Academic Minute Podcast

Elisa Sobo, San Diego State University – What is a Sound Bath? Guidelines on Getting a Good One

Sound baths have become all the rage to increase your health; but what does science say?

Elisa Sobo, professor of anthropology at San Diego State University, listens in.

Elisa (EJ) Sobo, PhD, is a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University. Past President of the Society for Medical Anthropology, Sobo has published thirteen books and numerous articles on topics ranging from maternal and child health to land acknowledgments, generative AI in higher education, and civilian attempts to storm Area 51. Her work on vaccination has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, and in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other news outlets.

What is a Sound Bath? Guidelines on Getting a Good One

Sound baths seem to be popping up everywhere, especially yoga studios. Providers surround recumbent clients with an ambient soundscape using simple instruments like tuning forks, gongs, chimes, and especially crystal bowls, which emit pure tones when soft mallets circle their rims.

Sound baths, and their promise of tranquility, are a modern, hybrid invention. Providers and receivers in my research often said they work because vibrations ‘clear energy blockages’ or ‘reset’ the nervous system. Scientifically, however, their mechanisms remain a mystery.

There IS mounting evidence of benefits, such as decreased tension, anger, and fatigue, and improved blood pressure and respiratory rate. This is all good. But given the unregulated, predatory nature of wellness capitalism, one must choose well.

Providers who over-sell sound baths as ‘scientifically proven’ or a cure-all should be avoided. So should those who engage in lots of ‘trauma talk.’ This both distracts clients from a bath’s simple pleasures and fuels a self-fulfilling prophecy, teaching clients to filter experience through a trauma lens, perhaps worsening mental health via what Foulkes and Andrews (2023) call “prevalence inflation.”

Another problem is providers who play too loud, make jarring transitions, forget to pause, or offer songs with lyrics, making meditation hard to maintain.

The site’s important too. You must feel safe enough to relax into the soundscape offered. Studios with locking doors help. Outdoor baths can be nice, but concern over onlookers, noise intrusions, and weather can undermine a sense of sanctuary. So can bright lights and clanging, which counts out most fitness centers.

Sound baths can be amazing, but the effects of even the best don’t last. Until we address the social forces driving demand, the market for sound baths will stay booming.

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