’s steady beat and the slow undulation of their chest as they inhale and exhale. For a brief moment, the urgencies of everyday life come to a standstill. The notion of time as a linear reality ceases to exist, and they become reacquainted with their past and future selves.
Or at least that’s the promise of this sonic-spiritual technique. Sound healing has become increasingly incorporated in the music of female R&B singers, like Aiko and SZA, and grown in popularity over the past two years. Skeptics might dismiss the tradition’s current prominence in the cultural zeitgeist. But practitioners believe that sound healing can’t be so easily silenced.
Scientific research has chronicled music’s capacity for improving both physical and psychological health. It can support relaxation and reduce stress, boost mood, and even improve memory.
Beyond empirical scrutiny, sound’s restorative properties have also been the subject of numerous religious texts. In his book The Healing Power of Sound, Mitchell L. Gaynor, the late medical oncologist and leader in integrative medicine, wrote that the Sufis, a mystical sect within Islam that stresses an inward search for God and the rejection of materialism, were among the first to perceive the cosmos as “a vast, vibrating medium” and “food for the soul.”
Hazrat Inayat Khan, the twentieth-century founder of the Western Sufi order, believed that the physical body, thoughts, and emotions were all dependent on vibrations, regardless of whether a person was immediately aware of it. Khan believed that these abstract sounds, which he called saut-i-sarmad, or the eternal sound, allow humans to connect with the realm of the immaterial and infinite.
The tools for sound healing extend back thousands of years, with roots in Australia’s Indigenous cultures. Australia's aborigines in the Arnhem Land used the didgeridoo, a wind instrument producing a low pitch sound, in rituals such as initiation ceremonies. Medicine men also used them to transport people into “otherworldly realms.”
The didgeridoo produces its strongest frequencies in the 50-200 Hertz (Hz) range with several harmonics going up to 1,000 Hz. (The range of human hearing is 20 to 20,000 Hz.) The resulting sound is a pulsating vibrational hum that borders on the surreal. Given its range, the instrument has substantial overlap with singing bowls, which produce frequencies between 110 Hz and 660 Hz and can reach up to 800 or 900 Hz.
Playing the didgeridoo requires the use of circular breathing, which enables the player to maintain a sound for long periods of time by inhaling through their nose to maintain airflow in the instrument. This technique creates an interaction with the lips, vocal tract, and breath so that vibrations move from the upper airway to the lower airways. The didgeridoo was initially used to evoke the realm of dreams and man’s relationship to the physical and the sacred. But beyond its ceremonial function, the didgeridoo may also be good for your physical health. One clinical trial demonstrated that practicing this instrument improved symptoms for sleep apnea patients.
Today, binaural beat therapy is an emerging form of sound wave therapy that aims to treat anxiety. The left and right ear receive slightly different frequency tones yet the brain perceives them as a single tone. Binaural beat therapy can be practiced at home with no training, according to its proponents.
One professional practitioner, Lavender Suarez, says that sound healing today can involve instrumentation, such as gongs, chimes, and singing bowls, as well as vocalizations and nature recordings.
“Every day our ears are working to let us know what's going on in our environment and protect us even while we're sleeping,” Suarez reflects. From the quiet ping of a notification on our smartphones to the invasive honking of a neighboring car on the highway back home, modern humans are inundated with sound.
Pauline Oliveros, the pioneer of a technique called deep listening, observed in her 2015 TedX talk, people “confuse hearing with listening… To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived.” How much space in our lives do we devote to intentional, deeply focused listening? How often do we sit in relative silence, reveling in the refrigerator’s gentle hum or our laptop’s whirring fan? Probably not often enough.
Singing bowls like the ones Aiko uses target specific frequencies, producing vibrational hums that purportedly target different chakras and ultimately promote balance, according to holistic healers. Eric Mellgren, a teacher in sound-guided meditation, says these frequencies slow the heart rate and blood pressure, relax body tissue, and open up blood vessels, thereby increasing their flow. Other sound healing instruments, such as gongs, Tibetan tingsha meditation bells, chimes, and tuning forks produce similar effects.
In Aiko's latest studio album, Chilombo, each track features specific notes from crystal singing bowls that correspond to the overall musical key. These notes are intended to balance the chakra that best aligns with the song’s subject matter. “Lotus” is composed in the key of A sharp and D targeting the sixth and second chakras, which correspond to our beliefs and attitudes, and physical and emotional well-being, respectively. “Speak,” composed in the key of E, is associated with the third chakra, the source of personal power.
As a student of sound healing, Aiko wanted to create a therapeutic experience for her listeners and, ultimately, herself. “Throughout the years, so many people have come up to me and told me that my music has helped them get through things,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “So I wanted to put that intention of healing into the music so that it could be even more healing.”
The artist SZA has also turned to crystal singing bowls as part of a personal practice to cope with the death of her grandmother, whose voice SZA featured on her last studio album Ctrl. SZA is also working on incorporating crystal singing bowls into her music. In December 2019, she performed with them at a chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, and a number of crystal singing bowls made an appearance in the opening scene of the music video for her latest single “Good Days,” which she directed.
As sound healing has become more popular, it’s also become heavily monetized. The crystal singing bowls Aiko uses retail for approximately $1,000 to $3,700. Sound bath experiences are popping up everywhere, from corporate wellness events to the Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s a tale as old as capitalism: mainstream institutions demystifying and trivializing previously-marginalized spiritual practices for profit.
Yet as technology overwhelms our senses, the practice of mindfully listening to low-pitched tones becomes ever more alluring. Through its strange alchemy, sound healing’s call for silence confronts the chaos of the past year, which was marked by a pandemic, social unrest, and increased xenophobia. A trend that values finding peace and connecting with our inner stillness has grown for good reason. Perhaps the promise symbolized by these crystal bowls will continue to ring long after SZA and Aiko leave the Top 100.
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