Sound Meditation Baths Have Arrived in the East Bay

Sound practitioners believe the vibrations of metal gongs, chimes, and crystal bowls can lead to deep meditation and relaxation.


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Melissa Felsenstein leads sound yoga meditations in Alameda and elsewhere.

Photo by Melati Citrawireja

Candlelight flickered in the dimly lit yoga studio, illuminating two large metal gongs and a line of frosted white bowls. Yoga mats were laid out in neat rows. A yogi, Melissa “Missy” Felsenstein, instructed the dozen middle-aged men and women, all wearing comfortable clothes, to choose a blanket, bolster, eye pillow, and a mat, sharing in a calm and soothing voice how sound meditation therapy had improved her health. She invited them to stretch out or sit comfortably and cover up with the blanket, and the lyrical sound of chimes flowed through the room as she walked around the space. The sound shifted, moving through a range between melodious and dissonant, from bowl to gong and then back to chimes. The vibrations were palpable, varying in intensity and effect. A quick 40 minutes later, Felsentein concluded with a seated meditation, and the visitors, pleasantly warmed and feeling the echoes of the instruments resonating in their tissues, left.

Sound apparently is a force to be reckoned with, and various sound practitioners around the East Bay like Felsentein are exploring its capacity to create relaxation and meditative states in public sound baths (also called sound meditations), private sessions, and holistic medicine. Their tools vary from chimes to crystal bowls to gongs to tuning forks — all of which create their own unique vibrations and help the listener fast-track into a meditative state.

“Pure sound has no association; music can have emotional associations,” said Felsenstein, a third-generation East Bay native, leads sound yoga meditations at Leela Yoga Studio, Yoga Alameda, and Symmetry Yoga in Alameda and elsewhere, teaches weekly yoga classes incorporating sound therapy, and hosts public sound meditations every month throughout the East Bay in cities such as Alameda, El Cerrito, San Leandro, and Oakland (see her schedule at InnerSoundsYoga.com). “Sound has been used for thousands of years for healing, from Native-American drumming to Hippocrates who used harmonics.”

Felsenstein discovered sound as a healing modality for her own health issues. She fell prey to a host of ailments such as migraines, TMJ, and insomnia, after her father fell victim to mental illness. Luckily, during the final relaxation at a yoga class, the teacher played a crystal bowl, and Felsenstein was able to relax for the first time in a very long time.

“I went and bought three bowls, and I played every day,” she said. “Sound helped my brain waves slow down, and I was able to rid myself of the chronic stress. I retrained my mind and body through sound.”

Felsenstein eventually started offering sound baths for her friends, and that grew into the public sound baths she hosts today. Her ultimate goal is to get the practice to people who would never come to a yoga studio, and she has begun taking her show on the road to venues such as schools and libraries and offers workshops, including a recent one for the Berkeley Police Department. She considers public sound baths affordable therapy, and as they are “talkless,” they are accessible to all ages and abilities — no yoga experience necessary.

Another Bay Area sound practitioner, Minna Sivola, also offers public sound baths, private sessions, and corporate wellness throughout the East Bay as well as retreats in locations such as Santa Cruz. She came to the practice to alleviate the stress from working in a corporate environment and found that sound was her gateway into meditation.

“I tried so many types of meditation, and in 2009, I found sound meditation through a friend,” said Sivola. “It was an embodiment experience — like lucid dreaming. When the body is relaxed, it is so much easier for the mind to relax as well.”

In addition to sound baths, Sivola collaborates with practitioners from other modalities; for example, she plays her instruments at Berkeley Community Acupuncture while people are in session, and she has played for painters as they worked on mandalas. In her experience, sound can be combined with just about everything to enhance the experience or effect. Like Felsenstein, Sivola is also passionate about making sound meditation more available, and she posts short video practices to her website, HarmoniaAlto.com, to introduce people to simple practices they can do own on their own.

“It’s all about empowering people to have the tools that they need at hand,” Sivola said.

Mona Meline, owner of Oakland’s Bliss Fitness & Health (BlissFitOakland.com), is dedicated to bringing sound baths to the community and has three practitioners, including Danny Goldberg of San Francisco, coming to her space. She met Goldberg at a festival in San Francisco and wanted to offer that type of experience in her home studio.

“Bliss Fitness is centered around connecting,” Meline said, “in the spirit of taking care of the whole person. Each practitioner who comes here has their own approach and style, and every time there is a sound healing, I watch people leave with a sense of calm and ease and gratitude.”

Some holistic medical practitioners also use sound in their therapeutic practices. For example, Suzie Lee, a chiropractor in Alameda, started incorporating tuning forks into her sessions after training with Geoffrey Montague-Smith, a British osteopath, and experiencing a sound bath with Martha Birkett, who uses alchemy crystal bowls (singing bowls infused with other substances like smoky quartz and lapis lazuli). Lee has also taken her sound therapy into the public space; she has begun hosting her own sound baths (HeartSongBath.com) in Oakland at the Working Body on Grand.

“There is a shift into the parasympathetic nervous system,” Lee said. “People leave more relaxed.”

While every practitioner is different, and no two sound baths are alike, there are certain commonalities for the attendees. They can recline on the floor (note, some venues do not provide props; people need to bring their own) or sit in chairs (including wheelchairs) —any comfortable position. While most sound baths begin with a short talk to set intention, Sivola takes her attendees through a short practice involving shaking, breathing, and vocalizations. The main focus of all sound meditations is hearing the vibrations. Felsenstein closes her public sound baths with a short meditation; Sivola’s come back to the vocalizations.

“Sound’s greater purpose is to restore harmony in the nervous system, reduce stress, connect us to ourselves on a deeper level, and lead us to meditation,” Felsenstein said. “We don’t need silence to meditate.”

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