Melissa Felsenstein, founder of Inner Sound Yoga, is a sound practitioner who does “sound baths,” live concerts of meditative sounds using special gongs and quartz crystal bowls that are intended to create deep relaxation. Felsenstein, 40, lives in Berkeley.
J.: Deep relaxation is harder and harder to achieve these days. Why is that?
Melissa Felsenstein: People have a hard time creating time for quality rest. Even when we’re falling asleep, we’re often thinking about the next day, or writing down things still on our minds or ruminating over a conversation or dispute we had. There are so many outlets demanding our time. If we really want to lead a harmonious life and have robust health and longevity, we have to find ways to balance our stress.
Sometimes we have to relearn how to relax. The intention is to create an environment where a meditative state can be felt. Many people give up on meditating because it’s uncomfortably challenging. In using sound as a meditative tool, there’s no effort. You lie down and listen, and for a lot of people that automatically carries them into a deeper state of calm, relaxation and meditation. It’s a really pleasant shortcut. It’s music for your nervous system.
You first encountered this practice in India in 2008, right?
That’s when I first saw Tibetan bowls being used on the bodies of sick children. They were used as a tool to reharmonize patients and offer them healing. I was a dancer and loved music, as well as helping others, and I had a long conversation with a practitioner there and bought a special bowl from him and convinced him to give me his mallet, which I considered blessed. He shared some techniques with me and I left feeling so inspired, thinking, “I’m going to leave my job to be a sound healer,” but by the time the plane had landed back home, I thought, “Who am I kidding? You can’t make any money doing that, what a stupid idea.” Fast-forward a decade, I’m fully invested. I have 10 gongs and 12 bowls and beautiful chimes and the metal bowls as well, and rain sticks and vibrational tuning forks that you put on the body; and shamanic drums.
How you got into this field is a story of healing yourself from trauma. Can you talk about that?
My dad became mentally ill, which led to him being lost in the system. I was chronically stressed out in trying to get care for him. I had insomnia, massive digestive issues, migraines and started grinding my teeth at night. I also was working a very high-stress job, as a corporate events manager. I took a leave and started practicing more yoga. I walked into a class where the teacher played a crystal bowl while we were in shavasana [final rest pose]. For the first time in three years, I felt really relaxed, and that created a deep sense of relief and sense of hope that things could be different. I ordered three quartz crystal bowls, and while I didn’t know what I was doing at first, I started playing every day. I had tried so many other things: acupuncture, yoga, meditating, reiki, talk therapy, Western medicine. I was putting everything I could into it. When you reach that state of depletion, every tool feels exhausting, and I never felt better after any of those things, I just felt more tired. But once this happened, I could lie down and experience really deep sleep for the first time in years.
And you attribute this to your own process of healing?
Yes. I started getting more energy and sense of momentum from playing. It was miraculous. I thought the turnaround would be slow, but it happened relatively quickly so that I started noticing positive effects in my body. This isn’t snake oil, it’s science. When your sympathetic nervous system relaxes, your body responds.
Tell me more about your father’s story.
My father was Jewish, but I was raised by my mother who was Lutheran. My dad’s family fled the war — they were German and Austrian — and ended up in Uruguay, where his parents met. He was born in Montevideo and his family moved to San Francisco when he was 14. He ended up at Lowell High School and then MIT. He worked for Hewlett-Packard as an electrical engineer for his entire career, before he became mentally ill and passed away in 2015. I feel intensely curious and connected to Jewish culture; there’s a commonality in the singing and music, and I think that’s something I would love and enjoy, as well as the rituals and practices.
How can people find out more about what you do?
This modality is becoming more popular; it’s really gathering momentum in a positive way. What I’m trying to create is more intimate and personalized. I do small-group sessions with about eight people, and there we’ll have Tibetan bowls on the body and tuning forks on acupressure points. I also do one-on-ones, and birthday parties, graduations, baby showers and sometimes corporate events. I’m definitely open to doing one in a synagogue, as long as there’s enough space for everyone to lie down.