Gwyneth Paltrow, doyenne of everything New Age, can generally be relied on to sniff out the most obscure body-mind practices and products from far corners of the earth, delivering mugwort vaginal steaming from the fringes to the masses via her lifestyle website, GOOP.
Inspired by her fantastic credulity and valiant eagerness to be a “guinea pig” (she’s endured everything from colonics to bee stings in the name of beauty), many of us have opened our minds and emptied our wallets on ancient healing techniques with little or no scientific merit.
Take, for instance, a $3,000 GOOP-endorsed infrared sauna for sweating out toxins in the comfort of your own home. Or a refreshing dip in a nitrogen-iced cryotherapy machine, which reduces pain and inflammation when ibuprofen fails you.
Recently, in a sign that GP may be falling out of touch with her New Age sources, Paltrow admitted she’d gotten wind of a “new healing modality” that “might be too hippie-ish even for the likes of me”: the sound bath.
With GP conceding, rather worryingly, that she “might not be able to handle it,” I felt compelled to pick up the baton and spend $200 on a private, 60-minute sound bath.
The name alone is bafflingly ambiguous (friends and colleagues who aren’t typically literal-minded assumed a tub would be involved), though some refer to it simply as “sound therapy.”
It’s meant to be a meditative, relaxing experience, so that the bather feels enveloped by reverberations from instruments like tuning forks, crystal singing bowls, and gongs.
Here was my chance to go where GP had never gone before—tinnitus be damned.
Research led me to one of the most buzzed-about sound bath technicians in the field, Sara Auster, whose website advertised a dozen bullet-pointed benefits of sound bathing.
One session would leave me with a more balanced nervous system, enhanced immunity, improved brain functioning, accelerated tissue repair, and other mind-body miracles.
I met Auster at a yoga studio in New York’s SoHo, a large loft where she welcomed me to recline on a “throne” she’d constructed from blankets and yoga props.
Eight cylindrical vases were lined up in a semicircle behind my head, along with what looked like pronged torture devices (singing bowls and tuning forks, respectively).
Before we began, Auster explained that she’d been facilitating sound baths since 2013 and had studied yoga and meditation for over 10 years.
Sound baths have been around for thousands of years, she said, but recently she and several others were aiming to make the practice more “accessible,” or more palatable to those who aren’t conscious uncouplers and bee venom-facial evangelists.
“The reason I believe in it so much is because there’s a science to it,” Auster said.
It’s a common refrain—sometimes sinister and sometimes simply faith-based—among crackpot doctors and woo-woo salesmen.
“Vibration, energy—it’s quantum physics,” she added, then retreated to her station and asked me to close my eyes.
The first sound was like a wet finger circling the rim of a wine glass. It rang in the right ear and then the left, tickling my eardrum. Then came a chorus of reverberations, punctuated by a sledgehammer outside the window.
Auster had asked that I be receptive to the sounds of construction and clicking heels in the hall. When she said they would all “inform” my experience, I hadn’t considered “inform” might translate to “ruin” in this case. Trying to meditate in silence is a tedious trial; trying to “quiet the mind” to a chainsaw-and-chimes soundtrack was torture.
Relief came before long, with Auster adjusting the volume and tempo of her symphony to the one outside.
The clangs of construction were eventually subsumed in the ding-dong-ding of singing crystal bowls, some of which echoed in my ear like a whirring fan or a bird flapping its wings.
Like a good massage, the hour-long session was over too soon. A few moments of deafening silence followed, then Auster asked how I felt.
Mortifyingly, all I could manage was a succession of yawns and semi-coherent observations. Her music recalled the textured, layered sounds on David Bowie’s “Low” album, I said.
She made an affirmative noise, then noted that music “balances the left and right brain” and has been used to treat mental illness in parts of Africa.
This makes sense intuitively, yet there’s a reason we medicate diagnosed schizophrenics—and it’s not a money-funneling scheme by Big Pharma.
Certainly music can be therapeutic, but it’s a big leap from there to suggest our brainwaves and cells can be retuned like guitar strings.
Auster hadn’t used any gongs in our session because they can be “intense” for first-timers, she said, but she invited me to a mass meditation that would include a short sound bath this weekend.
Not surprisingly, group sound baths are significantly more affordable than privates: Brooklyn’s Maha Rose Center for Healing offers two-hour group sessions for $40.
After the session, I spent the next hour stumbling around SoHo as if I’d been cast in the Thriller music video. The trouble with being a guinea pig when you’re not GP is that you have to go back to work after a deliciously relaxing, prohibitively costly sound bath. No wonder other celebrities like Robert Downey Jr. and Charlize Theron are fans.
Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before GP succumbs to the sound bath, touting her newly recalibrated nervous system and, inevitably, her own GOOP-branded tuning forks.