Did you, like me, assume Tibetan singing bowls, or Himalayan or Nepali singing bowls as they are called, have their origin in ancient Buddhist and possibly even Hindu practice? You are in for a surprise! That’s because the origin and history of singing bowls appear to be unknown, perhaps lost over time.
Singing bowls as we have come to know them are not used in Tibetan Buddhist chanting or practice. They may have their origin in Buddhist alms or begging bowls, carried by monks who keep few possessions and only eat what is offered by lay supporters on the morning alms rounds.
It’s more likely that singing bowls are linked to the use of bells, which dates back thousands of years. An incredible example of ancient bell technology, the Chinese bells of Marquis Yi cover a range of slightly less than five octaves, and are still fully playable after almost 2500 years. Their dual-tone ability means they have a complete 12-tone scale (which predates the European 12-tone system by 2000 years) and can play melodies in diatonic and pentatonic scales!
What are Tibetan singing bowls?
Tibetan singing bowls are essentially inverted or standing bells. They fall into a category of musical instruments called idiophone percussion instruments. These are instruments whose substance vibrates to produce sound.
Singing bowls are said to have been made of a blend of seven different metals, to create a range of different sounds and overtones. The seven metals, connected to seven astrological planets, are gold (Sun), silver (Moon), mercury (Mercury), copper (Venus), iron (Mars), tin (Jupiter), and lead (Saturn). The original alloy (seven metals blend) bowls did not produce a good sound and so a shift was made to 80% copper and 20% tin (typical bell metal) to give the most pleasant tone—key for a buyer, and important to a sellers’ trade.
As with bells, the tone of a singing bowl is mostly due to its shape, weight, and size, ranging from a few centimeters to a meter in diameter. A bell is regarded as having a good tone when it’s in tune with itself—and there may be a life lesson in that!
These days singing bowls are available internationally and can be bought online with the global market benefiting manufacturers in the East.
What are Tibetan singing bowls used for?
Tibetan singing bowls are used for music, chanting, sound massage and sound bath sessions, relaxation, meditation, balancing or chakra healing, energy work, and sound healing. Since the 70s, there has been a rapid increase in the number of followers of yoga and spirituality in the West. More and more seekers traveling to the East have sought to have their own Tibetan singing bowl set.
Regardless of their origin, singing bowls have been growing in popularity thanks to their use by a growing number of sound therapists, holistic healers, reiki masters, musicians, yoga and meditation teachers, in the West and globally. Their beautiful sounds are also on alarm clocks, timers, and prayer and meditation apps. This has prompted individuals to seek out their own bowl, or Tibetan singing bowl set, for a home spiritual and healing practice, and to add to their sacred space in the home; the bowls also make for great objet d’art!
The tones and overtones produced by vibrating singing bowls are said to offer powerful energy medicine and sound healing. Reported benefits include an enhanced sense of well-being, reduced stress, fewer mood swings, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of strokes and coronary artery disease, improved pain management, and sleep.
Stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems. It can suppress immune systems, upset digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. It can enlarge the “fight or flight” area in the brain, shrink the memory center, and lead to cognitive deficits, mood disorders, and other psychiatric imbalances.
Research shows that sound vibration affects brainwave patterns and can relieve anxiety and countless other problems. A singing bowl meditation can reduce stress, anger, depression, and fatigue. It is also used to relieve pain in the joints, muscles, and shoulders, to ease pain related to sciatica, the digestive system, headaches, migraine, spine injuries, and improve circulation.
Relaxation has a variety of health benefits such as lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate and reducing muscle tension and chronic pain.
Stillness and quiet
Being still induces a mind-body-spirit connection that relaxes muscles, lowers anxiety and pain, and enhances your overall sense of resilience and well-being. Spiritual disciplines recognize that through chanting, prayer, and meditation, being still is the pathway to transcendence and the divine.
“There’s no organ system in the body that’s not affected by sound, music, and vibration. You can look at disease as a form of disharmony.”
Tibetan singing bowls and their multifaceted effects
Singing bowl therapy forms part of vibrational or sound healing.
When used intentionally as part of meditative healing practices, focus on the sounds (coming to presence) reduces internal dissonance and dis-ease, shifting brainwaves from beta into alpha and then theta, to create a centering unitive effect, which restores peace, calmness, and states of well-being. In addition, the sound frequencies themselves entrain the brain to enhance well-being. More on the bowls and their frequencies a bit later in this article…
Sound waves from singing bowls are said to affect us:
- Physiologically: Sound (resonance) travels well in water, and we are 70% water; reduce cortisol levels/stress hormones, heart rate, and breathing, and strengthen the immune system
- Psychologically: Changes our emotions and moods
- Cognitively: Reduces stress which impacts memory
- Behaviourally: Sounds can stress us or relax us; be conscious of sound and make choices that enhance your well-being
- Spiritually: Sublime sounds help us center in meditative presence and transcend
How to work with a Tibetan Singing Bowl for healing
Making the bowl sing requires friction which stimulates vibration to create the sound we hear. Place the singing bowl on the flat palm of one hand, then using the other hand run the leather-covered wooden mallet in a circular motion around the outside of the bowl, ensuring consistent contact and pressure, until a harmonious steady sound is reached.
Listen for the subtly different tones. A higher overtone can be heard by rubbing the mallet along the outside lip of the bowl. The singing sound continues for a period even after rubbing the bowl has ceased.
Something to be aware of when choosing a singing bowl is that they may be tuned to different notes, said to have different benefits.
When receiving a singing bowl sound healing session you’ll be lying down, with the bowls placed in a variety of configurations and on different points of your body, around your body, or around the room.
Are Tibetan singing bowls right for you along your journey?
At different times in our lives, we may feel called to explore alternative practices towards healing and wellbeing. While singing bowls may not be part of your regular religious and cultural practice, they are bells that emit powerful vibrational frequencies.
These are some considerations before working with singing bowl sound therapy:
Should you have neurological disorders like epilepsy, Parkinson’s, severe anxiety, or depression, or if you are fitted with devices such as a pacemaker, consult your doctor before use.
Singing bowls may bring strong emotions or painful memories to your awareness. You may feel tender or teary as you process these emotions. Be gentle with yourself after a session.
Should you have PTSD, anxiety, or depression, find a suitably experienced and skilled sound healer. Expect and prepare yourself and the healer for what may resurface during the session.
Skin disorders, artery diseases, and blood clots will limit where you can place a singing bowl on your body. They should also not be placed directly on or near implants of any kind, inflamed areas, and tumors.
If you are pregnant, do not place the bowls on your body.
If you are new to working with singing bowls, limit yourself to no more than five minutes a day.
“Listen to the wind, it talks. Listen to the silence, it speaks. Listen to your heart, it knows.”
-Native American proverb