When it was Nancy Heim’s turn to entertain her regular dinner group of eight couples, she wanted to do something a little different. “The big restaurants charge $25 for a good glass of Cabernet, you have to dress up; I’m over that,” she said. “I don’t need it and I don’t want it.” Instead, she invited her guests, which included doctors and real estate and finance professionals, to her home in Beverly Hills for a sound bath.
On the invitation, she included a photo and description of a sound bath and suggested dressing comfortably. The day of, she moved the sofa and ottoman to the sides of her living room and put down sleeping bags, yoga blankets and bolsters on the floor. The empty-nesters, who have been getting together monthly for 22 years as part of their Chavurah Mazel group, lay with their shoes off and eyes closed. Eric Mellgren, a sound therapy practitioner that Heim had hired for the evening, played his Crystal Tones Alchemy Bowls to produce relaxation-inducing sounds, putting the group into a deep meditative state. Afterward, the friends — relaxed and happy — socialized over the chicken kebabs and Mediterranean salad that Heim had ordered from Panini Kabob Grill.
The days — and nights — of sound baths being for the far-out and love-in crowd are over. They are following the path paved by yoga and juicing, meaning you can now likely find one in your neighborhood and go sound bathing with a friend midday or on a weekend date. (Heim recently held another sound bath for a “Girls’ Night In” at her home.) The Little Beach House in Malibu offers a sound bath to its members every Friday evening on the upstairs terrace, combining the stirring sounds with those of ocean waves. Be Crystal Clear, a new studio in Santa Monica, offers 45-minute “Lunch Baths” for moms after school drop-offs in the morning. And Unplug meditation, with studios in Santa Monica and West Hollywood, offers two sound baths a day, “and they’re packed,” says founder and owner Suze Yalof Schwartz. Celebrities are jumping on board too: Kim Kardashian West included a sound bath as part of the festivities at her recent baby shower.
One reason for their popularity is that sound baths are a healthy alternative to a calorie-laden and alcohol-infused night out. I was a sound bath virgin when my friend Alexandra Wagner, a skin care entrepreneur in Venice, suggested we check one out at our local yoga studio, Surya, on a Saturday night. At first, I was like, “What, no cocktails?” But once we were lying down under cozy blankets, having to do absolutely nothing but listen to the gong and singing bowls like a journey to center of the soul, I was hooked (and I promise not to use the word “journey” again). I didn’t even crave wine afterward, I was so chilled out.
“Especially after a week of work, it’s such a nice way to wind down, instead of getting a buzz and feeling hungover the next day,” Wagner told me. “And you don’t have to expend any energy; you just get to take it down a notch and open your heart to love, baby.”
It’s a different way to alter your state, instead of hitting the rosé. “You walk out feeling like you’ve left your body, similar to doing drugs but without the drugs,” Unplug’s Yalof Schwartz said. “People don’t want to drink and eat all the time anymore, we’re in L.A., they’re health-conscious,” she says.
The feel-good nature of sound baths can be habit-forming itself. Susy Schieffelin, who leads sound baths on the beach in Venice and Malibu in addition to sold-out crowds inside studios such as Unplug, says sound baths helped her on her path to sobriety. When she was living in New York and working in “luxury lifestyle management, like a fancy version of a concierge for places like the residences at the Plaza” she would arrange high-end dinners and travel for clients. “Eating, drinking and indulging, that’s what happy looked like to me.”
When she arrived in L.A. and started her sober life, she didn’t want to go to bars. Her aunt took her to a sound bath instead. “At the sound baths, my life started to change profoundly, healthy eating, regular yoga, regular meditation,” she said. “It all started to click. I was doing things that made me feel full from within instead of full from a food coma.”
Sugar Panbehchi, the founder of Be Crystal Clear, used to be in her family restaurant business before opening her studio in Santa Monica. She sees the larger movement of people changing their lives to be more present, especially as technology starts to swallow us whole.
“Technology is taking away a lot of things like personal touch and communication, being empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate,” Panbehchi said. “But people are waking up, it’s happening very quickly.” Last month, Panbehchi provided sound baths for attendees of the 2019 Milken Institute Global Conference.
“My whole mind-set of opening this space is to connect people again to each other and to themselves,” Panbehchi added. To that end, she often combines sound baths with breathwork and reiki, adding, “If you want to have a high experience, try breathwork.” (Trust me, at a recent breathwork sound bath at her studio, I was relieved to peek open my eyes toward the end and see the ceiling, reminding me I was still on Earth.)
And just because you’re going to lie down with your eyes closed doesn’t mean you have to go alone. Taking a friend, partner, family member or date can be a fun, social activity. Schieffelin says she sees a lot of people on first dates — “It’s a way to connect” — and has noticed co-workers coming in for “lunch” meetings. She has also led private sound baths for families, people’s birthdays and girls’ nights: “It’s a bonding experience.”
As sound baths have become more mainstream, they are leaving their hippie-dippy image behind (think Integratron circa 1975). Mellgren, who led the sound bath at Heim’s home in Beverly Hills, used to be a music executive before pivoting. He’s a soccer player and wears a hoodie when he goes to sounds baths himself. “I don’t wear the garb of the spiritual spectrum; you don’t have to wear bracelets and eight scarves, you can do this work in whatever way is comfortable to you,” he says. Mellgren, who leads sessions at Unplug, also talks about the benefits of sound baths, not just as relaxation but how it changes your perception of the world around you, and the impact that has on others. “This is a major thing to help reduce stress, it’s a healthy way to do it. Plus, your encounters will be much different when you’re at ease.”
Corporations are noticing this too. Unplug offers corporate services; the NFL, Goop and ESPN are all clients. “Have bowls, will travel,” says Yalof Schwartz.
The sound baths themselves have changed as well. Yalof Schwartz says that when she opened Unplug in 2014, sound baths “used to be heavy, loud experiences filled with hippies and a lot of burning sage. We don’t let them burn sage now, just a little bit of palo santo and, ideally, spray.” Now, the leaders use Crystal Tones Alchemy Bowls and Koshi chimes that are lighter and clearer in sound. She says the people who come “are stressed people who want to clear their minds and relax.” The sound baths at Unplug are only 45 minutes, perfect for a lunchtime break.
Indeed, working people and busy moms seem to be the ones who have the least amount of time for self-care. That’s one reason Josephine Atluri, an event planner in Pacific Palisades, organized a sound bath for the XX Project, a women’s networking group. There were about 40 inspiring C-suiters in her backyard who learned relaxation and de-stressing techniques from health practitioners, and then lay down on yoga mats to be bathed in sound. “They still were able to network and talk to one another first, but then they took time to care for themselves that afternoon.” Atluri also held one for her own 40th birthday last fall.
Atluri says that sound baths are a great way to introduce meditation to people who are intimidated by it, as she once was. “They’re making meditation accessible. People love music, so it seems like similar to just listening to music, but there’s so much more happening because of the vibrations moving through your body.”
And your brain. Whatever type of music you listen to, whether loud and upbeat, or slow and relaxing, has a frequency. Your brain mimics that frequency as it listens to the music, according to Dr. Ravinder Singh, a neurologist and founder of the Headache Institute in Beverly Hills that uses Eastern and Western practices to treat headaches and help people manage stress.