By Janet Aschkenasy
The ancient art and new science of using sounds and voices to treat pain and life-threatening disease.
During 21 hours of labor, Stephanie Rose seriously considered taking Demerol, but changed her mind when she realized that just by singing “Om,” “Uhhhh,” and other fluid, open sounds, she could endure her contractions and ride with the experience. “I wasn’t crying out for help,” says Rose. “I didn’t have any fear during the birthing.” Instead, “I was meeting each moment with sound. By the time I was riding out the sound, the pain had passed.”
Weeks later, expectant mother Michelle Kopper Seymour went from 3 to 10 centimeters dilated in less than two hours, also without drugs. To deal with the pain, she stood naked in a wide-legged power stance and made long, open-vowel sounds (think of opening wide and saying “ahhhh…”). Sinking into the rhythm of her yoga class tape, she mimicked bits of a Sanskrit phrase seeking deliverance from limitation and fear. “It was about going into the pain, using my own vibration to actually match that level of pain, instead of checking out mentally,” says Seymour.
The power of sound is a well-kept secret in the visually oriented West, but not at the small Manhattan yoga studio Rose and Seymour attend. Its liberal use of humming and toning (creating sound with an elongated vowel for an extended period), together with the chanting of Sanskrit verse and seed syllables, distinguishes the practice from other New York City yoga schools more concerned with hatha yoga, or mastery of movement. Rasa yoga students chant or hum — neither pushing the vibration too far nor holding back too much — as they hold yoga postures with the same mindful intent. The combination deepens the breath while often creating a hypnotic sea of vocals that can foster profound relaxation and may deeply affect even extreme pain.
Yet there’s more to it than meets the eye, or ear. Such sounds are not only singing new babies into the world, they’re helping cancer victims withstand the rigors of chemotherapy and even go on living lives they’d been told were finished.
On the frontier of new research into this 4,000-year-old practice is Mitchell Gaynor, M.D.*, clinical professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College and founder of Gaynor Integrative Oncology in New York City. Gaynor, author of The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice and Music (Shambhala, 2002), reports that his success treating victims of life-threatening disease has improved markedly since he began having his patients chant mantras while drinking in the sound of crystal or metal singing bowls….
….That said, even the simplest humming exercise can be an effective stress or headache reliever. With a bit more effort, practices such as chanting, yoga, and meditation can complement the latest scientific discoveries — helping us to relax without chemical relaxants, mend without extensive surgery, and prepare mentally when surgery or chemotherapy is unavoidable.
Seriously, who needs an epidural when you can om?
*Dr Gaynor has since passed away but there are articles and videos on his work on the internet.
This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health The Soul/Body Connection, July-August 2003