The science of Ayurveda is designed to help us live in harmony with our environment. Part of living in harmony with one’s environment includes balanced use of the senses. This can be a challenge, as we are literally barraged with sensory input on a daily basis. In the audio realm alone, we are subjected to tv, radio, traffic and construction noise, airplanes, trains, electrical vibrations and conversations, to name a few. Outside of actively retreating into nature, if we listen carefully, the sounds of nature penetrate the man-made noise at times, providing a temporary solace. Apart from external noise, we also deal with our internal sounds – thoughts – which may be shaped in large part by the external sounds. For example, if we are surrounded by people telling us we are stupid, our thoughts may reflect those words, and in turn, the vibrations of the body may be altered.
The use of sound as a healing therapy has existed for centuries. From the mantras of the Rig Veda, an ancient Vedic text, to modern gadgets, there are many therapies that utilize sound as the basis of healing. Some are passive, such as modern vibroacoustic therapy, while others require more participation on the patient’s part, such as in the repetition of mantras. Sound therapies include music, chanting, Tibetan singing bowls, and the modern BETAR table. This paper will explore some of these modalities.
Why does sound heal?
Everything in nature vibrates at a particular frequency, including plants, rocks, stars, television sets, cellular phones and, of course, our bodies. When the body is continually exposed to vibrations similar, but not natural to its own frequencies, the new vibratory patterns may cause the natural frequencies to alter their vibrations to the new patterns. Dutch scientist Christian Huygens observed this principle, called entrainment, in 1655. He discovered that when he hung two clocks with different pendulum speeds close to each other on the same wall, the pendulums would ultimately synchronize and swing at the same speed.
When our natural frequencies become “out of tune,” the body may become out of balance and we may become ill. The same process that can cause our vibrations to be unhealthy can also be used to restore the vibrations to homeostasis. Sound healing seeks to return our vibratory patterns to their natural state. Sound not only heals physical, mental and emotional trauma, but it also is a conduit for progress on our individual spiritual journey, as some sounds lead us to higher levels of consciousness.
It is a well-accepted principle in the modern world that music affects moods. Film makers use music in movies to evoke an emotional response. Music is played in stores and restaurants, with the intent to entice us to buy more. Those of us who are musically inclined may have our own individual repertoire that we draw upon to either change or enhance a current mood. Consciously or unconsciously, we may choose certain music when we are sad, reinforcing the emotion. We may choose different music when we decide it’s time to let go of the sadness. The same songs to which we cling during certain periods in our lives may have a completely opposite effect, or even seem annoying, when in a different mood.
It is also a fairly well-accepted axiom that music affects health. Music therapy is a recognized allied health profession (a clinical health profession outside of medicine, nursing or dentistry). Most of the mainstream population is familiar with the Mozart effect, the theory that listening to Mozart’s music will make a person smarter.
A recent article in Science Daily reports on a new study performed in Tel Aviv, during which pre-term infants were exposed to 30 minutes of Mozart music each day. The researchers discovered that these babies used less energy after the music sessions, thereby increasing their ability to rapidly gain weight. Dr. Dror Mandel, one of the researchers, stated that, “It’s not exactly clear how the music is affecting them, but it makes them calmer and less likely to be agitated.” Dr. Mandel offers a possible explanation, “The repetitive melodies in Mozart’s music may be affecting the organizational centers of the brain’s cortex,” he says. “Unlike Beethoven, Bach or Bartok, Mozart’s music is composed with a melody that is highly repetitive. This might be the musical explanation. For the scientific one, more investigation is needed.”
Each doshic type is balanced by certain styles of music. According to Pratima Raichur, in her book “Absolute Beauty,” vata types are balanced by slow, soft music with low tones and easy rhythms. Good choices for vatas include folk music, waltzes and ballroom music, due to their rhythmic nature. Also, the repetitive character of classical Indian music, Gregorian chants, classical Bach and Haydn help to balance the irregular, erratic qualities of the vata prakruti or vikruti. Contemporary “easy listening” and “light sounds” are more balancing to vata types than rap or rock music. Bri Maya Tiwari, in her book, “The Path of Practice” lists musical instruments that balance each dosha. Each dosha is balanced by vocals, Himalayan singing bowls and the piano and harmonium, played in the manner most appropriate for that dosha. Choices for vata include sitar, guitar, violin, mandolin and bass among stringed instruments; Incan panpipes, didgeridoo and chimes among wind instruments; all drums and percussion instruments.
Pitta types are balanced by soothing, mellow music with medium tones and tempo. According to Raichur, pitta types need music “just slow enough to slow you down a bit but fast enough not to spark your impatience.” These sounds include jazz, opera, Benny Goodman, James Galway and some New Age sounds. The instrumental list according to Bri. Maya Tiwari includes flute, clarinet and saxophone among reed instruments; harmonica; violin, mandolin and dulcimer among stringed instruments; accordion and bagpipes among wind instruments; and all percussion instruments, including gentle drums.
Kapha types are balanced by energizing, spicy, passionate music with higher tones. According to Raichur, “The harder the beat and the higher the volume, the better for staid Kapha.” These sounds include opera, classical Handel and Beethoven, loud electric music, R&B, Latin, rock and rap. Kapha-balancing instruments, according to Tiwari, include tabla, conga and water drums, as well as all other types of drums; all keyboard instruments; bells and chimes among percussion instruments; and didgeridoo, panpipes and the accordion among wind instruments.
• Vibroacoustic Therapy
Vibroacoustic therapy utilizes mechanical devices that passively deliver sound waves directly to the body in order to balance the physical, mental and emotional states. The BETAR (Bio-energetic Transduction-Aided Resonance) system is one such device. The BETAR vibroacoustic therapy system, designed by Peter J. Kelly, consists of a table, similar to a massage table, in which speakers are embedded at various distances along the midline of the table, aligning with the chakra points. Music is played while the client lies on the table. The client may choose from various types of music ranging from soft, soothing music to quick drum rhythms. Embedded within the music are the specific tones that resonate with each chakra. The music is literally felt as the vibrations from the speakers penetrate the body. The experience is often referred to as a BETAR ride. According to the website , “Like ripples on a pond, the sound waves delivered by the focused speaker array resonate outward through every muscle, organ and joint in the body – a gentle music massage that melts away deeply-held patterns of tension, stress and pain. Riders float away from the cares and concerns of everyday life, a visit to a personal musical sanctuary where healing can take place.”
Peter Kelly also designed devices known as “Mood-O-Matics.” These small devices, based on Nicola Tesla’s bifilar coil technology, produce low-frequency waves in order to induce either a state of relaxation or sleep. The waves, if perceived at all, may be heard as a low humming noise. The Relaxation Mood Tone Generator emits waves at the same frequency as the earth’s natural resonance. Known as the Schumann Earth Resonance Frequency, this frequency, until the modern age, was the dominant frequency at which the earth resonated. The earth’s natural frequency itself has been altered by the multitude of electronic objects we currently employ to make our lives easier. The Sleep Mood Tone Generator emits waves at a slightly slower speed, similar to delta waves produced by the brain. Both devices operate by drowning out other dominant frequencies, such as those created by power lines, in a small area around the device.
• Tibetan Singing Bowls
Tibetan singing bowls are handmade bowls, composed of various types of metals, usually combinations of bronze, copper, gold, nickel, silver zinc, tin and iron. These bowls produce various tones by striking a wooden mallet either on the side of the bowl or rubbing the mallet around the outside of the bowl. A therapy session using bowls consists of the therapist placing bowls of assorted sizes on the chakra points of the body and playing the bowls, again, by either striking or rubbing the side of the bowl. The therapist will choose bowls appropriate to the chakra tones or to the part of the body that needs to be balanced.
The Sound, Mind, Healing and Education website quotes a November 2005 Massage Magazine article called “Samvahan, Vibrational Healing from India,” describing the theory behind Tibetan Bowl Sound Therapy. “’The sound waves from the bowls spread, as the concentric waves from a stone dropped in a pond, into larger and larger circles through blood, flesh, organs and even bones, relaxing them and at the same time harmonizing and energizing them. In this way the more than 100 trillion cells that are the building blocks of the human body are receiving a gentle cell massage. A visual example of the cleansing power invoked here is what happens when we put jewelry or dentures into a supersonic bath and see how in a short while all the dirt and grime is shaken loose. The sound therefore is releasing energy blockages through out the body. The bowl vibrations are soothing enough to calm the nervous system yet powerful enough to travel deep into the body to penetrate the bones.’”
• Raga and Gandharva Veda Music
Raga, an ancient healing form of music, is the music of the universe, said to have been taught to the rishis by Shiva himself. Musicians construct complex melodies in rhythm with the cosmos according to six seasons – spring, summer, early fall, fall, early winter and winter. Bri. Maya Tiwari, in the Path of Practice , says, “According to Vedic thought, every raga has existed since the time of transmission from Shiva; thus musicians who are said to have composed ragas, in actuality discovered a particular musical piece that was already known to the universe.”
According to Ayurveda, each dosha accumulates, peaks and retreats each day. This play of the doshic tides occurs twice in each 24-hour period. Maharishi Gandharva Veda music is a system of music designed to be played during specific doshic periods. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, has worked to revive this type of music, based on ragas. Nature’s vibrations change during the day and the music is written in synchronization with those vibrations. The vibrations from the music will not only influence the body, but also the environment in which it is played, neutralizing negative vibrations in the immediate area and creating a calm, peaceful atmosphere.
Kirtan is the practice of chanting, or repetitive singing, various names of the Divine. The experience of Kirtan is different than listening to music. In a group kirtan, the leader, called a wallah, sings a mantra, typically in Sanskrit, with the audience repeating it. A person doesn’t need a good singing voice to be a part of a kirtan. The voice may be the instrument, but the singing comes from the heart. The vibrations caused by the singing allow the participants to connect with their inner being and with each other. According to Ragani, a gifted kirtan singer, in an interview by Linda Johnsen for her book, Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path , “You feel the whole room go silent, and you sit there and your eyes are closed and you realize there are several hundred people in the room. You open your eyes and look out on a sea of faces and there’s not one person you recognize, yet you feel connected to every one.”
Chanting, once thought by many to be an obscure custom, is now being scientifically studied by the medical community. In a 2010 study performed at the Parmala Hospital in Bengaluru, India , the effect of chanting on neck pain was investigated. Participants were trained in yogic mind sound resonance technique (MSRT), which consisted of repeating the syllables A, U, M, Om, and then the Mahamrityunjaya mantra. The control group received 30 minutes of conventional physiotherapy followed by 20 minutes of non-guided supine rest for 20 minutes. The study group received the same 30 minutes of therapy followed by 20 minutes of MSRT accompanied by an audio CD. The study group showed significantly better results in pain levels, tenderness, neck flexibility and anxiety.
Several studies have been conducted on the use of Kirtan Kriya, a Kundalini yoga meditation technique, during which participants chant several primal sounds, both out loud, then silently, while simultaneously performing a specific mudra (hand position) with each sound. One study, published in 2009 in the journal Nuclear Medicine Communications , assessed changes in brain function during this type of meditation. Brain scans of 11 participants were compared while in a resting state and during the practice of Kirtan Kriya. The study revealed that there was a marked increase in brain activity in areas of the brain that control memory. One particularly significant finding was that the increase in brain activity occurs in the first part of the brain to experience a functional decrease in Alzheimer’s patients.
In another study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2010, the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation along with the University of Pennsylvania , brain function and cognitive testing were reviewed in a group of patients experiencing memory problems. They were instructed to practice Kirtan Kriya for 12 minutes per day. In addition, another group listened to Mozart violin concertos for 12 minutes, rather than practicing meditation. The Kirtan group showed increased cerebral blood flow, while the Mozart group showed a non-significant increase in different regions of the brain.
The subject of mantra is so vast that an entire branch of yoga, Mantra Yoga, is devoted to its exploration. In an introductory note to Dr. David Frawley’s book Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound , Sampadanada Mishra defines mantra: “The word Mantra is derived from the root sound “man” which means to think, to contemplate or meditate on, to perceive, to understand or comprehend. The sound tra at the end of the word Mantra is a suffix added in the sense of instrumentality. So, Mantra, as per its etymology, is an instrument of or a means for contemplation, meditation, comprehension, perception and of thought. Mantra, in fact, unites the mind with the pure sound.”
The physical body is surrounded by the subtle body, a body of energy that exists beyond our sensory realm. Mantric sounds create or restructure the vibratory patterns in the subtle body, which effect changes in the physical body. Dr. Frawley explains , “Just as asana puts the body into a certain energetic posture in which higher forces can be released, so too each mantra puts the mind into a certain pose in which it can become a conduit for a higher flow of energy and grace. Each mantra like each asana has its intention, form and means of adaptation. Much like each asana, each mantra has its signature energy that brings about a specific effect upon the mind and can be understood according to its sound, meaning and application.”
Mantras may take the form of syllables, known as seed (bija), sounds, or they may be used as words and verses. The Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedic texts, is composed solely of mantric verses, known as hymns. Although not a comprehensive practice, simply listening to the Rig Veda as it is being chanted can have profound effects upon one’s being. Many yoga traditions continue to chant individual mantras from the Rig Veda that have been handed down orally from teacher to disciple. Two examples include the Gayatri Mantra and the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra, both of which find their roots in the Rig Veda.
Yoga traditions use mantras as a focal point in meditation to give the mind something to do while drawing the attention ever inward, leading the practitioner to union with the inner Self. The Yoga Sutras expound upon the practice, maintaining , “The word expressive of Isvara [God] is the mystic sound OM. To repeat it with reflection upon its meaning is an aid. From this practice, all the obstacles disappear and simultaneously dawns the knowledge of the inner Self.” All mantras, and in fact, all sounds, emanate from the primal sound Om.
In true yoga traditions, the Teacher or Guru initiates the student with a personal mantra that has been energized by force of the Guru and the Tradition. The student usually performs japa, a practice involving using a mala, a necklace of 108 beads plus one Guru bead, to count a specified number of mantra repetitions within a certain time period. This practice helps to reinforce the mantra into the student’s being. The mantra protects the student. The student uses the mantra to guide the mind into meditation and repeats it any time the mind remembers it. Eventually, with persistent practice, the mantra becomes so much a part of the student that it continues to be repeated in the unconscious mind. Although mantras can be recited by anyone, they have the most power, and thus yield the maximum benefit, when passed from teacher to student in a formal tradition.
The sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet itself are balancing to the body. In fact, each letter of the alphabet has a specific sound and equivalent vibration, which corresponds to a particular part of the body. This is known as the Mantra Purusha. Through the use of the various sounds of the Mantra Purusha, we can “tune” our subtle body, correcting or redirecting the flow of energy from the subtle body into the physical body. These mantras can be combined with other mantras to create various effects. Mantra purusha sounds also correspond to marma points or regions, and thus may be chanted while stimulating marma points, increasing the healing effect. Mantras may be chanted while performing asanas, directing energy to specific areas of the body. Dr. Frawley in Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound describes in detail the Mantra Purusha and methods for its application.
Bija mantras may have various applications. In addition to energizing specific parts of the body, mantras can be used to heal chakras suffering from insufficient flow. For example, the mantra vam can increase flow through the second chakra, svadhistana. The mantras may be used to increase elements in the body. Vam can bring more water qualities into a dry body. Bija mantras are also associated with specific bodily tissues. Vam can be used in cases of emaciation, increasing fat in the body.
Mantras may be chanted out loud or internally. They may be chanted in the form of daily acknowledgements to the Divine. They may be used in conjunction with breathing practices, known as pranayama. In fact, the breath contains its own mantra. So is the sound the breath makes upon inhalation and ham is the sound the breath makes upon exhalation. This mantra can be chanted alone. Or the practitioner may choose another mantra to chant with the breath, depending upon the effect the practitioner wishes to achieve. For example, according to Dr. Frawley , chanting certain mantras with the breath will either increase or decrease the dominant element. Chanting ram in conjunction with breathing in the right nostril, through which flows fiery energy, will increase the fiery qualities. Chanting ram in conjunction with breathing in the left nostril, through which flows watery energy, will help to dry out the watery qualities.
The ancient Vedic texts contain many references to mantras in relation to curing diseases. For example, the Atharva Veda contains mantras (charms) for specific diseases, i.e. fever, headache and cough . Mantras can be used to infuse herbs in order to give them extra healing power. The Caraka Samhita directs the practitioner in numerous situations to infuse herbs with mantras in order to boost their healing properties. For instance, Caraka describes birth rites as follows: “1. First of all, the child should be given honey and ghee impregnated with mantra prescribed for this purpose in the Vedas; 2. Thereafter, following the same procedure, milk from the right breast should be given to the child at first; 3. An earthen jar filled with water should be impregnated with mantras and kept near the head of the child. The milk inside the breast (mother or nurse) should also be impregnated by mantras before it is administered to the child. ”
• Nada Yoga
Nada Yoga is one of the more esoteric branches of yoga, involving advanced practices. Typically, aspirants practice other forms of yoga for extended periods of time, in order to prepare the body and mind before reaching the level of consciousness required to practice nada yoga. Raja yoga is one such form of yoga, in which the aspirant practices eight limbs. The first four limbs make up hatha yoga: yama (observances), niyama (restraints), asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing practices). The next four limbs are meditative: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (superconsciousness).
The word nada means sound. While mantra yoga involves syllables and words, nada yoga focuses on our internal sounds. The practitioner transcends various levels of being, moving from the gross levels into ever more subtle regions. External musical forms, such as kirtan and raga lead one to the internal, celestial music. External sounds are known as “struck” sounds or ahata nada. In other words, the sounds and vibrations are produced by one object striking another.
Once the practitioner has withdrawn the senses and transcends the layers of external sounds, internal sounds become apparent. These internal sounds are known as “unstruck” sounds or anahata nada. The sounds are not produced, but are heard by the consciousness. Focusing on internal sounds, the practitioner first hears more gross internal sound and then hears progressively more subtle sounds which spring from silence. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika provides an outline of the practices of Nada Yoga.
One might wonder why the topic “silence” is included in a paper regarding sound. As indicated above, we live in a world full of sound. It is rare to find silence. It is common for people to be uncomfortable in silence or even to fear it. When people are in a room together, they tend to converse to fill the silence. When alone, most of us will play music or have the tv on for background noise. Even in the absence of external noise, the untrained mind, when faced with silence, will attempt to fill it with any number of ridiculous thoughts.
It is in the silence after kirtan that is most powerful. Bhagavan Das, in Linda Johnsen’s interview, describes the experience: “Nada Yoga means tuning in to the inner nada, the inner Shakti. We use the external singing and music as the tuning mechanism. When the music stops we enter the silence. Go into it because it echoes into the inner nada and the inner nada will take you to God.”
When a person sits in meditation and repeats a mantra, eventually the mantra will stop, leading to silence. Swami Rama of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition, in his book The Path of Fire and Light, Volume 2, devotes a chapter to the science of sound. In his examination of the mantra Om, he states , “…the mantra Om is composed of three parts: A, U, M – AUM – but the finest and most powerful part of Om is actually the silence preceding and following the sound….All sounds come from Om, and are finally annihilated and then go back into Om. The sound Om has no meaning if you do not know the silent hidden part of it. A-U-M stands for the waking, dreaming and sleeping states, respectively; the silent part signifies the fourth state, turiya. You have to go to silence to fathom the state of turiya.”
From a BETAR ride to a mantra meditation, if a person is open, a sound therapy session is followed by silence. As Ayurveda teaches us, the root of all disease is ignorance of our true nature as spirit. Silence allows us an opportunity to connect to that nature; it is thus in silence that real and lasting healing takes place.
The above information is presented as a very brief overview of a vast field of study. It is but the tip of an enormous iceberg. In fact, it has been a challenge to complete this paper. As I began to study each topic, I became so fascinated, that I would easily get sidetracked. In addition, I found it difficult to condense each topic into a few coherent paragraphs.
As sound healing becomes more mainstream, and further scientific studies confirm the value these therapies provide, perhaps the unprecedented level of unhealthiness existing in the world today can be decreased. It is possible for diseases to be healed or prevented through the use of sound. It can be done with no side effects or invasive, costly procedures and without dependence on toxic drugs.
Sound healing exists in many forms and can be used in any phase of an individual’s spiritual progress. It is appropriate for those wishing to address physical or mental issues, as well as for those progressing toward enlightenment. The deeper the practice, the more profound will be the results. Sound is a powerful tool for healing, not only for the physical body, but for returning us to the silence from which all sound, and indeed all matter, originates, assisting us in the quest to remember our true nature as spirit. It is only upon reaching that realization that we will be truly and completely healed.