Sound Bath Serenade

by Becca Hensley

Those arriving for Sara Auster’s sound bath don’t know what to expect. They huddle in a top-floor conference room at Swissotel Chicago. Tentatively, they peer around the large, window-flanked room, amid a panorama of skyscrapers. Above the noisy city, this space seems to hover, vibrant with life, though relatively silent. Participants whisper as they find their places on yoga mats, rolled out askew, as if to resemble fallen flower petals. At the front of the room, Sara, renowned sound therapist and meditation teacher, sits calmly, as tranquil as a praying monk. She reminds me of a time traveler, a wise being from another era. Around her, crystal bowls, gongs, bells and other instruments provide backdrop. When she speaks, the room’s hum decrescendos.

Auster explains that sound baths are deeply immersive, full-body listening adventures that invite meditative states sure to jumpstart self-realization, internal dialogues and deep, healing relaxation. “There’s no wrong or right way to spend this time,” she says. “You might cry. You might fall asleep. Maybe you’ll snore or laugh or remember something you think you’ve forgotten.” She makes the point that whatever happens is meant to happen, and that participants should embrace the moment, let the music lead them to the next phase of their existence. Sara also makes clear that true silence in any setting is not possible, and that it’s up to us to navigate through the inevitable ambient noise. “Don’t forget that you won’t find total silence here—or anywhere,” she says, noting that participants should not be distracted by all the little sounds of life around them— breathing, stomach rumbles, sirens in the distance, somebody chopping onions in a kitchen, mosquitos circling, children laughing. In Sara’s world, all the noise matters. It’s all a cure.

Though among a crowd of people, I feel strangely alone. The lights have been dimmed, but I’ve pulled an eye mask over my eyes and a blanket over my legs. Sara has warned the throng that we may feel sleepy, and to yield to whatever may crop up. I yearn to stay awake. I want to hear her storied concert, an intuitive, mystical symphony of harmonic vibrations. Otherworldly, the sounds come from a combination of tuning forks, singing bowls, gongs and other overtone-emitting instruments. “These sounds stimulate the alpha and theta brain waves,” she says later, explaining that these waves are “associated with deep meditative and peaceful states.” The sound can slow the heart and respiratory rate, creating a therapeutic, meditative state. A sense of well-being reigns. I float into a deep sleep, and when I awake, I feel intensely energized, fortified and happy.

Sara, who offered free sound bath experiences on Instagram Live during quarantine, has been credited with bringing sound bath therapy into the mainstream. A musician, she suffered a traumatic accident in 2002, which left her with a broken back, emotional trauma and chronic pain. “I had two choices in my recovery: a life of chronic pain and an intense daily regimen of opioids or to discover a more holistic path to healing physically, spiritually and emotionally,” she says. She chose the latter, launching into yoga, meditation and psychoacoustics. On this journey, she discovered that her body and spirit were “healing in ways far beyond just my recovery from my accident.” This epiphany inspired her to teach and support others.

Today, she travels around the world leading her modern sound bath renditions, unique sessions capable of affecting the participant listeners deeply into their cells.

Her baths can unlock blockages, restore, ground and harmonize on multiple levels. Not just for spas, her talents have graced the boardrooms of Google, the galleries of MoMA, conventions, festivals such as SXSW, hospitals, hotels, grade schools— even Madison Square Garden.

Her first book, Sound Bath: Meditate, Heal and Connect Through Listening, has been a lifeline for many during Covid’s tough times. Sara urges others to seek wellness by holding “beautiful space for yourself.” She suggests a daily meditation practice, being mindful of what you put into your body and how you move it, but also paying attention to the words you speak, how you express yourself in the world through your actions, and how you make other people feel.

“If you know how to care for yourself in a way that is nurturing and supportive, you will have a better sense of how to care for others,” she says, a tuning fork in her hand, a sound bowl by her side. saraauster.com

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