A “sound bath” provides many of meditation’s benefits, without the discipline

Sara Auster, who is guiding many of Manhattan’s sound baths.
Sara Auster, who is guiding many of Manhattan’s sound baths.
Image: courtesy, saraauster.com
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The benefits of meditation—increased focus and clarity, decreased anxiety, and a heightened capacity for empathy among them—hold obvious appeal. The thing is, sitting still with one’s thoughts, let alone transcending them, is actually really hard. Therein lies the appeal of one of the latest waves in the movement toward mindfulness that’s sweeping Western cities: the sound bath.

Lodro Rinzler, the founder of MNDFL, a vowel-eschewing meditation studio in New York’s Greenwich Village, says sound baths can serve as a shortcut to the deeply relaxed state that eludes many newcomers to meditation.

Straight to the mountaintop

As the name suggests, a sound bath immerses participants in soothing sonic resonance emitted by instruments such as crystal singing bowls, tuning forks, and gongs. Sara Auster, a New York-based meditation teacher and sound therapy practitioner who guides sound baths at MNDFL and around New York City, says the music of a sound bath prepares the mind for meditation, not unlike the way upbeat hip-hop might energize a person for a workout, or a ballad might open one up to crying over a breakup.

Sara Auster at work.
Sara Auster at work.
Image: courtesy, saraauster.com

It works almost like a shortcut to the state meditators seek to reach: ”Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to climb to the top of the mountain,’ someone picks you up and drops you at the top,” says Rinzler. “You can experience it for a little bit and say: ‘Oh right, that’s what I’m talking about.'”

It’s safe to say I’d never meditated my way to the top of Rinzler’s figurative mountain of deep relaxation, so I wasn’t surprised to find my mind racing when I laid down on two cushions for a one-hour sound bath with several other participants in MNDFL’s candle-lit studio on a recent Wednesday evening.

Worst case, I told myself, it will be good to spend an hour away from my phone. But before long, my mind slowed and dropped into a dreamlike space where I was only mildly aware of my thoughts passing by. At $35, it wasn’t cheap, but I left feeling peaceful and refreshed—and I slept like a baby that night.

Instagramming the Integratron

In the US, the unofficial center of the sound bath boom sits in the Mojave Desert, 40 miles north of Palm Springs, California: the Integatron.

The white Douglas Fir dome was built by the late aviator and UFO enthusiast George Van Tassel, who said he received the plans for the Integatron’s impressive nail and screw-free construction from an extraterrestrial visitor.

Van Tassel originally conceived of the structure as a sort of rejuvenation machine, where the human lifespan would be extended through electromagnetic stimulation. He didn’t live to see the Integatron’s completion, but today, pilgrims visit for rejuvenation via sound baths, for which the dome’s acoustics are said to be perfectly suited.

A quick scan of the Integatron’s location page on Instagram also reveals it to be highly photogenic, which has undoubtedly helped spread the word about sound baths amongst the digitally inclined.

Now, sound baths are catching on far beyond California, in London and New York. London’s Ace Hotel has hosted a sound bath, and The Big Quiet, which organizes group meditations throughout New York City, sold a thousand tickets for a sound meditation inside the Oculus at One World Trade on Sunday, Oct. 16. (When the group’s official access fell through at the eleventh hour, they instead held a “meditation flashmob,” complete with singing bowls, a string quartet, and a choir singing an a capella version of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love.)

Tuning in

Sound baths seem to have reached their tipping point. “The shift has happened,” says Auster. “Just a couple years ago I was reaching out to different yoga studios and spas to see if I could facilitate sound meditations there, and it was hard to get people to talk to me.”

Today, Auster’s time is in high demand. In addition to regular sessions at MNDFL—where Rinzler plans to employ a second sound bath practitioner in 2017—Auster conducts sound meditations at spas, yoga studios, and hotels throughout the city, as well as trainings.

Auster would remind those curious about sound baths that all such experiences are not created equal. Personal preferences are a real factor, just as one person’s favorite yoga teacher might be another’s worst nightmare.

Auster suggests doing a bit of online research on the person conducting the sound bath before signing on. Some practitioners, Auster included, offer free samples of their work on Soundcloud—which is also a great way to dabble at home.

Tune in, and tune out.