Go with the Flow in a Meditative Sound Bath
Photo: Kara Cooper, Kara Cooper Photography.
On a Friday evening in May, 1,000 people lined the steps of Grace Cathedral, clutching blankets, pillows, yoga mats, eye masks and sleeping bags, awaiting entry to a sold-out event. A latecomer bounded up the steps, her disco jacket reflecting the scene in thousands of silver sequins. Her outfit offered flashes of color against the Patagonia-vested seniors and twentysomethings outfitted for camping trips.
Everyone here paid roughly $25 to experience a “sound bath.” That’s the popular name for the highly relaxing, deeply meditative and occasionally psychedelic experience involving practitioners playing crystal bowls, Tibetan singing bowls and planetary gongs, among other healing and ritualistic instruments on the night’s lineup. Guests absorbed this cosmic concert while lying bundled up on the floor. The pop-up sound bath is one of many eccentric meditation experiences that San Franciscans are seeking out — and, popularity-wise, one of the fastest growing.
Once checked in, attendees spread their sleeping gear in the aisles of the cathedral, awaiting instruction from host Sound Meditation San Francisco. The group, led by San Francisco organizer Simona Asinovski and Los Angeles sound healer Guy Douglas, is bringing large-scale sound baths to sacred and uplifting spaces around the city. “We’re clear about not having any religious or spiritual context behind what we do,” said Asinovski, who met Douglas on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. “It’s just about you and your experience.”
The concept of healing through sound and music has been around for 70,000 years, said Silvia Nakkach, a Grammy-nominated musician, author and educator at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where she’s run the Sound, Voice, and Music Healing Certificate program for the past decade. “The shaman was the first one using sound to achieve energy in the body and mind,” she said.
Asinovski and Douglas first tested their pop-up sound bath concept on the public last December, when they sold out 350 tickets in 15 minutes. Asinovski said they’ve dramatically increased their audience with each event this year — from 500 to 800 guests at the San Francisco Bahá’í Center and the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, and now they’ve hit 1,000 attendees. Their next sound bath will be at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Douglas became a sound healer after experiencing a sound bath 10 years ago and wanting to help others feel similarly recharged. He said sound baths put people into a “forced meditation” state. “It really pulls out the mind chatter,” he said, “and allows you to tap into that zero point of meditation.” The Grace Cathedral sound bath (or “Holistic Chamber of Sound” as Asinovski and Douglas call it) is the group’s biggest event yet. Kathryn Goetzke, founder of the depression research and education foundation iFred, describes the sound bath as a visceral experience: “It really went through your entire body,” she said. “I could feel it in every cell.”
The noises resonating from these instruments are so powerful they occasionally trigger unusual light shows in the mind. Another Grace Cathedral attendee, writer and speaker Veronica Belmont, said that she experienced “behind the eyelid” visuals. “I got kaleidoscopic effects that changed with the tonality or the sound that was occurring,” she said.
Tibetan singing bowls are ancient instruments originally used in ritualistic ceremonies, Nakkach said, while crystal bowls are more modern inventions. They’re potent because they release “an incredible amount of harmonic frequencies at the same time.”
“You’re listening to thousands of notes being delivered,” Nakkach said. When sound enters the body, she explains, it might alter cellular tension or trigger a relaxation response in the brain. Delivered properly, she said, sound can influence neurotransmitters that help the immune system.
“Sound is the most powerful and the fastest energy to change energy, and to change emotional states,” said the former music psychotherapist. She warns that it’s important to experience sound healing from someone who has studied the science behind the practice. In the wrong hands, certain sounds or durations of performances can trigger things like depression or addiction, she said.
Sound bath pop-ups are just one stop on the journey to the experiential side of meditation. San Franciscans seeking off-the-beaten path meditation practices also take pilgrimages to the Integratron, just outside Joshua Tree in San Bernardino County. It’s touted as an acoustically perfect wooden structure, and it put sound baths into public consciousness starting in 2001, when owners Joanne, Nancy and Patty Karl started hosting them, using 19 crystal singing bowls in what the Karls say is “a remarkable soundscape environment.”
“It is trademarked and possibly did set a precedent for the experience,” write sisters Joanne and Nancy Karl in an email. “However, utilizing sound for spiritual practice and healing has been around for eons.” They add that Tom Kenyon, founder of Acoustic Brain Research, coined the term “sound bath.” “Tom used crystal singing bowls to benefit his patients in his psychotherapy practice,” they write.
The Integratron’s white sunken-Saturn dome, which was built by George Van Tassel, a man who believed in energy forces, time travel and alien life forms, is a popular photo op on Instagram. It gained mass recognition when Anthony Bourdain did a “No Reservations” segment there in 2011, and the magic of the place has been touted by members of Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire. But the Karl sisters said it’s word of mouth that attracts over 1,000 people every month.
But there is an option closer to home: Adventurous meditators are also making appointments to float in the human-size pods populating San Francisco’s sensory deprivation tank centers. ESPN did a segment with then-Warriors teammates Stephen Curry and Harrison Barnes dipping into the Epson salt-filled float tanks at Reboot Float Spa, which founder Michael Garrett said he launched after having a profound ayahuasca trip. Float Matrix has been a Nob Hill fixture for nearly a decade, but owner Kane Mantyla said he’s seen an explosion in interest in the past two years.
Much like a sound bath, when you’re in a float tank, “the brain goes into a state where it emits theta waves,” said Mantyla, referring to the state commonly associated with deep meditation. He said upward of 300 people book sessions at Float Matrix every month — whether it’s for the novelty of the experience, the props celebrity MMA commentator Joe Rogan has given floatation tanks, or simply the need to discover new ways of relaxing mind and body.
“We’re living under chronic stress,” Mantyla said. “We don’t have the resources to process through all the stimulus. Floatation is a spectacular tool that allows your body to integrate at accelerated rates. The effect of that integration really is feeling like a kid again.”
By Jennifer Maerz