With my boyfriend and I having both recently gone through some career changes (All for the better, but still!), stress management and mental wellness has been top of mind for me of late. So when I was offered the opportunity to try out a sound therapy session at Helix Healthcare Group, a new Toronto mental health clinic specializing in holistic healing and mental wellness, I was keen.
Sound therapy is said to have benefits similar to meditation, ‘but is very much a physical experience,’ explained the press release I received from the clinic.
Arriving at the clinic, it’s apparent this isn’t your typical doctor’s office. The space is decorated with contemporary furnishings; floor-to-ceiling murals of nature photography hang on the walls and cover the doors; the soothing scent of sage wafts through the air. It’s inviting and comfortable.
Tara Rose, the clinic’s Vice President of Business and Marketing, gives me a tour of the psychotherapy suites and patient lounge. She explains that patients in Helix’s Catalyst Wellness mental health and holistic therapy program are treated through any combination of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, meditation, yoga, massage, sound therapy, acupuncture and more. Each patient’s program is tailored to his or her individual goals and needs. The cost of the program can often be covered in part by the patient’s medical insurance plan.
To begin my sound therapy experience, I’m led into a large, bright room with high ceilings and hardwood floors, akin to a private yoga studio. (In fact, there’s a stash of mats tucked away in a corner: Along with individual treatment, Helix also offers group sessions of sound therapy for $25 per class.) In the middle of room is a massage table stacked with pillows and draped with a blanket; on the floor, just behind the head of the table, is an array of Eastern-looking instruments.
Philip Jacobs, my therapist for the session, welcomes me, and I’m immediately struck by his voice: smooth, soothing, gentle. I can tell right away I’m in good hands. He invites me to remove my shoes and lie down on the table. I do so, face up with my legs bent at the knees and propped up on a stack of pillows ("to relieve pressure on the lower back," explains Jacobs).
Jacobs is a registered traditional Chinese medicine practitioner (RTCMP), acupuncturist and former rock-and-roll singer. He first became interested in how sound can affect people while working as a full-time musician fronting his own band: ‘Watching the atmosphere of the bar or club change based on what song I was performing, I began really noticing how songs and music can effect [people’s mental states].’
He began studying Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, teachings that gave him an ‘understanding of vibrational frequencies and how they can evoke balance in the body. ‘Typically we do psychotherapy or hypnotherapy along with this mind-body type medicine, so we can process things psychologically, and then body needs to somatically release all the rest.’
Lying comfortably on the table, I wrap myself in the blanket and close my eyes. I agree to the optional acupuncture enhancement, which Jacobs tells me will help to ‘increase awareness of the mind-body connection.’ I take deep breaths as, one by one, he inserts five needles at various points on my scalp, forehead and between my eyebrows. Eyes still closed, I hear Jacobs walk over to the arrangement of instruments behind me, and, once he’s seated and settled, the sound begins.
First comes a gentle humming, which builds into a rhythmic, resonant thrum that fills the room. It’s similar to the sound of a large, slowly oscillating fan. This sound is coming from the crystal singing bowls: A set of heavy quartz bowls of varying sizes, each of which is designed to create a different note when a suede-covered wooden mallet is rolled around the rim’an effect similar to running a wet finger around the rim of wine glass.
According to the theories of sound therapy, each note produced by the bowls aligns with a different energy centre, or chakra, within the body, which activates a specific organ system. ‘There are different resonances that each part of our body vibrates on and works with,’ says Jacobs. ‘Through the vibration, we can activate systems that may be stagnant or that carry an emotion or a memory of trauma.’ The goal is to clear out all the energy that we don’t need, to create a sense of balance.
In addition to the continuously mounting whir from the bowls, Jacobs layers on rhythmic vocal chanting and humming, punctuated with the use of an array of additional instruments: A crystal pyramid, an open sided frame of quartz rods which creates a pleasant chime when struck, is placed over centres that need awakening, says Jacobs.
For those who are afraid of needles, Jacobs holds tuning forks over acupuncture points to produce similar benefits. Tibetan singing bowls are a smaller, metal version of the larger crystal bowls, which produce a sharper, metallic sound. Jacobs explains that the Native American drum is employed to invoke the spirit; for any energy that is ‘stuck’ in the body, we can resonate that out with the drum’s vibration.
I admit I’m a tad skeptical about these purported benefits. Is any of it really scientifically provable? Do sounds at a frequency of 432 mega hertz (which is said to be the frequency ‘in tune with the rhythm of nature’) actually create a specific reaction in our bodies that is more beneficial than those at other frequencies? This is the theory on which sound therapy is based, a practice that has been used for centuries, and all of the instruments used are designed to work on this specific frequency of sound.
Regardless of your take, there’s no denying that the sounds produced by these instruments are fascinatingly beautiful. I feel enveloped in the noise, which seems to come from all corners of the room. The throbbing vibrations sweep through my body. Jacobs’ hour-long performance transports me into dreamlike, hypnagogic state’not asleep, but not quite awake either.
At the end, I’m brought back to consciousness by the aroma of burning sage (which has long been professed to conjure increased mental clarity) and palo santo (wood shavings from an ancient South American tree said to have ‘spiritual cleansing’ and aromatherapeutic properties). Immediately upon rising, I feel groggy and a little woozy, as though I’ve been woken up in the middle of a deep dream. A glass of water helps pull me back into the real world, and my lethargy turns to refreshment.
The rest of the afternoon, I feel invigorated, motivated and revitalized. I leave Helix feeling like I’ve just had a really good, satisfying stretch from head to toe’ or maybe, from inside out.