What are sound baths and why do some people swear by them?

With rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse increasing significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has declared the current mental health crisis to be "an urgent issue."

While many people who struggle with mental health have pursued a variety of remedies including talk therapy, behavioral therapy and medication, others have worked to improve close relationships, spend more time in nature, and have tried a number of relaxation techniques to reduce daily stress or separate themselves from overwhelming situations.

Sound baths are one of the most popular emerging relaxation techniques that many people are participating in.

What is a sound bath?

Sound baths don't use water but instead utilize music and sound to induce feelings of relaxation. During one, "participants typically lay down on a yoga mat and listen to musical instruments such as Tibetan singing bowls, crystal singing bowls, gongs, bells, and other vibrational instruments," says Tamara Goldsby, a public health research psychologist at the University of California, San Diego who has led sound bath-related research.

Often confused with music therapy as both sound baths and music therapy utilize different forms of music, sound baths are more meditative in nature and focus on feeling the vibrations from each sound throughout the body. In addition to the use of instruments, sound bath sounds and directions "may come from an instructor chanting a repetitive, rhythmic phrase, such as a mantra," says Kulreet Chaudhary, an integrative neurologist and author of "Sound Medicine."

While one doesn't need specific certifications or qualifications to administer a sound bath, many sound bath practitioners also have a background in meditation or yoga. In fact, "variations in sound bath may include meditations or yoga before or during the sound bath, depending upon the sound bath practitioner," says Goldsby.

Dog sound baths have also emerged as a way of reducing anxiety in pets and some owners and their pets engage in the practice together.

What happens during a sound bath?

There are multiple ways to experience a sound bath including in a one-on-one session, at home, through a virtual classroom, or at sound bath event where multiple people are present - think a group yoga class. Because much of the focus of a sound bath is on the vibrations experienced by each instrument, virtual or at-home sound bath experiences may not provide the same benefits as in-person sessions where a skilled instructor can utilize a variety of instruments and customized meditative techniques.

Sound bath participants wear comfortable clothes and lay across yoga mats, pillows, blankets or furniture to ensure they remain comfortable throughout the session. Some sessions last as little as 30 minutes while others last 90 minutes.

Are there health benefits of a sound bath?

While sound baths are considered more of a spiritual practice than medical therapy, they can be a useful tool to minimize stress and promote relaxation. "In our research, we found that sound baths significantly reduced tension, anxiety, depression, and anger among other negative mood states," says Goldsby. "Additionally, it increased spiritual well-being as well as providing other benefits, such as potential reduction in physical pain."

Other studies have similarly found that experiencing a sound bath for at least 15 minutes can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and promote deep states of relaxation. "Generally, participants of sound baths can feel calmer, experience improved mood, notice an increase in energy, have improved sleep and experience an overall reduction in stress," says Chaudhary.

But they may not be for everyone. "If an individual has an extreme sensitivity to sound," says Goldsby, "they may want to decide if sound bath is right for them."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is a sound bath? Heath benefits, explained