Why is sound meditation on the rise in the UAE? A look inside the sensory movement

With World Meditation Day marked on May 21, we explore why the soothing power of sound has become the go-to mindfulness practice

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To the uninitiated, all-encompassing sound isn't the first thing that comes to mind alongside the word meditation. But as many UAE residents and practitioners can attest, sound meditation has become the go-to solution for city dwellers looking to unwind after a mentally noisy week.

“People here lead hectic lives and are always looking for that hack, something that will help them relax – and I think sound healing is that,” says Dubai resident Aseya Nasib. Having been won over by the holistic practice, Nasib transitioned from an attendee to a certified practitioner this year.

A quick internet (or gym app) search will yield ample results for sound meditation sessions in wellness centres, yoga studios and spiritual retreats across the UAE.

'Easiest way to meditate'

Explaining the surge in popularity – global online searches have steadily climbed since mid-2021 – sound practitioner Anishka Bagla says: “It's a passive meditation where we experience the benefits while not having to do much as meditators.” In other words, it's accessible in a world that appreciates instant gratification.

After years of facilitating sessions, Bagla opened her own studio, Soul Side Wellness in Dubai's Jumeirah Lakes Towers, in January and demand has grown quickly ever since.

“I would use sound bowls during yoga sessions, more as a value-add during savasana [a meditative posture that typically signals the end of a yoga class],” she explains, adding that post-Covid, she noticed more curiosity around the practice. “More people had more time to turn inward. During the lockdown phase, I would hear people speaking of energy healing and practising yoga in their free time. And now that I've opened my own studio, most of the inquiries that come in are for sound healing.”

Zankhana Mistry, founder of Essentia Wellbeing Centre, also in JLT, concurs: “In the last decade or so, sound healing has taken centre stage. It is very much in demand because it's the simplest and easiest way, I think, to meditate.”

Instrumental lesson

Sign up for a sound meditation class, and you'll often walk into a serene space, perhaps calling on candlelight to promote a relaxed state. Yoga mats, pillows, blankets and sometimes even eye masks are laid out for zen-seekers to get comfortable.

It is the instruments that catch the eye, though. Tibetan singing bowls and gongs are among the most common offerings, but classes can also incorporate chimes, hand percussion, flutes and rainsticks.

A session may begin with breathing practices, yogic stretches or a short guided meditation – but sometimes practitioners just get stuck in – before attendees lie down and let the bowls do the singing.

So, where does the meditation part come into it? “There are many ways to meditate, but the end goal is the same – to be still mentally, physically and emotionally,” says Bagla. “Sound is a form of meditation simply because of what you're required to do. You're in complete stillness.”

'A quick way to slow down'

For first-timers and those who don't know how to turn off the outside world in favour of a more mellow state as the gonging begins, Bagla recommends a simple breathing exercise that can help to focus the mind as “the breath is the bridge between the mind and the body”. Opt for any breathing exercise where “your exhalation is longer than your inhalation, then you're already inducing a relaxation response in the body,” she advises.

For Nasib, who took up sound meditation several years ago to help manage OCD symptoms, the effects were immediate. “The first time I went to a sound class I was like: 'What just happened?' I loved it. It's a quick way to slow down the body and nervous system.”

For others, it can take a while to acclimatise to the experience. Kate Lindley, another fan, told The National: “I feel a heaviness on my physical body to the point where I feel I'm in a paralysis. I've learnt to work with my rational brain to understand that this is part of the process.” For her, it's an “interesting and fun experience” that helps her reset while frequencies work on a “cellular level”.

Nakul Meherish, a long-term UAE resident who manages a real estate business alongside owning and running Dubai restaurant Raju Omlet, is a recent convert to the holistic practice. “Sound meditation helps me cope and has impacted me in a positive way,” he says, explaining it makes him “feel a lot calmer … with the day-to-day stress.” After being initially referred due to pain, he says the sessions have also “helped heal my back”.

Harnessing the healing power

Anyone who has dipped their toes into the field will have noticed that the sound prefix can be followed by healing, bath or ceremony, as well as meditation. “For people who are not aware, it's all the same,” explains Mistry.

“But if you look at each piece of equipment used, they are chosen to deliver a specific frequency – and every frequency resonates with a particular body part, mood or emotion. Different bowls or instruments need to be used to tackle that particular aspect of the issue.”

The holistic healer, who offers one-on-one sessions alongside group meditations, took up the art after seeing how different sound therapies helped to reduce her mother's pain and instilled calm as she battled a cancer diagnosis in hospital.

As a healing modality, the effects of sound baths are attributed to the frequencies generated by each instrument. They can generate a vibration that creates movement in liquid forms. Because the human body consists of about 60 per cent water, the thesis is that sound waves do not only remove energy blockages but also stimulate healing from a cellular level.

While not studied directly, some science supports the theory. An American study conducted in 2017 at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that “floating particles will assemble and synchronise in response to acoustic waves”. Another 2022 study by the University of Michigan demonstrated how “non-invasive sound technology breaks down liver tumours in rats, kills cancer cells and spurs the immune system to prevent further spread”. Many more link sound waves to easing dementia symptoms, healing brain injuries and even indicate a revolution in stem cell therapy.

While for the masses, the potential healing powers of sound serve as secondary benefits, for others, it's the meditative effect that's the added bonus. Long-time meditator Lindley theorises: “Post-Covid, people are searching for more healing modalities and are realising that these practices can help cultivate peace, calmness, community and connection.”

'Every culture incorporates sound into rituals'

Shared community, according to Mistry, is at the heart of sound meditation's origins – long before it became an upscale, in-vogue wellness activity.

“Every religion, every culture has sound incorporated into rituals,” she explains. “Temples have bells, churches have hymns and Islam has a particular way of chanting the Quran. Now, it's moved out of the religious space into the cultural space. And people are finding ways to connect to their cultural space through sound without realising that they are going back to their roots.”

Bathing in shared sounds with a community has long been a form of meditation. Adamant that everyone should try sound healing, she is likewise cautious: “It's a great enabler, but it is not a magic wand.”

Even if you veer towards the sceptic side regarding holistic healing, then that's fine, too. There's no need to hold strong convictions to feel any meditative benefits. Like many busy UAE residents who have been dragged by partners or reluctantly referred by friends, you just need to turn up to your first group sound meditation, lie back, breathe and see, or rather feel, what happens next.

Updated: May 21, 2024, 2:33 PM