A Feel-It-To-Believe-It Guide to Sound Bowls

by Nadja Bester

Three months prior, I was standing in a crystal shop in a tiny hamlet in Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. A friend and I had just finished our Sunday morning hike through a jaw-dropping local valley, past a waterfall where we christened our sweaty bodies under the virgin waters of the mountain spring falling down on us, and all the way up to a special cliff close to an eagle’s nest on a rock face overlooking the gorge. Surrounded by millions of years worth of Cambrian sandstone formations, I felt on top of the world, because I was. My psyche connecting with the majesty of the natural wonders surrounding me, my soul with that of the beautiful soul standing next to me, life could hardly be topped. Until we popped into said crystal shop during our visit to the farmer’s market, that is.

“There is in souls a sympathy with sounds.”
― William Cowper

Immediately drawn to the Himalayan singing bowls, my friend – a medical doctor who keeps one in his consultation rooms and is more likely to give you a dose of sound than a jab of chem-mix – started ringing them all, one by one, with no end in mind but to experience the vibration of each.

Although I was no stranger to the concept – we’ve all chimed one at some hippy’s house, right? – I stood transfixed. The sound of each of them reverberated through my body, and the backdrop of the shop faded until I could feel only the ringing of these bronze bowls echoing right down to my very bones. One particular bowl with an especially earthy sound, made me feel instantly grounded the likes of which my airy fairy mind had never felt before. I didn’t know what was happening and how this worked, but a deceptively simple hand-hammered metal alloy object had made me feel more rooted than the mountain I’d just descended.

After he’d gone through the entire collection, I asked that he go back to the bowl that had had this magnificent effect on me but found that the impact was no longer as pronounced. It was as if I’d already integrated its deep sound, and I chalked it up to having “done what I needed it to do”, to be as technical about it as I had a vocabulary or understanding for at the time!

Fast forward to present time, and it’s date set and go. I have a sound bowls session booked with Nigel Rowles on the outskirts of Hoi An, where he lives with his partner Kerstin Pilz, a yoga teacher at Nomad Yoga and writing retreat leader (like this one – how amazing does that look?!). The couple, skill nomads much like myself, spend months at a time in Hoi An every year (as do most expats who cannot get enough of this special little Vietnamese town) in between their travels to Bali and other wish-you-were-here destinations.

Upon my arrival, Kerstin takes me down to the river running past their property and points out the nipa palm that is used to manufacture coracles, the little round fishing boats that makes for a quaint photographic backdrop dotted along the beach, or spotted on the river (a 50/50 chance of it being used for local fishing and transport functionality, or whisking off tourists to one of the surrounding villages for a cooking class tour). It’s a bright, cheery day and I’m ready to get my chakras aligned, or whatever it is we’ll be doing. Kerstin explains to me, as we make our way back to the house through their lush tropical garden, that the ‘singing’ bowls term I know it by refers exclusively to the sound made by the circular action of tracing a mallet or stick around the rim of the bowl, while the term ‘sound’ bowl is more inclusive, referring also to the gong sound produced by the practitioner performing a light striking action against the bowls’ outer surface.

As Kerstin leaves for Nomad Yoga to teach her class, it’s time for Nigel and me to get down to business. Since I’d already had my enchanted moment back in the holistic shop, I didn’t read up on the ins and outs of sound bowl healing, preferring Nigel to explain the magic behind his craft to me first-hand. And so I come bearing no prescribed notions save for the expectation that I’m going to feel as grounded as I’d done before.

As we enter the therapy room, its French doors opened out to the garden to let in light, wind, and flower scent, I’m asked to lie down on the floor. For a second, I’m torn between checking out the 8 copper bowls lining the edges of the makeshift linen sea of white against dark wood flooring, or wondering what, exactly, I’m letting myself into for. The bowls win. They fascinate me, although I don’t know how we’re possibly going to fill up a whole hour by playing ding-dong bells (singing bowls, coincidently are bells – they’re referred to as standing bells). Once Nigel sits down next to my head and it dawns on me that he’ll be staring at me for an hour, slight mental panic sets in. Eek! Not my idea of fun. If he’s wanting me to relax so this stuff can work – whatever it’s supposed to do, I don’t even know – he’s going have to move way back for me to lie back and ‘be in the moment’. But in a spirit of ‘whatever arises, love that’, I tell myself to hush and allow the sound bowls to get to fixing this very discomfort. It’s not the first time a professional would be focusing all their attention on my well-being…it’s what we pay them for, after all. Perhaps it’s the inability to answer the question, ‘Is sound bowl therapy a bona fide modality and not some quack-job new age thing?’ floating around in my head that makes me hesitant to let up.

“Music shouldn’t be just a tune, it should be a touch.”
― Amit Kalantri

Nigel instructs me to close my eyes and “just relax”. In light of the above, and regardless of how pretty the lanterns hanging overhead, closing my eyes is all I want to do … the “just relax” bit, though, I’m not so sure of. Moments later I hear the familiar sound of wood on bronze as he starts ringing a bowl right next to my head. I relish the sound, and irrelevant thoughts and silly issues start dissipating, drowned out by more than just the noise these copper beauties are making: it’s as though the whole floor is coming alive with the sound of music (who needs hills?!).

I sense myself frowning and wonder what on earth I’m on about when life is this chilled out. But so entranced am I by the otherworldly sound echoing through the room that I feel almost unable to move to smoothen out my brow … plus, what if I’m not actually frowning? Doing a quick mental scan as to why I’d feel tense, I come up with zilch (it’s a pretty sweet feeling to realise you’re absolutely 100% stress-free … I don’t acknowledge those rare moments nearly enough!) and in retrospect – especially after checking with Nigel who assured me that my face was doing the polar opposite of making an upside down – I suspect the sensation of the bowls’ deep vibration was working their way through my body and this was the mental image my mind formed to process it.

I catch myself holding my breath but, afraid that inhaling would break the reverie, I stay put. Breathing will just have to wait. I trust my body will kick into survival mode before I start getting blue in the face. (Afterwards, asking Nigel about why I had difficulty breathing, he explains that the very foundation of his being present as a practitioner is to focus on his client’s breath and adjust the tones of the bowls accordingly; adding that throughout the session my breathing was slow and regular – as relaxed as can be. So whatever constricted feeling I’d had, it must have been all in my head!) I thought it interesting, after the session, to note that I usually am very cognizant of breathing deeply (think yoga, meditation, counting to 10 at the Home Affairs department), and so, breathing deeply while I’m awake without having to specifically focus on my breath was novel and, clearly, foreign.

Over the course of an hour, with the rise and fall of the bowls coursing their melodious frequencies through my body and my mind as Nigel rings here and gongs there, these bells – the origins of which dating back to at the 15th century at the very least – come alive under his touch. As for me, many thoughts come and go, but the effect remains the same: I am a guitar having my cords strung by a master musician. The effects of bowls being rung on either side of my body, and the deep vibration of each of them that resounds down to the very foundation of the house I find myself in, make me feel as if I’m resonating head to toe, inside out. It’s incomparable to anything I’d ever experienced before, save for mentally projecting myself into a musical instrument. Not surprising, then, to find out that Nigel is indeed a professional musician in own right, and came to the bowls after his first experience with them during a session with a bowls practitioner in Germany, flying out to Nepal to train in Kathmandu a mere 4 weeks after this life-changing maiden encounter.

“There is no competition of sounds between a nightingale and a violin.”
― Dejan Stojanovic

For most of the session, my body seems heavy, like lead, with the heaviness progressing until I feel molten, like I’m moulding into the ground below me, in perfect symmetry with the outline of person-against-floorboards built atop sand and clay. I could very well sink down into the depths of the soil well below me, but don’t ask me to get up. That superpower has come and gone. As Nigel and his bowls do their tuning, I keep myself from drifting off to sleep by focusing my attention on the birdsong over the river, the rooster cock-a-doodle-doo’ing in the background, and the wind rustling through the trees. It’s as if what is happening in the therapy room is in harmony with what is happening outside, culminating in a very, very relaxing polyphony. Go figure, since I’m practically cast into the earth itself by this stage.

Towards the end of the session, I’m light as a feather, my mind a serene, crystalline place where thoughts come to float in, then straight out again, never lingering. My body is awake and energised, charged and ready to go out there and be in the world, gung-ho but rooted. I’d gone to Nigel’s straight from meditation class, and the morning’s come full circle – first, my mind had settled as I moved past my regular ol’ inner monkey chatter, and now my body right along with it. I could conquer the world, I swear, if those ambitions didn’t seem so irrelevant now. Who knew being human could feel this easy and effortless?!

After the hour – which simultaneously felt as though time had slowed down and sped up, with intervals of thinking, “This is too much of goodness, when is it ending?” and “Oh no you don’t, keep on ringing that bowl like you mean it!” when I feared time was up – I am at a loss for words. And I like my words. Nigel says he felt a bit like jelly after his first time and it took him 10 minutes to get up from his grassy lakeside spot…not that he’d particularly noticed the setting, fascinated as he was by “the most relaxing thing I’d ever done.” I had the incentive of this being Viet Nam, where reaching for a glass of water is akin to obeying any other bodily function, so getting up was motivated by an inner urgency, but I felt disorientated for a good few minutes myself, not knowing how to make sense of exactly what had just happened.

It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, unlike anything I do. Cos it might feel like the most natural thing in the world once you’re in the thick of it, glued to the floor and all, but mimic the humdrum of everyday existence it certainly does not!

“Silence, I learned, is some times the most beautiful sound.”
― Dejan Stojanovic

Before meeting Nigel, I hadn’t quite been aware that the bowls were used in a therapeutic setting. It was a hippy slash Buddhist thing that you either owned because you donned an orange robe or because you liked chanting Aum Shanti while lounging around in your Goa-bought harem pants. After my session, the esoteric elements like balancing your chakras and aligning your inner harmonious frequency I now view as add-on layers for those who resonate with them, but my baseline perception of what the bowls are and what they do has shifted dramatically. Gone is the question of whether this is something I’d be too embarrassed to tell my friends about. They’ll hear all about it, ad nauseam, and they’ll thank me later. The purely physical effects of lying down for an hour acting as a surround sound-conduit was electrifying, and I do mean that literally.

Preliminary studies are telling us that this is good stuff, while sound research as a whole is alive and buzzing with excitement. In practice, it’s being used to anything from insomnia to stress management, and good results are being seen in the treatment of Tibetan monks suffering from PTSD. But over and above all that, the level of relaxation I experienced in the span of an hour was akin to at least 6 good massages (and I get just about 6 massages a week, so I’d know) and a glass of wine in front of a sizzling winter fireplace. Nigel calls sound bowl therapy “a massage at the cellular level”, so I’m not all that far off! Mum about the wine, though. I felt awake (even though I was convinced I’d be dead tired afterwards) alive, and really, really good. This sense of well-being lasted all day. Now, merely by jotting it down I’m reliving its benefits because I can just about still feel the sonic vibration flowing through me. At the time of writing, it’s two weeks later – I waited until I’d come off any possible pink fluffy clouds so I could write about the experience rationally and not sound like the overeager cheerleader I inevitably ended up channelling anyway…but now based on merit! So checkbox for this being more than just an overnight fad.

“One person’s data is another person’s noise.”
― K.C. Cole

I don’t know the specifics of what took place within my system during my time with Nigel. I went in feeling good, I left feeling great. Certain body parts, like my left arm, had a distinctly different response, like they took extra effort to ‘tune up’ along with all the rest of me. In the space between two of my molars, I started experiencing a dull, ringing feeling. There was a concentrated heat in my head region that, once I became aware of, stayed with me until the end. I don’t know why these things happened or what they meant, and it really doesn’t matter, as much as my conscious mind would have liked to receive a 5-page report at the end, complete with biokinetic analyses. I could tell that my mind (my usual headquarters) was being bypassed, and for an hour I lived purely in the body. In turn, it rose to the occasion, splendidly so! Even though I have not a single musical bone in my body (or so I thought), it started anticipating which cord would come next and, lo and behold, it did. The dance between what it needed and how Nigel intuited this was not make-belief, but very real, and the experience of it very powerful.

“In every sound, the hidden silence sleeps.”
― Dejan Stojanovic

As a writer, I live in my head, and I tried very hard to stay awake and aware, creating little mental placeholders for myself along the way so I’d remember the sequencing of events. Even so, there were times when I was far more relaxed and in a much deeper brainwave-state than I was able to recognise consciously, like when I thought I had seeped through the ground completely and was now floating around in middle Middle Earth. If this sounds too woo-woo for you, I assure you that it was nothing of the sort. I remained aware of my surroundings throughout but did so in the most deeply relaxing way I’ve probably ever done. Hence activating the creative brain and going all J.R.R. Tolkien. The resulting experience of allowing my mind to go where it wants but without dissociating in my entirety, instead remaining physically present, was nothing short of miraculous, and something I’d love to be able to reproduce naturally. But until then, I now know where to go to get my mind-body-spirit unity fix. And it sounds oh so sweet.

We all have go-to places and must-do experiences on our bucket list. Never did I have any desire to have sound bowl therapy on mine. But after this, I’ll go as far as to say if it ain’t on yours, then you’re missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in your body in a way that only a sound bowl – and the intuitive practitioner conducting a masterful symphony with your body – can facilitate. Since you’re 70% water, you just have to sit back and let the process do its job. But don’t take my word for it. Watch the effect the bowls have on water, then get hold of Nigel and see for yourself. You can book on the Nomad Yoga Hoi An website or Facebook page, or Nigel himself through his website or Facebook page. With sound bowls, you enter into a partnership with sound and let your body do the talking. You won’t regret the music you make together. Especially not with a conductor as gifted as Nigel at the helm.

I leave you with Einstein (in case Lord of the Rings had you worried):

“If I were not a physicist,
I would probably be a musician.
I often think in music.
I live my daydreams in music.
I see my life in terms of music.”
– Albert Einstein (1879-1955