I am on my back on a yoga mat, eyes closed, in the acoustically enhanced atrium of the Irena building in Masdar City.
I am meant to be taking notes on this Celestial Sounds Immersion session, and the person leading the corresponding guided meditation has said something I feel is important to write down. The only problem is, I am rendered immobile, in the sweetest, most succulent way possible. My limbs are heavy. I am suddenly deeply calm and I do not want to move.
An assortment of instruments has plunged me into this state. They include a crystal quartz bowl; a range of differently sized and tuned Tibetan singing bowls; a crystal lyre, or harp; drums; rattles; a luscious-sounding "rainmaker"; an electronic sitar; and, to conclude, the ping of tiny Tibetan bells, which reverberate deliciously from the top of my head to the tip of my toes.
"I needed that," proclaims the friend I brought along, when we sit up an hour later, feeling dopey and as though we have been asleep for hours.
A dozen people have turned up for this, the first such session that the organisers have held in Abu Dhabi. Our fellow sound bathers include Marie-Pierre Bouchet, from France, who admits that she dragged along her husband, Chris Hibbert, an Australian. But he is not complaining. "It really took me away from all the noise in the background and allowed me to go within myself, which I haven't been able to do in a very, very long time," he says.
Bouchet, who has practised yoga and meditation, says the sound added a different dimension. "The way I would compare it is if you are in the sea and you had a wave come over, but gentle," she says.
Sonia Gonzalez, 47, an opera singer and reiki master from Venezuela, leads the session. She was drawn to sound healing after she was diagnosed three years ago with Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune condition, and credits a paleo diet, regular exercise, daily meditation and sound healing for her recovery.
“For me, that is the main reason I’m doing this,” she says. “It was my own experience … I did it by myself, I bought a crystal bowl and I started singing with my crystal bowl and at night I put on a recording of Tibetan bowls.”
The sound healing, or sound bath, trend has been sweeping North America and the West in recent years, through music, gongs, drums and bowls. And sound healing has most definitely landed in the UAE, with a wave of teachers – including Gonzalez – who can be traced back to Mathilde Souffront, the French expatriate holistic therapis and teacher who got into Tibetan singing bowls three years ago. "I went to Bali, that's where I first heard Tibetan bowls," she says. "l left my body."
She began, in April, offering teacher training in the method through her Dubai-based Ascension Platform. So far she has trained about 50 people, and led a Level 1 sound practitioner course at the Hot House yoga studio in Abu Dhabi over the National Day weekend. Souffrant credits the increased interest in – and receptivity to – sound healing to the expansion of the wellness scene in the UAE over the last three years. People are also much more willing to try new methods of relaxing, she says.
The bowls work, she explains, because they offer so many different aspects in one: “The sound, the resonance, the frequencies, the harmonics, the vibrations, the binaural beats and the music.”
And the reason it feels so good? The basic explanation is entrainment, a concept in biology where one aspect (your brain) will gradually synchronise with another (the sound of the bowls). It is what happens in drum circles, when birds fly together in the sky and in those "binaural beats" phone applications, where two different sound patterns are transmitted through each ear.
The deeply meditative and peaceful state created by entraining with the sound of singing bowls also creates the perfect condition, Souffrant explains, for mental and physical healing, creative thinking, clarity of mind and even intuitive messages.
Tasha Meiring, a yoga teacher and the owner of Abu Dhabi’s Hot House studio, also studied with Souffrant and now holds Tibetan sound healing sessions once a month at the Al Zeina studio. “When I did the course I didn’t fully comprehend what I was getting myself into,” she says. “When I started to receive sound healing it changed my life… I had imbalances in my body – physically and energetically. I didn’t realise how much I needed to slow down and it brought me mentally around as well as balanced my energy centres.”
Sound healers say the sessions, which for groups cost from Dh80 to Dh100 for about an hour, can reduce stress and anxiety and lower the heart rate. It is common to hear the words physics and science, and references to vibration and its effect on water, when they are explaining how it all works. There are a number of studies into the role of music in reducing pain and promoting healing, and a growing body of research showing that meditation can strengthen neural pathways and reduce stress-causing hormones.
Researchers at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, for example, are studying how music and rhythm can help compensate for the brain in diseases such as Parkinson's. The National Institute of Health, in the UK, has been studying the effect of sound stimulation of patients with fibromyalgia, with promising initial results.
Dr Mitchell Gaynor, an oncologist and director of integrative medicine at the Strang-Cornell Cancer Prevention Centre in the United States, is a leader in the field of "sound medicine". He began learning about singing bowls after watching their positive effect on a Tibetan monk he treated, who in turn taught him about the power of entrainment on physiology, all of which can be created with music. It's an experience that he chronicles in his book Sounds of Healing.
Lina Jarad, a Bulgarian who heads collaboration at Khalifa University, leads monthly sound healing sessions at Body Tree Studio in Abu Dhabi, as well as private sessions. She uses a variety of methods, including Tibetan singing bowls and Nadabrahma, or Tibetan humming.
Humming is immediately relaxing, particularly when done in groups, she says, and is probably why it is something we as humans instinctively do to feel better. Sound therapy works in the same way.
"In general you can improve your life, even if you just become a little calmer and more focused, and you sleep better," says Jarad. "It's general improvement of your life."
The next Celestial Sounds Immersion is on Friday, December 8, at 11am outside Melius restaurant at the Irena building, Masdar City, Abu Dhabi. Admission is Dh180 with a kit including yoga mat, pillow and blindfold or Dh100 with your own own equipment. For more information, go to Facebook.com/celestialsoundsimmersion