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Singing Bowls and the Breath

Our breath is the ultimate act of generosity life gives us.  Without it, no other of life’s abundant gifts are possible. Our breath is a chorus, accompanying us as the ambient sound track of our lives, from the moment of birth until we leave our bodies.  As we endeavor to learn about meditation or Yoga, and our teachers point to the breath as the starting point on the path to enlightenment.  Take a deep breath.  Delicious, isn’t it?  An instantaneous mood changer!  For all its importance, we often take our breath for granted; even overlook it altogether.  Why should we focus on it?  It is always there – until for whatever reason, we find it difficult to breathe.  Then nothing is more important!

Our breath is the fuel of our life force, as been referred to as Chi (Chinese) or Prana (Vedantan), depending on spiritual discipline and culture.  This energy fuels not just our own life force, but the life force of every living thing on the planet.  The air we breathe, in one way or another, has nourished and sustained every life form that has ever lived, as it cycles from gas to vapor to rain to water, and back to vapor and air; for as long as there has been oxygen on this Planet.  So the air in our lungs connects us to all life.

As singing bowls are bio-feedback instruments, they can be used to help us connect to our breath, and harness it for the deepening our meditation. As we play a singing bowl around the rim, the quality of its voice is a great indicator of our state.  The more nervous we are, the more scratchy and shrill the voice of the bowl becomes. The more focused and relaxed we are, the bowl’s pure, sweet tone mirrors our serenity.  Although technique certainly is a factor, the breath has a huge part to play in our ability to transition to this state.

I’ve had the great blessing to watch literally thousands of people’s first encounters with a singing bowl. They nearly all remind me of the first time I tried to ride a bike.  I remember it vividly!  I was scared, initially, and insisted that my brother push my bike, while I pedaled furiously, demanding that he stay with my bike until I could slow down and stop safely (even at the age of five or six, I needed an exit strategy).  And this manipulation worked for me a couple of times, until he let the bike go and I freaked out and crashed into a tree.

But trust and forgiveness is not the subject of this blog!  What is pertinent is my crystal clear memory of the moment when I realized that he had let go of the bike: every muscle in my body went into overload and froze up.  And although I’m sure I must have screamed, what I really remember was that I was holding my breath, as if that control would somehow save me from impending disaster.

Likewise, when I endeavor to do something for the first time and I am totally focused on the task at hand, often I find that it’s just natural to tense any muscles involved in the activity, as well as many that are not – and hold my breath in the process!   And then I wonder why I’m feeling so uncomfortable, and the task seems so difficult, if not impossible.  It is because I am not breathing and I’m tensing almost every muscle in my body!  So, as every single one of my meditation and Yoga teachers has reminded me, I turn my awareness back to my breath.  I’ve seen countless people laboring furiously away at rimming a bowl with no sound resulting at all.  When reminded of their breath, their bowl’s volume takes off right at the moment of inhale!  Similarly, at first you may find the voice of your bowl quiet, or strained.  Breathe in – and see what happens.

You can also use your breath to even out your tone.  If you’re rimming your bowl and you observe that your mallet is rattling at a certain point in the revolution every time, draw in a breath right before you get to that point.  The breath slows you down and evens out your energy; and you will notice your mallet has glided effortlessly over that problem spot where, a moment before, you got rattling and noise.  This is one of the many, simple lessons that bowls give us: if you find a place of resistance, in a yoga posture, or a healing crisis, or any kind of life situation; try using the breath.  Even if some force is inevitably required, your body will be utilizing the power of your breath in its service.

Singing Bowls and the Breath – Simple Exercises

Sit in a comfortable position; either cross legged, or in an armless chair.  Basics for meditating with a singing bowl are similar to any other form of meditation:  check your posture, and make sure your spine is straight but relaxed; your arms are hanging free, your shoulders are relaxed and even, and your shoulder blades are at rest on the back.

Observe the singing bowl sitting on your hand.  Make sure that your hand is only coming into contact with the base of the bowl, so that your palm and finger pads are completely underneath the curvature at the base of the bowl.  Visualize your energy shining out your fingertips like rays of white light. This way, your fingers don’t involuntarily grasp the bowl while playing.

Breathe into your lower abdomen, feeling your rib cage slightly expanding as air inflates your lungs and gently pushes them against the diaphragm.  You can even experiment with the sensation of your lungs pushing gently against the small of your back as you inhale.  Exhale naturally.  There!  Now you’re using all your lung capacity: but don’t force the breath at any time.  Try a few more rounds of conscious breathing before you begin to play your bowl, so that you can get into a natural flow of breath to support your playing. Yogis might want to use Ujay breaths for this, a pranic exercise of supported breath in which you slightly close your soft palate, creating a rushing sound as the breath enters and exits. This breath is done through the nose with the mouth closed.

Begin by striking your bowl with the padded end of the mallet.  Notice your bowl’s beautiful balance of harmonies, as the dance of its beat frequencies play in your energy field.  Breathe its vibration into your lungs, and feel the warmth as it fills your chest cavity.  This vibration is tuning your cells within you, bathing your body in harmonious wave forms!  Breathe out, mingling your breath into the sound waves as they expand outward into the room. On your exhale, pause just a second or two before you inhale again, and observe your state.  You should feel palpably more relaxed with every exhale.  You can try counting at first: inhaling for the count of six, and exhaling for the count of six, to find a rhythm that is even and comfortable.  If you wish to deepen your relaxation, increase your count to eight. Or, you can simply use the bowl’s beat frequency as your metronome.  Repeat striking the bowl, tuning your body with every inhale, and tuning your environment with every exhale.  As the bowl’s vibration subsides, notice the change in the energy of the space around you; as well as the space within.

To rim the bowl, rotate the mallet against the outside lip, firmly and fluidly; listening to – and feeling – your bowl.  You’ll hear the abrasion of the stick against the metal at first, but almost immediately, you should feel some vibration coming through the base of the bowl into your hand.  Breathe into that vibration, and listen to what happens to the volume.  Be conscious that the energy of your breath will fuel the sound like air fuels fire!  As you rotate your stick and build the volume of the bowl, you’ll hear the bowl’s voice coming up loud and sweet and clear.  Be careful not to push the bowl beyond the threshold of volume at which it’s comfortable. If you do, the bowl will let you know, and you’ll start to hear an edge in its voice, or it may even kick you mallet off the side.  So just breathe, and slow down, perhaps increasing your pressure a little.  Continue to rim the bowl with the awareness that the consistency of your tone is a mirror of the ease of your breath.  As you remove your stick from the rim, send your exhale out as the tones dissipate into the air.  By now, you should now observe that the entire time you’ve been rimming the bowl, you have been in a thought-free state.  Enjoy this state of quiet mind.  Use your bowl to return to it as needed!

Discovering the Male Tone of a Singing Bowl

It was Fall of 2000, and the 2nd International Conference on Buddhism, fittingly, was off to a quiet start. Rain and I had driven from Los Angeles through the Southwest and the Rockies, and had arrived late at night our first visit to the YMCA Conference Center in Estes Park.  We pulled up in front of the administration building to check in, and parked in spaces overlooking the soccer field.  I got out of the truck and reveled at the sweetness of the mountain air and the explosion of stars above the black, vaulting Rockies rising around us.

On the wind, I heard a strange clacking sound.  The first image my mind conjured was a couple of martial artists stick fighting in the field, but that was silly, I thought.  It’s 11:00 at night. I stared hard into the darkness.  Slowly, the forms of two young bull elk began to emerge, playing at combat, locking their young antlers together, trying to wrestle the other into submission, breaking free, and charging again. Strange creatures, males, I thought.

Estes Park YMCA

Estes Park YMCA

We set our booth up in the Chapel, and we were the first booth inside the entrance.  There were only about 20 other vendors, mostly with Traditional Himalayan handicrafts, Nepali statues, Thangkas, jewelry and some clothing.  There were Western artists reproducing traditional Buddhists subjects, as well as vendors of books, CDs, and zafus.  We clearly had the largest selection of singing bowls. Only problem was, the Buddhists Conference was only attended by about 200 meditators, and they weren’t buying.  So it was a long 3 days, sitting at the booth, playing bowls, waiting for the lectures to break.
One day, Nawang Kechog, an old friend of Rain’s and a future Grammy award winning Tibetan flutist, came by the booth to hang out.  He was relaxing on the bench on the back of the booth, and casually picked up a bowl to play it.  First thing I noticed was the lack of angle on this stick; it was not poised along the edge as we normally do to play the female overtone.  Next thing I noticed was, nothing was happening.

I’m from New York.  At least, that’s where I came of age as an adult, and presumably, where my energy got stuck on hyper.  I have the ability, which I have tried to curb with varying degrees of success over the years, to open my mouth and speak without thinking. So, in this particular situation, I brazenly suggested to the brilliant Tibetan musician “Nawang, if you angle your stick just a little bit on the outside of the lip, your tone will come up much faster.”

Tibetan musician Nawang Khechog

Tibetan musician Nawang Khechog

He smiled serenely, and continued rotating the stick straight against the outside wall of the bowl.  Soon, I began to feel a warm sensation, and then became aware that my inner ears were vibrating with a deep sound I had never heard, emitting from the bowl.  If was the male tone of the singing bowl, solo, without the female overtone that until that moment, had been the male tone’s constant companion!

“How are you doing that, Nawang?!” I blushed, realizing that only a minute earlier, I had been essentially giving him instructions how to play a singing bowl.  He demonstrated how to keep the stick straight, flush against the wall of the bowl, in contact with the “belly”, or the widest point of the wall.  The belly will be pronounced on some bowls, as in Lotus bowls and Highwalls, or straighter as in the medium size thadobatis we call Karma or Buddha bowls.

As we didn’t have leather covered mallets back then, he was isolating the fundamental with the wooden end of the mallet, which is harder to do because there is less traction of the hard surface of the mallet to grab the molecules in the bowl and get them moving.  Now that leather padded mallets either come with your bowl or can be requested for a second mallet at an additional cost, learning how to isolate the fundamental is much easier.

Remember to breathe!  In general, singing bowls require us to be fully oxygenated when we play them, or we do not have enough Chi to make them sing.  This is especially true with the Fundamental tone.

Also, the male tone of a singing bowl is shy, and needs to be coaxed out of the bowl, not pressured, like the female.  A light touch works best!  Although playing any singing bowl around the rim is a great exercise in concentration, the fundamental technique requires the mind to be very focused and quiet to begin with.  So practice isolating the fundamental after you’ve been playing the female overtone for a few minutes and the bowl is warmed up, and your mind is quieted down.

Isolating the Fundamental

Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor, with your back straight, as you would for meditation. Breathe generously, but naturally, from your diaphragm.  Check in with your body.  Are you holding excess energy in your arms, shoulders, legs, your face?  Breathe into any tension, and let it go.

Hold your mallet in your dominant hand, with your bowl sitting on your receiving hand.  Important! Keep the hand holding the bowl very flat, with your fingers relaxed, but energized so that they do not unconsciously wrap around the base of the bowl while you are playing.  Even a slight touch will dampen the fundamental!  Hold your dominant arm away from your rib cage enough so that you do not have to bend your wrist in order to position the mallet against the wall of the bowl.

Massage the wall of the bowl with the leather end of the mallet.  You can use a light pressure on a thin walled bowl, slightly more pressure on a bowl with a thicker wall.  Start out briskly, but start to slow down as you feel the vibration beginning to come up.  Once it does, adjust your speed and pressure according to the volume of the bowl.  If the voice is very quiet, ramp up the speed or pressure just a bit.  If the voice of the bowl is edgy and the mallet is chattering, slow down.

If you are stirring your bowl for quite a while and not feeling any vibration, look at what you are doing and observe what you’re doing.  Here are the top 3 problems most people run into:

*Is your receiving hand clutching the bowl?
* Are you are breathing?
* Is your mallet flush against the wall of the bowl, rather than angled against the lip?  If you are just getting the mid tone or female tone, this may be the case.

Try to practice this on a medium size bowl before you try it on a cup bowl, as this technique is tricky on smaller bowls and does not work at all on very small, dense bowls with large, triangulated lips.

Because of my energetic edge, I tend to resonate to the lower tones of bowls.  The male tone is so healing for me, so I use it all the time. It’s much subtler than the female overtone; we feel it as much as hear it. I will always be grateful to Nawang for showing me how to access this tone.  Now you can do it, too!

For a demonstration, please visit my video “How to Play a Singing Bowl.  Enjoy your practice!


Antique Tibetan Singing Bowls do not merely sing. They communicate in a variety of ways, from their capacity as biofeedback instruments, to the informational subtext of their frequencies which we hear and feel in our bodies and energy fields as vibration. This blog will be based on my own experiences as well as those of customers and friends who have integrated the bowls into their healing and spiritual practices, and are guided by them as tools of discovery. I welcome all to share their experiences.

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