Sound healing, sometimes referred to as vibrational medicine or sound therapy, has probably existed since humans have walked the earth. Ancient Egyptian papyri note music’s effects for healing the body. In his book De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes about flute music’s potent ability to purify the soul. By the late 19th century, a researcher from Paris published one of the first studies on the beneficial effects of sound on the human body. Though the idea of using sound for therapeutic purposes may feel like a modern invention, the wisdom is something that’s been around a long time.
“It’s old,” gina Breedlove states matter-of-factly. “Sound is as old as us…it predates the written word. Etchings on cave walls show folks with instruments and their mouths open. They’re clearly singing or sounding.”
Breedlove, whose own voice imparts the warm ease of a summer night humming with cicada song, is well-practiced in the art of wielding sound as a healing tool. She’s an award-winning vocalist and musician. In the span of her decades long career, Breedlove has worked with performers like Harry Belafonte and given voice to The Lion King’s Sarabi on Broadway. At the intersection of her artistry and her spirit, Breedlove is a medicine woman, committed to empowering others through the sound of their own voices.
“My favorite use of sound is for shifting narratives—for me the dominant narrative in your head is reflective of how you care for yourself,” Breedlove explained.
Any black, brown, or native person in the U.S. knows how insidiously the dominant cultural narrative of our identities can creep into own heads, our own bodies. When Audre Lorde spoke of self-preservation as an act of political warfare, she knew that by caring for and honoring her body’s worthiness, she reframed narratives both personal and of the collective. Breedlove’s medicine work shares these roots.
“My work has been about how to shift narratives from trauma and origin thoughts in how you see or feel about yourself, your worthiness, your connection or interconnection (or lack of), to the Whole,” Breedlove said, “and I use sound to shift folk to thinking and knowing themselves as powerful beings in the world.”
Breedlove defines sound healing as the literal use of sound as medicine, as a way to elicit calm and clarity in the body. People seek sound therapy for relief from things like anxiety and depression to chronic pain management to digestive issues. Sound therapy settings and practitioners can vary. Sometimes doctors employ high-intensity ultrasound waves to kill certain kinds of cancer cells. Some healers use tuning forks, crystal bowls, or Tibetan singing bowls. Breedlove, however, uses her own voice to speak harmony into a client’s body of cells. Using the metaphors of the garden, Breedlove notes the way our words can function as seeds planted into each other’s bodies and provide opportunities to release trauma, grief, and sprout new life.
Intimately aware of the ways trauma can leave us “stuck,” Breedlove described her first remembered experience grappling with the pain of abandonment.
“When I was six the most painful thing that happened. My mother left my father and left my family. She left me quite literally on a doorstep in Brooklyn. There’s a part of me that stayed on that doorstep waiting for her to return. It becomes a kind of metaphor for what happens in your life. We return to the places of trauma.”
“But I also went to that doorstep and got that baby girl off that doorstep,” Breedlove declared.
Guided by a presence Breedlove calls Grace, she learned in meditation a modality of returning to moments of harm, and signing her own name to call love forward. Singing her own name had the effect of grounding her in the present-moment of caring for herself as an adult. “This ritual and practice that I deepened and perfected over the years,” she said, “is the absolute center of what I do in circle work now.”
Breedlove attended her first sound circle at 9-years-old, though she wouldn’t have called it a “sound circle” at the time. It was simply what happened on a weeknight in church while the children had choir practice, and the church mothers gathered in another room, to sing, moan, and wail. Fascinated, Breedlove remembers sneaking away from choir, and feeling the “sing-wail comfort” of the sound of their cries, the feel of hands at the back of her neck, the laying on of hands. It was an opportunity to move grief, a weekly ritual that sustained the women who mourned the systemic harm inflicted upon the community. Afterward, “there would always be laughter and food,” Breedlove recalled, “there was a lightness, there was laughter, joy, and song.”
During the height of the pandemic’s shelter-in-place mandates, as isolation, loss, and grief cast a large shadow, Breedlove found herself dancing and singing at the top of her lungs in her kitchen. Joined by millions of others, Club Quarantine, hosted by DJ D-Nice via Instagram Live sessions, gave Breedlove the opportunity to gather safely and move through grief in community once again.
“I do that anyway for my healing, but to do it in community was a balm to my spirit,” Breedlove said.
In collaboration with the Acorn Center for Restoration and Freedom in Georgia, Breedlove created her own community gathering space, Our Freedom Sanctuary. This virtual sound healing room will center Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) folk, but welcomes allies, inviting all participants into the medicine of using their own voices in service of liberation.
Breedlove is also excited to announce her forthcoming book, Sound is our Saving Grace, which is slated to hit bookshelves in the Fall of 2023.