Sara Auster wants you to relax. As our lives fill up with the noise of digital notifications and attention-sucking screens, the New York-based musician and sound therapist wants to help others unplug, pause, and live more mindfully. But rather than using her own words to guide you through a meditation as you might expect, she uses sound.

It’s called a sound bath. Using crystal singing bowls and other unconventional musical instruments, Auster crafts her own room-filling, atonal soundscapes that are designed to immerse the listener and ease the mind. Through deep listening, she believes, we can rise above the mental fatigue of daily life and learn to focus again.

Auster has long believed in the restorative effects of mindful listening. Now, a decade into our collective smartphone addiction, the rest of us are catching up and looking for a way to pull back and dampen the excess noise in our heads. By dipping into a sound bath, we can effectively drown it out and set the stage for more mindful living.

A growing number of people think Auster is onto something. She has conducted these sound baths – part meditation exercise, part live music performance – for audiences at places like the Museum of Modern Art, Rubin Museum and the Lincoln Center. As the demand for mental clarity grows, Auster is booking more and more sound bath performances around the United States and abroad.

Auster now wants to extend the therapeutic benefits of sonic immersion to the masses. She recently released ‘Namora’, her second album of sound bath-friendly music, in an effort to let people reap the benefits of the sound bath experience at home. For best results, you can spin it a Sonos-connected turntable and let the sound wash over you. Or you can stream any number of ambient and meditation-friendly tracks by other artists. Either way, your DIY home sound bath awaits you. No crystal bowls required.

We recently visited Auster in her New York City apartment to learn more about her approach to immersive sound therapy.


What is a sound bath?
My definition of a sound bath is a meditative event in which sound is used intentionally to invite therapeutic and restorative effects. It’s a practice of deep listening. That sounds pretty simple, but we’re rarely aware of how we’re listening. That’s where the mindfulness piece comes in.

When I do sessions, whether it’s with one person or ten thousand people, it’s about facilitating an awareness of our relationship to sound. When we listen with focus and very directed attention, that mindfulness starts to stay with us and permeate into different areas of our lives.

There are a lot of sound bath experiences where people are talking about chakras and cosmic planetary energy – which I don’t put down at all – but to me it’s just a lot simpler. It’s just bringing your awareness as a practice again and again, and it starts with listening.

Listening leads to understanding of things that come up internally and externally on a deeper level, which could lead to stronger connections – to yourself or others – which can lead to greater compassion, expression and love.

Why sound? What does this approach offer that people can’t get from, say, a guided meditation?
This particular type of atonal sound gives people space to go where they need to go, to have an experience that’s unique to them. I’ve been meditating over a decade, and I can’t stand when somebody’s talking to me because I just want to go where I’m going to go. So often when I’m led, somebody says, “Now bring your attention to blank.” I was over here. Why’d they take me over there? Using sounds creates less of a barrier. You’re kind of allowed to argue with this sound swirling around the room, which is an interesting concept in meditation.

Sound also gives people the opportunity to let in whatever comes. I think it kind of takes the pressure off. There’s all this rigidity around the idea of meditation, a sort of stereotype that you have to do it correctly, that you have to clear your mind and sit up straight. This is much more accessible to people.

I like framing mindfulness as something that’s not elite or only for a certain type of person. I think it’s for everyone. I’ve facilitated experiences with infants and people in their 80s, athletes and terminal cancer patients. All races, all ages, all different kinds of spiritual backgrounds. There’s a reason we say music is universal.

How can people create a sound bath home? Could you do it with a Sonos system?
The first step is inviting this kind of sonic experience into the home. It doesn’t have to be something so specific. [If you have Sonos], you’ve already brought a different experience of sound into your home, and it’s going to change your life.

It’s been really incredible experiencing it with Sonos and being able to have unique sonic experiences in all the different areas of the home. It creates a more immersive experience, which, whether you’re aware of it or not, definitely shifts the way you relate to sounds in your life.

People can very easily integrate a mindfulness practice and just say, “Alexa, play meditation music”. It comes on. You don’t have to do a thing. You just sit or lie down and get comfortable, and then you have a moment of connection there.

My feeling is with the advancing of technology at this exponential rate, we’re required to always be in a state of reactivity and firing on all cylinders, which is frying our nervous systems. That’s why meditation and mindfulness are becoming more popular, because people are like, “Please, give me an excuse to stop for a second”. We’re constantly being asked to engage. But that’s what’s so great about voice, too, is that it makes it so much easier and more fluid to have those moments for yourself.

You have a very particular sonic and musical style that you use. Tell us how you crafted your sound.
It was a lot of trial and error. I have a background as a casual musician and as a collector and lover of music. That’s always been part of my life, and I’ve always known that music has a profound effect on me. As I started to do this work, I started to pay more attention to how and why that is.

I feel like a lot of these sounds have specific connections to particular cultures or lineages, which I respect deeply. However, I’m interested in bypassing people’s neurological priors.
So if someone sees a guitar or a rattle or frame drum, they already have an association with that instrument. Even a metal Himalayan singing bowl carries an association. That’s one reason why I started using crystal singing bowls, because it’s a more modern tool that people don’t yet have associations with.

So when they walk into a room, it can be a clean space that’s inviting. That’s where the experience starts, even before they hear the sounds. That’s why I use these instruments. There’s not as much of a need for newcomers to categorise the response or make judgments around it. They’ve never experienced it before. It’s new.

Your recent album ‘Namora’ was released exclusively on vinyl, with digital and streaming access coming later. Why vinyl? Why does format matter?
It’s actually my second recording. The first one I released was in a small carved wooden box with a USB and a crystal inside. People were coming to my sound experiences and asking me: “How do I do this at home?”. And mostly when I started doing it, people were asking: “Do you have a CD?”. Even at that time, I thought: “What would you do with a CD anyway? You have to have a car to listen to a CD.”

I didn’t want to release recordings digitally, because it was important to me, as a person who collects vinyl, that people have a tactile experience of sound. It really invites a tactile experience and relationship to the music. I feel like more and more, it’s so easy to let an algorithm make a decision for you. They’re getting really good, but I long for the days of discovering music with curiosity and excitement. I come from making mix tapes and pausing, really interacting with the music. I think it’s important to involve the senses like that.

When I made the connection that one side of a vinyl record is approximately 20 minutes, and that’s usually the recommended amount of time for meditation, it made perfect sense to me to just do one track on each side. You have the tactile experience of taking off the shrink wrap, taking the record out, looking at it and putting it on.

And ‘Namora’ is on see-through vinyl, which is always a cool little bonus when you open up a record.
That invites a unique experience because you see your slip mat coming through, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s a little piece of me”. So it involves the listener.

Tell us about your recording process. Are there more albums on the horizon?
I’d love to do more recordings, because it’s the accessibility that’s really important. I’m only one person. So I can go to all these beautiful places and facilitate as many big groups as I can, but I really do feel that in order to reach an even larger audience I want to be able to offer more recordings.

Both albums were recorded in churches. The first one was made at a converted church upstate in Hudson, and the second was recorded at the Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights. It was important to me to capture as much of the environmental sounds and space as possible.

I’ve had a lot of experience with both live experiences and recording – going into a booth to get the perfect, most crisp sound. I was just not interested in that. I’m interested in providing an experience for people that’s as authentic to the live experience as possible.

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