‘Will I get wet, do I need my swimming costume?’ is the first question my friends ask. In the hectic run up to Christmas I’ve spied an advert for a calming sound bath meditation class at Chester Cathedral and I’m trying (unsuccessfully) to recruit friends to share the experience.
I have some idea what to expect, as I’ve been to similar events before, and think they would love it, but it’s proving a little tricky to get the concept across. Though I enjoy their interpretation that you listen to music piped underwater (must try this some time), a regular sound bath is probably a little more accessible and not so soggy. In short, a sound bath describes an experience where you relax, and let yourself be immersed in, surrounded by, (and if you’re lucky) get lost in, sounds from a variety of instruments. The idea is that the different tones and vibrations resonate in a multitude of ways with your body, and it’s a potentially healing experience.
It’s a cold Sunday night, and as a particularly nesh person, I come fully prepared: yoga mat, check, blanket, check, hat and gloves, check, cushions, check (well you have to be comfy), eye mask, check (I’m so nosey this helps me keep focused). I look like I’m moving in.
There’s a really festive feeling as there’s an array of decorated Christmas trees lit up all along the cloisters that lead to the main nave (The Christmas Tree Festival in support of the Ultrasound Breast Care Scanner appeal). We pay on the door (£10 for 90 minutes) and we’re given a pink heart shaped post it note to stick on our coats (nice touch), and shown to an area in the middle of the cathedral laid out with yoga mats and a small stage with an array of instruments. As we sit on our mats, the last day visitors are leaving and the lights all around slowly go off; it’s calm and quiet all around us and I wait for it to begin with a smile on my face, already starting to chill out.
Gavin Kendrick, international DJ and our sound therapist for the evening introduces himself. He’s quietly spoken with a soft Scouse accent, making you lean in to hear clearly. It’s perfectly pitched to already make you more aware and tuned in to the sounds around you. We start by sitting, doing some chakra chanting. Now, I’m not very spiritual or used to chanting, and its not been part of any sound bath I’ve done before. There’s real potential that this could feel awkward, but Gavin leads us in easily, requesting we put aside concerns of being bad at singing, and join in.
He explains the position of each of the chakras in the body (points along the spine), and the sound of the related chant, for example giving the letters ‘o, o,’ but pronouncing it like in the word ‘food’, so we feel comfortable we’re saying it right. He adds that you do it in your own time, so if the person next to you finishes earlier or starts later, that’s fine. It takes me a while to get into it, feeling a little self conscious. I’m aware of my neighbours’ voices, and of little tremors in my voice, and a really surprising shortness of breath. But after a while I find I’m enjoying it, really tuned it to the sounds, and the vibrations inside my mouth and throat and the waves of chanting around me. It’s quite primal and promotes an uplifting feeling, more like singing in a choir with your eyes closed, and not as weird as I thought it would be. I’m sure the amazing acoustics help. It’s a great way to start the session and to feel the connection between sounds and the sensation of the physical vibration.
We move to lying on our mats and my curious mind takes in the beautiful vaulted ceiling, wondering if we’re the only people who’ve ever seen it from this position. I also wonder if the Cathedral has ever before hosted such a mix of instruments and chanting – more associated with other religions. I’m not the best at relaxing and switching my mind off, I usually find it easier when I’ve done yoga or a tough hike first, but the chanting has helped and I make an effort, eye mask now firmly on.
The rest of the session seems to pass really quickly, with a whole host of instruments, some identifiable, some not, merging into each other in a steady flow of different sounds, noises, and vibrations, even singing from Gavin. I feel like I’m trying to follow the sounds, almost guess where they’re going, but I think that means my brain is still very much switched on. I’m surprised, then, when there comes a sound that has me drifting away almost instantly – I later learn it’s an ocean drum – the sound of the seashore, waves, rhythmic but irrregular, so it’s hard to predict. I can’t place where the sound is coming from as it ebbs and flows, and, I admit, I take a peak and see that Gavin is walking around in between everyone. It seems endless and deeply relaxing. I think this is what it’s all about.
The session ends with the Cathedral organ – I’m pretty sure it’s not a tune that features in normal services – it’s incredibly loud and quite cacophonous but the vibrations really do go right through you as the different notes are played. Again I wonder about the difference from the normal experience by feeling it from such a novel position through the floor. This was so different from the ocean drum it was quite a wake up from my gentle seaside relaxation moment, but as the experience centres on different sounds and vibrations your reaction to each sound is part of it.
I leave feeling relaxed, and a little energised, whether from just choosing to spend an hour and a half intentionally quiet, stress free and still, or whether the vibrations have had an effect I’m not sure. I feel privileged to have experienced the Cathedral in such an unusual way, it seems quite unique and special. It’s certainly a great way to spend an evening at such a busy time of year. I’m sure I’ll persuade my friends to join me next time.