The Science of Sound & Solitude

Is sound important? One of the great teachings that I received during my Yoga Teacher Training was this – ‘Always continue to learn – you are the student and your students are the teachers’.  I adopt this in every aspect of my life, both professional and personal, and observe fully the events that take place.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when a student of mine was experiencing a negative reaction during a yoga class and her brain was getting ‘busy’ –  I put on some ‘soothing sounds’ but she became more distressed.  Once I switched everything off she was much calmer.

The physical response to the sound got me thinking – How does sound affect our yoga practice – in fact – how does sound affect our life?

sound

I write this sitting in the garden listening to birds tweeting, traffic driving past, human voices continuing with their daily life, planes high in the sky and I am drawn to thinking how these familiar calming sounds create a relaxed feeling in my belly and chest.

Think about how you feel when sitting next to the ocean, or listening to any running water – that peaceful whooshing of the waves or tinkling of the waterfall, take a deep breath and notice how you feel, and then contrast this to the sound of horns, an angry dog bark, voices shouting out in frustration and notice the chemical effect this has on our body & mind set.

So why does sound have such an effect on us?

Lets begin by considering the awesome organ of our brain and its construction.  The brain (like the rest of our body) is made up of millions of cells called Neurons.  These neurons communicate with each other using tiny electrical charges, creating electrical brain waves.

Sound, as we know, travels through air with vibrating sound waves.  These vibrate at different frequencies depending on the depth and pitch of the sound.  The sound waves travel up the auditory canal and into the auditory cortex, transferred from sound wave into an electrical signal, which the brain then recognises and reacts accordingly.

So, to continue with the amazing science part, the vibrations of sound waves, mingle with our electrical brain waves to create the chemical reaction in the brain.

There are 4 categories of brain wave patterns – these are

  • Beta – This is the usual waking state of alertness.  The brain is in concentration and activity mode, focused  on problem solving, making decisions and runs at a low level of stress.
  • Alpha  – This pattern is when the brain is running at a slightly lower frequency.  The brain is in a meditative, trance like state.  This daydreaming, or pre sleep and pre waking state and this is  Alpha.
  • Theta – During REM sleep the brain is running on a Theta pattern.  During this time is when cognitive learning is integrated, when the computer of the brain ‘backs up’ (to put it into todays 21st century techno-dialogue)
  • Delta – This is the lowest frequency of brain activity.  The brain is powered down so as physical healing and human body growth can take place.

There is also Gamma brain pattern which is enlightenment – the physical body is shed away and higher consciousness is reached but for the sake of this article I am focusing on the brain patterns which we all experience on a daily basis.

During our yoga practice we desire the brain to be somewhere perfectly balanced between Beta and Alpha and, of course, ending in a sublimely blissful Alpha state.  The reason that a meditative, relaxed brain feels so good is because it is during this brain pattern that the brain increases its production of dopamine – the ultimate, feel good, happy chemical.

Sound can help enormously to regulate the brain waves to encourage an alpha state wave pattern. Sound unconsciously reminds us of a memory, a place, and brings about feelings of joy and comfort stimulating that dopamine production.

The rhythm of a piece of music, the frequency of the sound will affect the brain waves.

So how does sound create a physical response as well as a mental response.

Well, consider that all things vibrate – our body cells, the air around us, the universe.  Sound waves travel through these vibrating cells.  I feel this takes us some way of explaining how sound can create such a physical response i.e. goose-bumps, chills, warmth, tingling as well as a mental and emotional response.

Our mental, emotional and physical state and our taste in music or soundscape are interchangeable with any given day – depending on everything else that is happening in our full and exciting lives.

So for Yoga teachers, choosing a soundtrack for class can be a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack in a darkened room!  As with my student, who prompted this thinking, the mind journeys from moment to moment, as does the physical body.

Next time you experience an emotional and physical response be aware and sit with those feelings.  It all adds to living life to its fullest – the human body is astounding.

Vibration is at the heart of nature.  Music allows us to feel it’. – Glenn Kurtz