I Tried a Sound Bath, the Latest Obsession of R&B Singers Like Jhené Aiko

SZA and Aiko say sound bowls are a secret weapon for healing—so I tried sound meditation to see whether it brings peace of mind.
March 13, 2020, 7:24pm
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Photo Courtesy of Unplug Meditation

Three years ago, Jhené Aiko recorded Trip, a psychedelic musical journey through how drugs helped her cope with her brother's death. Her new album, Chilombo, continues to seek healing, and finds Aiko grappling with grief in a new way—using crystal alchemy sound bowls. She swears by them so much she features the sound healing instrument on every track of the album.

At a listening session for Chilombo, Aiko says she began studying sound therapy a year and a half ago to add more intention to her music. Leading up to Chilombo, Aiko released a string of passionate singles: the fiery post-breakup energy of "Triggered," and "None of Your Concern," followed by a lesson in seduction on "P*$$y Fairy (OTW)." The singer used a singing bowl tuned to a D note, which she says helps the sacral chakra responsible for pleasure and intimacy.

Aiko isn't the only R&B singer turning to sound bowls as a form of meditation. In a recent interview, SZA revealed she's not only practicing sound healing, but using crystal bowls in her new music, too.

"You pick whatever note comes to your mind naturally, and you imagine it squeezing out of your body," the Ctrl singer told Rolling Stone. "I feel like 10 times better already."

But what exactly are sound bowls, and why are R&B's most prominent stars suddenly using them in the studio? Eric Mellgren, a teacher and facilitator of sound guided meditation at Los Angeles's Unplug Meditation Center, helped VICE decipher if the practice is legit or just another wellness industry scam. After talking to Mellgren, I was curious enough to set up a session of my own—but we'll get to that later.

So, what are sound bowls?
Native Americans and Australia's Aborigines have used sound to treat various ailments for generations. Now the music world is finally catching up to the practice, using frequencies and vibrations to reduce stress and anxiety.

Terms like 'frequencies' and 'vibrations' can feel laughable, given how the wellness industry has turned healing crystals into a billion-dollar industry that promises gemstones can heal what ails you. Even Kevin Garnett's character in Uncut Gems believed an Ethiopian black opal, worth $3,000 per carat, was helping him on the basketball court. But, according to Mellgren, frequencies and vibrations aren't just buzzwords—they're the foundation of sound meditation.

"[Sound baths] are a more targeted way to introduce vibrations and frequencies to the body," he told VICE. "I'm trying to raise any vibration that might not be operating at an optimal level. Frequencies and vibrations help relax the tissue and open up the blood vessels which create a relaxing feeling in your body. When you're relaxed, you tend to heal faster."

Tibetan bowls, which are metal, release two frequencies. Striking them at the rim, rather than the bottom of the bowl, will produce different notes which emit different frequencies. Crystal bowls, like the ones Aiko uses on Chilombo, vary depending on which gems are infused in their glass. Most bowls are infused with crystal quartz, which is said to help restore energy, but when SZA wants to feel cleansed, she reaches for her selenite bowl, and when she wants to feel loved, she grabs a bowl infused with morganite.

How does it work?
According to Mellgren, the science behind sound bowls is pretty similar to music theory. "It's like dealing with all of the white keys on the piano until you start incorporating sharps and flats," he said. Like any instrument, the key is knowing which bowl to play to emit the right response.

"What ultrasound [therapy] is actually doing is increasing tissue relaxation, local blood flow, scar tissue breakdown, which reduces swelling and help inflammation," he said. By definition, ultrasounds are "high-frequency soundwaves," so the logic is that sound bowls produce a similar outcome. "What the vibration is actually doing is helping to break up that stress, anxiety, and muscle tension in the body. It slows down your brain waves and gets you in a meditative state where healing can occur."

SZA and Aiko's interest in sound bowls is particularly interesting because they have more in common than their day jobs. Aiko's brother Miyagi died in 2012, and SZA's grandmother—who is featured on her debut album—died last June. Sound bowls are said to reduce stress and anxiety, but they may also have the potential to help process grief. Mellgren says the bowls acts as a filter, allowing you to release emotions you've been harboring.

"The vibration is literally digging in there and allowing grief, sadness, and depression to come out whether it's in laughter or tears," he said. According to him, the important part is that there's a release.

Does it actually work?
Experts within the wellness industry praise sound bowls and other trendy practices, but many of their claims are hard to prove. There isn't a lot of definitive research on this type of sound therapy, so I thought I'd try it for myself. I scheduled a 60-minute sound bath at Upper East Side's MNDFL Meditation.

Our instructor assured us this was a "judgment-free zone," and that by committing to the session we'd already earned the right to release our feelings. His voice was calm as he guided the group through deep breaths. It was the first time that I felt conscious of my lungs, like maybe I'd been doing this breathing thing wrong all my life. He struck the bowls and sound filled the room, and my body too, flowing from my eardrums down to my fingertips.

My first meditation session wasn't perfect. For a chronic overthinker like myself, it was hard to quiet my thoughts. I didn't know the facilitator would be surveying the room, playing instruments slightly above our heads. I laughed in ways I haven't since childhood. It was like pretending to sleep when your mom checks on you. Certain sounds resonated with me more than others; just when I doubted the legitimacy of the sound bath's effects, the instructor played a new note, and suddenly my mind went blank.

Just before we wrapped, the instructor asked us to think of someone we love and to smile at them to show gratitude. It was difficult to flash a smile in a dark room even though I knew everyone's eyes were closed. Then, we were asked to show gratitude to ourselves, our support systems, and to the world.

We opened our eyes and without thinking twice, my cheeks were tear-stained. For 60 minutes, the stresses of daily life and even the panic of coronavirus were irrelevant. SZA and Jhené Aiko just might be onto something.

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.