We take a look at the ancient practice of sound healing

Sound therapy is an ancient cultural practice often involving instruments and chants to restore health and relieve pain.

Photo by Hanna Postova on Unsplash

I’m lying in the dark, trying to decipher what animal the didgeridoo rumbling at my feet sounds like. Do its primal, guttural tones resemble the thump and spring of a kangaroo or the deep thrumming of a bullfrog in the wet season? I catch my mind drifting and draw it back to this most amazing of sensations: my body humming, dissolving; music from the didge, its two brothers and a complement of three singing crystal bowls and three gongs flowing through my soles and reverberating in, around and through me.

Here, inside this purpose-built, tepee-shaped “sound chamber” on the western fringe of Australia, time seems suspended. The symphonic sound is dense and shifts and moves like the ocean, the voice of each instrument swelling then subsiding — now the didge, now the bowls, now the gongs in a constant call-and-response. I imagine silvery soundwaves hitting and springing off each of the 16 precisely angled panels, up and up and up to the structure’s apex and into the starry sky beyond. I don’t want this to end; it’s glorious.

But end it does, one final shimmering of a crystal singing bowl and a high-pitched chime calling time on this hour(ish)-long session held in honour of the New Moon. I lie still on the circular floor, relaxed, tingling, as the light lifts. Recorded birdsong chirps around me and, gradually, the voice of gong master Dorothy Coe trickles into my ears and raises me from my reverie. Following her cues, I roll to one side then slowly sit, cross-legged, resting my back against the wall, letting the experience sink in.

A fortnight before and 4000km to the east, I’d learnt about Echoes via a Google search. “Sound baths” held in dedicated studios where people come to relax in a sea of vibrations are going mainstream in the US — they’re the new yoga and meditation, some say — and interest is reigniting here, too. A friend and I had already booked flights to Perth and, as luck would have it, Echoes — the only purpose-built facility in Australia and an accredited provider of complementary medicine in the sound therapy field — is based there.

Sound therapy is nothing new, of course. Many people are just discovering it, but it’s actually a return to ancient cultural practices often involving instruments and chants to restore health and relieve pain. Australian Aborigines, for example, have used “sound medicine” for at least 40,000 years to assist with ailments of the body and the spirit, and gongs have long been associated with spiritual rituals in Asia. It has been around for a while in the West, too, as an adjunct to other activities — a gong or chanting to close a yoga class perhaps or a sound meditation at a festival.

In recent years, though, sound healing has solidified as a focused offering. Sound vibrations have been shown to penetrate the body, affect its water content and, essentially, massage your insides. Different frequencies are said to target and stimulate various densities in the body — muscles, bone, fascia — helping them to relax and soften. Sound affects the brain, too, promoting deep mental and physical relaxation.

Sound vibrations have been shown to penetrate the body, affect its water content and, essentially, massage your insides.

There haven’t been any large, rigorous trials into “sound medicine” yet, but initial research is promising, with low-frequency sound proving to improve immunity, reduce stress and protect against cognitive decline. Dorothy Coe tells me that, since she and Aboriginal elder Bob Randall founded Echoes in the Perth suburb of Canning Vale a decade ago, they’ve been collaborating with multiple professors and universities from around the world on studies into the effects of vibration on the body.

Interest in sound therapy is so strong among the research community and the public that Coe and her team plan to expand to the east coast, building centres first in Melbourne then Sydney, Brisbane and beyond. They also offer accredited training courses in Sound and Vibration Therapy so others can learn to run sessions in a safe, knowledgeable way.

No healing claims are bandied about at Echoes, though, let’s be clear. Coe and her team run sessions for patients with certain health conditions, using different sound frequencies depending on participants’ needs, but she says the centre is about sound “therapy” and relaxation, not healing. She also says you need a minimum of three sessions to really feel the benefits.

I make it to two: Didge Connect (AU$60; 1 hour), one of the centre’s standard sessions, and the New Moon Super Didge ($130). Upon entering the sound chamber for each, I remove my shoes and am directed to a mattress on the floor. The other participants and I are told what to expect and given a drop of Fragonia essential oil (“the highest vibrating essence”) on our wrists as well as a bush-medicine balm to rub on our throats to prevent snoring. We lie down with our feet facing into the circle’s centre, adjusting props for comfort, and are guided through stretching and qi gong breathing. Then it starts.

Back to the ring of blissed-out folk sitting in a circle in the outskirts of Perth, Coe queries us about our session. The questions are part of a research study into the effects of sound and vibration they’re helping with, she says, so one by one we share our experiences. Around the circle we go, and people — many regulars — talk of entering a deep dream state, of seeing visions and of travelling outside their bodies.

It’s my turn and I share the tingling and thrilling of my extremities and the kaleidoscopic lights I saw behind my eyelids. I laugh about my musings on the animal alter ego of that didgeridoo. What sticks with me most now, thinking back, is that I felt so peaceful yet invigorated. I have no idea if my body was cleansed at a cellular level, as some may claim, but I do know that I walked outside feeling like I’d just done a long yoga session followed by a meditation, all accompanied by the most enchanting sounds.

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