The New Wave of Sound Wellness Is Communal, Sober, and Not Unlike Coachella

If you think enjoying live music necessitates alcohol and other nefarious substances, think again. A new wave of wellness practitioners are marrying sound with healing.

A poster in black and yellow with the text 'Health Come drown in the SOUND BATH'
Illustration by Eric Elms.

As a wellness writer, I’m not proud to admit this, but if I’m invited anywhere between the hours of five and seven, I expect music and cocktails. Or at least, I used to.

Several months ago, in what now seems like some strange parallel universe, my friend Caroline asked me to meet her at a converted Victorian-era piano factory in the Camden area of London. I assumed it was for happy hour. But no, she had signed us up for a session with Lisa De Narvaez, a “spiritual technologist” (and Helena Christensen look-alike) whose Blisspoint breathwork method has an international following. Sighing, I resigned myself to a couple of hours of…sighing. But De Narvaez doesn’t facilitate Blisspoint in silence, or to the hippie-dippie drone of a didgeridoo. Instead, she curates clubby soundscapes embedded with special, customized frequencies that help people connect with their breath, open their heart, and drop into a state of altered consciousness. The world swirled away as I laid down and breathed to the beats. I forgot that my leather jeans were too tight, and that I was using a balled-up Chanel jacket as a pillow, having arrived too late to snag a mat or a blanket. I drifted somewhere else, somewhere deep, during the 90-minute session, and when it was over, I realized my face was streaked with tears I didn’t remember shedding.

Turns out, the modality can be nearly as powerful at home. De Narvaez’s easy, two-part breath technique and recorded soundscapes (accessible on her website) helped me get through some of the bleakest hours of lockdown. Of course, the use of sound in the wellness and workout arenas isn’t a new concept. Yoga enthusiasts know that certain vibrations affect the energy centers, or chakras, of the body. Trendy workouts like Kinrgy, AKT by Anna Kaiser, and The Class by Taryn Toomey use music to motivate. The same goes for clubby (but chemical-free) dance parties like Daybreaker. In certain cities (I’m talking to you, L.A.!), you can’t toss a tuning fork without hitting a “game-changing” new sound bath. I can’t wait for the return of my favorite: the Malibu-based sound healer—and professional surfer—Kassia Meador’s Floating Sound Baths at Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs. A combination of Watsu (a type of aquatic bodywork) and vibrational sound therapy, the treatment involves floating dreamily in mineral-heavy hot springs water while Meador plays crystal singing bowls.

The wellness juggernaut has been intersecting with music in ever more interesting ways. Who knows what massive live events will look like going forward, but festivals like Coachella, Burning Man, and Envision Costa Rica incorporate movement and mindfulness, while at wellness festivals and “clean raves,” DJ sets and live performances are augmented with bodywork, as well as sessions with spiritual healers, astrologers, and psychic mediums. Increasingly, hard drugs and alcohol are off the table—and dance floor—at these gatherings.

“Sweaty dance parties seem passé to me,” said the electronic musician, composer, and entrepreneur Eduardo Castillo, even before Covid-19 put most raves on pause. “I mean, I still enjoy them once in a while, but in my world I definitely see a shift.” Castillo performs both solo and with his band, Mardeleva, and he founded Habitas, an eco-chic, community-minded hotel and social group with outposts in Tulum and Namibia. He says that people today want a consciousness-driven experience—something related to mindfulness or being present. “They want to be inspired in more ways than just by the music, but the music is obviously a portal to all that.”

“Health and wellness is huge for people at the heart of the electronic music community,” says Michelle Clemens, the Los Angeles–based cofounder of the cult CBD beauty brand Soji Health, and an ambient music devotee. “It’s kind of like a next-generation hippie movement. It doesn’t have to be so woo-woo, but it’s an acknowledgement that everything’s connected.”

The Canadian DJ and producer Vivie-Ann Bakos, aka Blond:ish, has a more traditional EDM following at her immersive events, but manages to slip in elements of “conscious clubbing” and “sustainable raving,” like plant-based nibbles and adaptogenic elixirs, reiki practitioners who roam the room, and subliminal “balancing” frequencies she plays underneath her music. Mindful of the toll that raves and festivals can take on fragile ecosystems, Bakos organizes beach cleans in Tulum and Ibiza, and her foundation, Bye Bye Plastic, aims to rid the electronic music industry of single-use plastic by 2025. When (if?) nightlife returns to some sense of normalcy, she wants her parties to feature interactive dance floors that generate power back to the grid (or at least provide electricity for the lighting and the DJ booth) when danced on. “Suggesting things to people doesn’t actually get them to change,” she says. “We help them discover it themselves.”

There was a time when pulling an all-nighter with a bunch of A-listers at a secret address in Topanga Canyon meant one thing: a raging hangover. Not so at Secular Sabbath, pop-up pajama parties that feature a dusk-to-dawn lineup of well-known ambient and experimental musicians, alongside art and sound installations and wellness-related offerings like tea ceremonies, tarot readings, breath- and bodywork, and facials by the hip, Venice, California–based skincare brand OSEA. Things skew slightly esoteric: At one pre-lockdown Sabbath, the self-described “punk herbalists” Verdant LA created a tonic for guests to drink while “interacting with a singing plant installation.” I was (and remain) certain that I would require plenty of gin—or LSD—in my tonic to interact with, or even successfully identify, musical vegetation.

The brainchild of the Big Sur native Geneviève Medow-Jenkins, Secular Sabbath grew out of her desire to find a way to connect with like-minded music lovers that didn’t involve loud, boozy bars and nightclubs. Her partner, the R&B artist Rhye, cohosts the events, which draw musicians like Ólafur Arnalds, Joel Shearer, Devendra Banhart, Fox Trails, and Boreta from the Glitch Mob. Even DJ and producer Diplo has been known to pull up a cushion and improvise. As he put it, “When everything in your life is maximized and overstimulating, it’s nice to have an immersive experience that’s internal, nurtures your mind and soul, and helps you to unpack.” Actress Nikki Reed is also a fan, saying, “It’s a place to disconnect in order to reconnect, at a time when we need connection and community more than ever.” Amen to that.

Obviously, group sleepovers are not a thing right now, so until the live version can resume, Secular Sabbath devotees can “enhance their sensory selves” by streaming the group’s YouTube channel. Medow-Jenkins also hopesto launch a podcast called “Tub Talks,” a play on a popular Sabbath activity in which artists, actors, designers, musicians, and producers hang out in a hot spring while discussing creativity. For those who still believe in the power of sweating things out, the two hottest movement classes in L.A. have cutting-edge music and community at their core, and have made a nearly seamless transition to digital platforms.

The 360 Emergence, cofounded by Kate Shela and Amber Ryan, is a meditative healing experience disguised as a rad expressive dance party. Shela, a dynamic Brit with a salt-and-pepper streaked mohawk, uses everything from Billie Eilish to Beyoncé, Brian Eno to Stormzy, and Lizzo to tech house—as well as her own magnetic voice—to ignite, elevate, and soothe her refreshingly diverse (and celeb-heavy) following during the 90-minute class, which she prefers to call a lab. The tracks flow organically according to Shela’s read on the collective mood of the moment, but any resemblance to raving ends there. “There’s no talking, no, you know, drinking out of coconuts or drumming,” Shela says. “We’re coming in for a focused, intentional, rigorous practice. I am a shamanic dominatrix, so I hold a very strong container.” Coconut lovers, consider yourselves warned.

Donovan McGrath, the creator of Amplified Yoga, isn’t a shaman but probably should be. His unique take on yoga doesn’t involve much in the way of garden-variety downward dog or warrior pose. Instead, with the help of a live DJ playing house, tribal, and electronic music, he leads his disciples through carefully calculated combinations of aerobic, yogic, and vibrational movements, with a lot of mantra-chanting and vocal release thrown in to cathartic effect. There’s nothing random about the playlists, which are laced with chords and frequencies that he says relate to energetic spaces in the body that, when combined with mantras and Kundalini yoga movements called kriyas, can induce a natural state of ecstasy. Toward the end of the class, the music is layered with binaural beats, or tones said to create the same brain-wave patterns that you experience during meditation. At first McGrath was worried that the experience wouldn’t translate remotely, as it depended so heavily on the energy of the group, the space, and a live DJ, but in fact, the opposite was true. “Going virtual removed the limitations of location, so I can work with a DJ who’s broadcasting live from London, New York City, or San Francisco while I teach from L.A.,” he says.

McGrath hopes to continue collaborating with major DJs and recording artists to bring elements of Amplified to their tours. “Before the pandemic, we were in the process of expanding it from the yoga realm into the music scene—full, main-stage productions in stadiums, where the sound is top-notch, the lights are happening, the visuals are happening, all sequentially and very specifically to what we’re doing,” he says. “A yogic experience for people who might not be expecting one.” Exhausted by the idea of yoga concerts, staying up all night, or doing dance cardio ’til you drop, even if it’s in your living room? What if I told you there is an (open!) wellness sanctuary masquerading as a drop-dead-chic boutique hotel on Sunset Boulevard where you can simultaneously throw back a CBD-infused apple cider vinegar shot, nibble on a snack from Erewhon, and have an immunity-enhancing I.V. vitamin drip while listening to vibey music embedded with underlying relaxation frequencies? The Los Angeles–based concierge doctor Jonathan Leary opened Remedy Place in response to patients who told him that being healthy was limiting their social lives. “I wanted to create a toxin-free club that would enhance their health and their social lives at the same time,” he says. “As soon as we can, we’re adding live jazz performances to the mix.”

Sounds, er, fun? I wonder if I can have my nonalcoholic, glutathione-laced adaptogenic elixir in a martini glass…

Related: How The Class By Taryn Toomey Became an Essential Pandemic Workout