What do you think of when you hear the words, “singing bowl?” That meditation thing, maybe, or the loud gong in yoga classes? A weird bell instrument that has to do with chacras? Something Buddhists use while chanting ohm? All technically true. But singing bowls are both more, and less, than any of those things. I have been using them for the last five years as a way to steady and center myself, but they have all sorts of uses, and here, I’m going to outline what they are and how to play them with the help of this post from Shanti Bowls.
Though their beginnings and history are uncertain, singing bowls are tentatively traced to the Buddha Shayamuni period, (560 – 480 BCE). They have strong associations to Tibet, so strong in fact that they’re often called Tibetan singing bowls, a slightly inaccurate misnomer, though the Tibetan gifts stall at Midtown Global Market is actually where I got one of my favorite bowls. Regardless of their origins, they’re quite prolific today, and made all over the world. They also come in two different types, metal and crystal, with different sounds and price points depending on material and size. I’m personally not lucky enough to own any crystal bowls, but I have three wonderful metal ones, one of which you can see in the visuals associated with this post. They’re popular enough that I’ll have several options, however, should I ever be in the market.
Part of the reason the bowls have endured in popularity through the ages is their usefulness. Most obviously lauded for their relaxing qualities, some have claimed to find success easing the body with their vibrations, not curing but helping to relieve stress, symptoms and pain. Others believe that specific notes can activate and open specific chacras in the body which allow for increased empathy, clarity and other benefits, beginning with the root chacra at C and rising all the way to the crown chacra at G, though I do not subscribe to this modality. I simply find the feeling of them reverberating against my hands to be soothing and enjoy the clear, steady notes they can create. Speaking of notes, its high time for less nattering and more tutorials, so let’s dive into how these unique instruments are played.
Bowls can be played two different ways, either held in the non-dominant hand or set out in front of you on a flat surface. If you choose the latter, you’ll need a cushion or ring to keep it a little elevated so whatever’s underneath doesn’t dampen the sound. I found this method awkward and felt it lessened my connection with the sensations and sounds, so I always hold mine cupped in my palm, just be careful your fingers don’t touch the sides. Then, its time for the mallet, which should be held in the hand most comfortable with movement. The simplest way to play is one that will likely come naturally, striking the bowl, which is as simple as it seems, just gently tap the bowl and allow the note to ring. But if you want to understand why they have their name and really dive into the experience, you’ll likely want to make it sing. To do this, place the mallet on the outside of the bowl and turn in a circle, never breaking contact. Don’t worry if it takes a minute, the friction might need to build up a little before you get the bowl really playing, and if it doesn’t come at first, that’s ok, too. It took a couple hours for me to really understand how to produce sound, and I’m still not perfect at it. To see someone really impressive and also get a taste of what crystal singing bowls are like as opposed to metal, this lady is wonderful once she gets going. Play quietly for most soothing effect, I find her bowls a little piercing at high volume.
Finally, a few parting thoughts. If you have interest in learning to play after reading this and you don’t have a market or other shop to experiment with, I’d highly suggest trying to find reviews or demonstrations of any bowl you’re looking at online to make sure its one that sonically pleases you, as you don’t want to be irritated or overwhelmed when trying to relax. Bowls often have two notes, one higher and one lower, so be sure they’re both sounds you want in your world. For those who feel that the bowls are overly associated with spiritual practices you don’t understand, remember that they are like many other things in this life, a tool. There might be talk of charging crystals, clearing negative energies or finding enlightenment, but bowls and the clarion songs they produce can be used in limitless ways, as mystical or as mundane as the one who wields them. I like to wish into them, myself, and imagine that the bowl’s voice is holding it sacred, carrying my hopes up to the sky, something you won’t find on any page. So whatever your interest, if you’re at all intrigued, I hope you’ll consider giving one of these instruments a look to see how it can destress, enliven or otherwise improve your world.