Cycles of Life: Tuning Up Your Health with SoundJun 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Jonathan Adams
Relaxing with sound and using “singing bowls,” gongs and other exotic instruments might seem like fairly recent developments when it comes to healing, but the practices have their roots in nearly every sacred musical tradition around the world. Whether it be shamanic drumming, Indian classical music or Gregorian Chant, the practice of using sound as therapy is thousands of years old. Now science is beginning to piece together how relaxing sounds can affect us profoundly on physical, mental and spiritual levels.
I first became interested in the therapeutic role of sound and vibration following my own experience with anxiety and insomnia. For years as a professional classical musician, I had panic attacks. They occurred at the most inopportune times and didn’t seem to be necessarily connected to a stressful event.
As unpleasant as the anxiety was, both physically and mentally, it was also a blessing because it taught me so much about my mind and body. It also inspired me to begin a deeper exploration into the therapeutic uses of sound and into understanding its key role in the process of relaxation.
Everything in Life is Vibration
As Einstein famously said, everything in life is vibration. In fact, the word “cycles” is just another way of saying “frequency,” referring to how frequently something happens. Frequencies can occur externally, on a macro level, and internally, on a micro—or “subtle”—level. For example, the sun rising every morning, the phases of the moon and the number of times a guitar string vibrates can all be considered cycles.
The study and use of sound and frequency are essential to fully understanding and practicing yoga and its sister science, Ayurveda. Both yoga and Ayurveda observe the cycles of the body and the earth and explore how these cycles affect our well-being. Both disciplines have the perspective that all of life is composed of moving and vibrating energy. Yoga aims to help us recalibrate our minds and bodies to be in harmony with nature and the universe. Yoga practices are designed to restore balance to the cycles and frequencies within us. Ayurveda classifies certain times of the day—portions of the daily cycle—as having certain energetic qualities, while Indian classical music even specifies which musical scales are to be used for certain times of the day.
Our bodies are composed around rhythm-based systems; we recognize this in the heartbeat, the breath, digestive rhythms, circadian rhythms and other bodily cycles. Even our brainwaves are measured by frequency. Our bodies are rhythmically designed to function in harmony with nature around us.
But, as we know, stress, modern life and traumas of all sorts can pull our systems out of sync, and, over time, the new way of being becomes our new norm. Habit patterns of stress get ingrained in our breath patterns, muscle tensions, thought patterns and more. Sound therapy, yoga and meditation can help us to break these unconscious cycles and habit patterns and can help us restore harmony.
Certain rhythms, frequencies and oscillations have the ability to entrain, or synchronize, our brainwaves and physical systems, helping us regain healthy rhythmic patterns. They give our body the chance to reharmonize, rebalance and find deeper states of relaxation. We can hear these entraining rhythms in the repetitive, “wah, wah, wah” of a singing bowl, the cascading overtones of a gong and the powerful drumming within a shamanic ceremony.
The first mention of entrainment, defined as when two or more systems come into synchronization with each other, was by Christiaan Huygens, the inventor of the pendulum clock. He noticed that the pendulum clocks in his shop would always “fall into synchrony” when hung on the same wall. The phenomenon has been observed and studied in psychology, neuroscience, engineering and meteorology.
But entrainment also happens in biological systems, including brainwaves. Our brains have built-in frequency-following responses (FFR), so listening to sounds designed specifically to entrain can help move the mental and physical rhythms toward relaxation and meditative states.
Our brainwave states are literally frequencies with associated hertz (Hz), measurements of frequency. The known brainwave states are:
Delta < 4 Hz Associated with deep, dreamless sleep. Brains of Buddhist Monks and advanced meditation practitioners have also measured in this state during meditation.
Theta 4-7 Hz Associated with deep relaxation, meditation and entering the subconscious mind. Sometimes referred to as the “waking dream.”
Alpha 8-13 Hz A relaxed and calm state of light meditation.
Beta 13-38 Hz Our active, waking, problem-solving brainwave state.
Gamma >40 Hz Associated with mystical experiences.
Like the gears of a car’s engine, the four main states of consciousness—beta, alpha, theta, and delta—can be used efficiently or inefficiently. If someone had a car with four gears but only uses the first and fourth gears, the car wouldn’t drive as smoothly, and the engine would experience more wear and tear. Similarly, most people tend to overuse some states of consciousness and underuse others.
Our culture has conditioned us to think we should be in full beta mode—when we’re actively engaged in mental activities—as soon as possible after waking up. Then, at the end of the day, we think we should just switch it off and go right to sleep. Unfortunately, that approach doesn't work very well and can result in imbalances that lead to insomnia, anxiety and stress.
In my own healing journey with anxiety, I realized that I had pulled myself “out of rhythm.” I realized that by giving myself time for relaxation and time to sync with the natural ebb of the day, and by dedicating time to meditative practices, I was better able to return to balance, mentally, physically and spiritually.
Being able to access and understand the other “gears” of the mind is critical to functioning well. Accessing the meditative alpha and theta brainwave states invokes our innate relaxation response, which helps to counteract stresses that have built up. Sound therapy music, via entrainment, can help the mind move towards these meditative states. And because the mind, heart and breath are connected, when the mind relaxes, the body can also.
Using meditative sounds like singing bowls can go a long way to help us “drop into” meditative spaces. In deep meditation we often have the space to perceive where we may be unconsciously perpetuating stress.
Simple Practices to Reharmonize
• Listen to sound therapy tracks daily. I recommend listening to relaxing sounds, such as singing bowls, for at least an hour before going to bed to allow your mind and body relax and get into a lower gear for sleep. Listening in the morning is also helpful.
• I recommend listening to one certain track to help your brain sync to the hertz range of the track. Doing this repetitively can help your brain get used to those brain states which makes it easier to access them even when not listening to the track.
• Try playing with an instrument like singing bowls. They can be very relaxing to play, listen to and sing with.
• Singing or humming a basic vowel sound like “ooohhh,” “ahhh” or “oohhmm” can help reset breath patterns and develop healing and relaxing vibrations in the chest and head.
• Practice yoga and/or meditation.
• Work with an Ayurvedic practitioner to tune up your diet and address lifestyle issues relating to cycles of the seasons, sleep patterns or daily routine.
• Eat living, probiotic foods to make sure your gut is producing good levels of serotonin. In addition to being our “feel good” neurotransmitter, serotonin helps to set and support many rhythms and cycles in the body. ❧
Jonathan Adams, aka Sonic Yogi, has been a speaker at TEDx and the National Spiritual Living conference, among others. He offers courses on Insight Timer app and leads meditation and yoga classes in Atlanta. For more information, visit SonicYogi.com.