How sound healing went mainstream

Shamanic sound healing is rooted in ancient mysticism. Can it work in the 21st century?

May 09, 2024
Image: Wirestock, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Wirestock, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

On a Saturday afternoon in a blacked-out room in Kentish Town, I am lying on a wad of blankets on the floor, my eyes closed, as a Shamanic sound healer places a heavy metal bowl on my chest. I feel its weight on my heart; the effort of each breath makes breathing feel more indulgent, and I find the physical strain comforting. She holds another bowl above my head and beats it with a mallet, sending vibrations shivering through my chest, my spine, my hips. I breathe out, and after a moment she beats it again. I linger in its release. She pounds the golden bowl once more before moving on to the next person.  

I am one of five friends lying on blankets on the floor, wrapped in more blankets, our heads resting on linen-covered cushions on overlapping Persian rugs; only now that I am vertical do I notice that the ceiling is painted black. “Close your eyes,” she says, “and focus on your breathing. Be mindful of the warmth of your breath as you breathe in, your body like a sun, and then the coolness as you breathe out, your flow like a moon. Imagine a deep blue sky all around you, and a moon in the sky, and a sun within you, as you flow between these two forces.” I can feel a fellow participant breathing deeply next to me, and my breathing aligns with hers. 

Kat Bumbul, our healer, hits one of the sound bowls and the warm vibrations fill the room; my mind is saturated with an amber glow, though my eyes are closed. “Breathe in deeply, mindful of the sun within, and then hold for two seconds. And then breathe out. And then hold for two seconds again. And then breathe in...” Gentle and painful memories emerge. “But then hold, retain, and let go. Breathe out.” And I am bleeding thoughts into the cosmos; the room can contain them all, she says, and then the sky, and then the universe. “Let them rise and disappear.” With every inhalation, I hang on, savouring the crystalline pain—and then breathe out again. 

I drift into my own thoughts as Bumbul plays more of these bowls like reverbed organ music, while wafting incense around. It is the same as the incense in Mass, warm and clinging and smoky. I breathe it in greedily, filling my lungs, and letting it escape. Only then do I notice that one of the others is snoring; Bumbul bangs another sound bowl and she stirs and wakes.  

The sound frequency increases, the lights dimmed to a slow glow. I imagine Joan of Arc, the flames lapping at her hair. I open my eyes, and I am cold; I wrap the blanket closer around me. “Breathe out, let your memories back into the world, let yourself disappear.” I close my eyes again and imagine the ash being blown away into a cascade of stars, disappearing. 

Bumbul starts singing, then—a deep, wordless hymn. When she is finished, she tells us to sit up and open our eyes. She hands us each one of the bowls, and a wooden mallet. “You can now bring this around the rim of the bowl,” she said, “very slowly. Like this.” I do as I am told, and a low whimper emerges from the bowl. 

Bumbul gets her own mallet and hits it against a huge gong, sending sound waves through the space. We sit for a moment to reflect, and bring ourselves back into the present moment, reborn. Gently, we fold our blankets and move towards the door, and when Bumbul opens it, the light floods in.

A lot of people are getting into sound healing these days, but it is a practice rooted in ancient traditions and rituals. I go back to the studio a couple weeks later to talk to Bumbul, who runs Sound Mysterium, and who has been offering these sessions for 16 years. Using the life sound of gongs, antique singing bowls and other trance-inducing instruments alongside meditation and Shamanic practices, she guides people into wellbeing and clarity. 

Bumbul was initiated into the ancient traditions of Kashmiri Shaiva Tantra, Siberian Shamanism and Spiritual Taoism, after participating in various journeys and retreats over the past 16 years. 

Her youth in Lithuania, however, with its Catholic churches and the “bells and smells” of Mass, also influences this ritual, she tells me, as we sit on the floor of the studio drinking green tea. The gongs and golden singing bowls are arranged together on her left, the blinds open this time, revealing sparse winter trees.  

“For me, sound and music were a really important part of my upbringing.” Kat says. “My parents are Catholic, and they were taking me to old churches with old organs, and that was when I thought, OK, this is the God, this is the thing that connects you to something bigger. There was this magic—in the incense, beautiful architecture, and then this organ music, and the weird rituals like sprinkling water on people. When you are a little kid, and you know nothing, it all adds up and creates the feeling of some kind of magic… Music was always something that would take me to another dimension, that space—something spiritual, another world—what people call God.”  

It wasn’t until Kat’s first experience with psychedelics in 2008, however, that she began her journey into sound healing. “That was a message; it was very clear I needed to work more with rhythm, with drumming… I attended a few workshops with different people, and I learnt the basics, and then I had time to explore on my own.” Sound healing shouldn’t be classed as music, she says. “You don’t really play any melodies, but you create soundscapes that have abstract meanings, and this is why people, when they hear them, they go into their own interpretation.” 

‘So you’re taking narration out of the experience...”  

“Yes,” Kat says, “you’re going beyond words, beyond thoughts. People often say that they have some big obsession, all these racing thoughts, and then after a sound bath, the thoughts are gone—and this is also the point of meditation, when you go to a space beyond words, beyond ego.”

“Often meditation can be hard if you are very stressed, but with sound baths it comes to you, you don’t have to try to meet it…” I say, remembering my own experience.  

“You are taken,” she says, and we laugh. “It is a sort of passive meditation,” she continues, “where you don’t have to do anything. And the more you surrender, the deeper you go. You don’t have to try to do something. It’s effortless. If people try to do something, it’s actually a resistance, and they’re blocking themselves to surrendering if they try to achieve some particular state. The more you are open to any sensations or anything else that comes up, the more interesting the experience.”

Everything else in the room affects the experience, she says. “The acoustics, the energy, the sounds from outside, people, smells… It’s all about setting the space. Everyone and everything in the space.” 

And in Shamanic practice, which Kat has been exploring more lately, things and people are one and the same. “In Shamanism, in animism, every object is alive.” Kat tells me. “For a Shaman, a drum is not a music instrument, it’s a live being that has huge power. It is empowered, it is consecrated, and it is alive. And you need to approach it with respect, you need to give offerings. You need to talk and listen to the drum. And it does take you to the realm of spirits and deities, and you work in those realms.”

The aim of sound healing is to bring about an altered sense of consciousness, a trance-like state that is restful and restorative. Accessing this relaxed and lucid state can spark creativity, and also help heal from chronic stress and trauma. Some sound therapists use the practise in more conventional, health-orientated settings, with the spiritual element removed. 

There has been scepticism, of course. The science behind the physical effects of sound healing is often quite vague or inconclusive, and much of the anecdotal efficacy a mystery. While sound healing can have a positive effect on serious problems like PTSD, moreover, it also risks triggering flashbacks and psychological discomfort—so there are risks in relying too heavily on this practice without the wisdom and structures of more mainstream approaches to psychological healing.   

But sound healing isn’t just a shamanic practice. Sound is used for meditation or devotion across various religions and their rituals. And many workshops, such as Kat’s Psychedelic Gong Bath at The Round Chapel, take place in churches—thanks to the acoustics, the space, and perhaps even a spiritual resonance. UK churches such as Grace Church in Hackney and Shoreditch Church welcome both traditional and more experimental music into their regular services and as part of their community outreach. Shoreditch Church, for instance, offers “creative meditation and music” on Sunday evenings—a form of sound healing. 

These relationships between sound, music and spirituality are long-standing—whether it is organ music, ambient electronica or singing bowls. People are drawn to spiritual revelations through the (very literal) resonance of these practices. Spiritual and emotional connection is forged and prolonged through these good vibrations and the opportunity, simply, to surrender. These practices will continues to evolve across the city. “Interestingly,” Kat says, “I’m working with my friend who’s an organ player at the moment, and we’re collaborating together. We’ve recorded some improvisations with the organ and singing bowls.” 

Outside, as I walk back home, I hear everything a little brighter, and everything feels a little calmer.