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Sound Healing - Basic Terminology

Sound healing, sound yoga, sound bath, sound therapy, sound meditation, vocal meditation, sound journey,… A dear child has many names?

As the popularity of using sound and music in the wellness world keeps increasing, you have probably encountered many terms related to the field and might be wondering what they all mean. Are the different titles referring to the same thing or do they actually mean something different? In this post, I will do my best to clarify.

Broadly speaking, we are dealing with only one thing: the conscious use of sound for promoting our health and wellbeing. I think the term sound healing covers this general idea pretty well. Healing is about returning to wholeness by harmonizing the different aspects of our being: body, mind and spirit, and that way it is a good umbrella term for the many methods and techniques involved.

This therapeutic use of sound is sometimes also called sound therapy. Sound therapy should be distinguished from music therapy which refers to the clinical use of music interventions in a therapeutic relationship, to cure diagnosed illness. Sound healing or sound therapy, on the other hand, is essentially about the energy of sound as vibration (vs. music / organized sound), the focus being on the relationship between the client and sound (vs. client-therapist relationship) and on holistic thriving (vs. curing).

The challenge with the term sound healing is that it is indeed an umbrella that should pretty much cover everything in the field. So when someone offers “sound healing”, it is practically impossible to know what to expect as ‘sound healing’ as such is not a specific technique or method on its own. For example, sound healing can cover anything from exposing oneself to harmonic sounds or using sound related relaxation and meditation methods to altering brainwave states and using sound as a tool in medical situations.

I think the practical application closest to sound healing as a broad approach would be Sound Yoga. The word “yoga” refers to wholeness (healing!) that happens through joining the individual self to the Ultimate Reality. The path of yoga has been researched and practiced for thousands of years and this ancient tradition of India has always considered sound as one of its essential elements, sound itself being a legitimate yoga, or “path”, just like hatha yoga (the familiar form of yoga for many Westerners). The classic term for the yogic use of sound and music is Nada Yoga which literally translates as Sound Yoga. However, if we want to be more precise, Nada Yoga can also be considered as one particular stream of Sound Yoga while also others can be identified, each of them with their distinct qualities and practices. Following this idea, Nada Yoga is essentially about the internal experience of sound through meditation (music, sound and silence) and deep listening whereas Shabda Yoga(“word yoga”) focuses on combining sound, word and meaning with Vedic mantras, Shakti Yoga on releasing, channelling and transforming energy with tantric mantras (“seed syllables”), and Bhava Yoga on devotional music and chant. This is one way to distinguish the different streams of the immensely rich tradition of Sound Yoga*, and others may exist, but I myself find this one clear and practical. In my own work, I use practices from all the above streams of Sound Yoga.

One term you probably have encountered is sound meditation (or vocal meditation), an element of Sound Yoga (especially Nada Yoga) that usually refers to using sound as a medium in the process of meditation. Meditation is a very important practice for decreasing the supremacy of the mind and cultivating our ability to be present – the first steps in any healing process. Sound (especially our own voice), in turn, tends to be a good point of concentration that efficiently helps to calm the mind and move towards inner silence. Consequently, many people consider meditating with sound particularly effective, even as a fast track to a deep meditative state. I am one of those people.

As much as I like the concept of Sound Yoga, in principle it does refer to the Hindu tradition and that way leaves out all other traditions of the world. Call me carefree, but I myself have taken a liberal approach and consider any sound practice with a yogic approach (that is, using sound and music for self-realization) as part of the system, no matter where it comes from. So for me, a yoik from Lapland, a medicine melody from the Amazon or African inspired drumming are all Sound Yoga in its broad sense. I don’t think this takes anything away from the sophisticated, ancient Sound Yoga practices of India. Rather, I think it reminds of the fact that everything is essentially about the same sound (anahata nada).

Sound Yoga is a path that requires active effort to produce its benefits. However, there are also many forms of sound healing offered that typically involve minimal active participation. Sound baths, sound healing concerts, singing bowl or drum relaxation sessions, or sound journeys (the term I use myself) usually refer to events where you essentially go to receive and relax. You typically just lie down and listen to harmonic, natural instruments being played, allowing the sound vibrations go through your body and affect your system. You often enter in a state of deep relaxation with these frequencies, thereby attaining the optimal conditions for self-healing. These events have become increasingly popular, for a natural reason: we really do need deep relaxation as often as possible to balance out the stressful lives we have created for ourselves.

Sound relaxation or healing sessions are offered on the individual level too. In these sessions, healing frequencies are channelled to the person by using instruments, typically Tibetan singing bowls and/or tuning forks, on the body. This work involves certain kinds of protocols for healing and it is an expertise of its own. You as a client mostly relax and receive vibrations without much active participation, and the “healer” is there to (more or less intuitively) facilitate your process of healing.

So as you can see, there are various ways to avail of the sound healing realm, and only the most common concepts encountered in the wellness world were covered here. There can also be significant variance within these concepts due to teachers’ personal approaches: a drum circle can be mostly about having fun by making music together (which is also good!), or it can go clearly deeper by consciously connecting with the rhythms of life with drumming. The same applies to chanting and basically everything. You will probably find some methods and approaches more suitable for your individual needs than others, so what I encourage you to do is to explore and find the approach and teacher that truly resonate with you and support your path with the right depth. The most important thing is to take the step and start opening yourself to sound. It is an incredibly potent tool for transforming your life, so trust me, you do not want to ignore it.

MINI GLOSSARY Sound Healing = General term for using sound to promote wellbeing. Sound Yoga = Established path for using sound to attain wholeness. Involves more specific streams such as Nada Yoga, Shabda Yoga, Shakti Yoga and Bhava Yoga. Expect to actively practice meditation, listening, sounding and chanting. Sound Meditation = Element of Sound Yoga, but can be part of other traditions too. Refers to using sound (external, own, silence) to practice presence beyond the mind and experience our essential nature. Sound Bath / Sound Healing Concert / Sound Relaxation / Sound Journey = Method of deep relaxation that uses sound vibrations from harmonic instruments. Drum Circle = Drumming (usually with frame drums) simple rhythms with a group. Expect to play, listen, embody rhythm and communicate musically.

Have you encountered more sound healing terms that would need to be clarified? I’ll be happy to comment, so don’t hesitate to ask!

Love, Anna

*Source: “The Yoga or Sound” by Russill Paul

(Originally published in April 2019)

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