I’ll admit it: I was skeptical. Well, more than skeptical – I was pretty sure sound therapy was phony.
After all, I’d first heard about the practice from a friend who only believed in things that couldn’t be proven. He was utterly convinced that crystals can heal a stuffy nose and that his potted plants are happy to see him – don’t dare mention Sudafed or Miracle-Gro around this guy.
So when he said that he was getting something called “sound therapy” for his sore back, I immediately envisioned the silliest possible scenario: a doctor putting a megaphone up to his spinal column and shouting, “Stop hurting so much!” I filed sound therapy away in the part of my brain that scoffs at the Loch Ness Monster and heterosexuals.
But that all changed when I hurt my back.
My back pain was probably caused by either too much physical activity or not enough. I’d recently abandoned Muni to begin a strenuous reliance on my bike, and I also spend about 14 hours a day typing at a computer. But I was reluctant to visit the doctor. The last time I went to the Haight Street Free Clinic, they told me that I had a yeast infection on my lip and needed to rub my face with vaginal cream. (It turned out to just be dry skin.)
Then, as luck would have it, I bumped into Pnina Shamsi. We knew each other at college back east, then lost touch, then spotted each other seven years later at Cole Hardware. Pnina, who was a radio major, mentioned that she was now a sound therapy practitioner. A lightbulb went off. Could she possibly help me with my back pain?
“Sure,” she said, and invited me over to her studio in Noe Valley.
What, I wondered, was I getting myself into?
Science! I was getting myself into science.
As I described my back pain, Pnina nodded and identified my problem muscles. She pointed at my midsection, describing how the fibers connected and how my posture could strain them. It felt like getting a verbal x-ray.
“Let’s have you do some stretches,” she said, and rolled out a yoga mat. As I gingerly arched my back, she assigned some homework: do this stretch before bed; do another stretch when you wake up; remember to breathe; drink this tea; don’t stretch this muscle if this other muscle doesn’t feel flexible enough.
I was relieved to find that her sound therapy technique didn’t skimp on the “therapy” part. She was clearly spot-on with her stretching suggestions, and after just a few minutes I was feeling better than I had in weeks.
And then, finally, it was time for the vibrating table.
It looked like a normal massage table, but Pnina lifted up the sheet on the side to show me the audio equipment below. The underside was outfitted with a row of giant speakers and a block of knobs, lights, and cables that looked like something you’d find backstage at a concert.
I was going to be getting two different treatments: delta waves piped directly into my ears, and a series of sound waves traveling up and down my spine. According to electroencephalographic research, the two-hertz delta waves would induce a dreamy, relaxing state of mind, and the vibrating table would tingle the molecules of my body at a frequency conducive to spinal harmony.
Pnina flipped a switch, and we were off. The bed began to channel a deep throbbing rumble through my body. Meanwhile, a relaxing rainforest recording seeped into my brain. Within minutes, I found myself on a giant floating space-cat. That’s the best description I can give for what was happening: the table beneath me felt like the happy purr of a huge feline as my mind drifted.
Was I asleep? No, I don’t think so. My brain felt softened, like that moment just before you tip over the edge and fall asleep. The waves rolling from my head to my feet were persuading my muscles into a jelly-like calm.
I actually don’t remember much about what happened next. Like waking up, I wasn’t quite cognizant as the music faded and the table hummed to a halt. I do recall that I was kind of blissed out, and that Pnina gave me a few bonus minutes of peppy beta waves to jolt me back to my senses.
The next thing I knew, I was biking home with a goody bag tied around my handlebars. Inside was my very own CD of delta waves, to induce a brain wiggle whenever I please.
Over the next few days, I faithfully stretched, flexed, and vibrated. Was it working? Well, I certainly felt better. My back bothered me less, and when I listened to those waves at bedtime it felt less like falling asleep and more like soaring to sleep.
Of course, there’s more to sound therapy than purring and dreams. After a while, I became curious about other uses for the vibrating tables, and that’s when I found Stacy Simone.
Stacy has practiced massage therapy for eight years, and like Pnina, she has a bunch of techy audio gear that pipes acoustic pulses through a mattress into her clients. I stopped by her Cole Valley studio for a quick 30-minute “mini-treatment,” and she indulged me with a whirlwind sampler of some of her best tracks.
I could actually feel the throaty groan of a didgeridoo in my organs, as though the sound was emanating from deep within my body. Next, we tried a muscle-relaxation recording. I felt a tightness on the sides of my head, from my chin to my temples, like I’d been chewing for too long.
When Stacy turned the audio off, I stretched my muscles and felt a pleasant weariness like I’d finished a workout. Even though the mini-treatment was brief, I felt peppy, limber, and upbeat.
As our session wrapped up, Stacy explained that vibrations similar to the ones sound therapists use are all around us. Usually we don’t notice them, or we mistake them for something else. She told me about a client who, when experiencing her healing table for the first time, simply thought that the neighbors’ music was turned up too high. Another time, Stacy was relaxing at a friend’s country cottage when she discovered that a downstairs water pump shook the floor at just the right frequency to be relaxing.
After my conversation with Stacy, I started paying much closer attention to the natural vibrations around me.
My best experience with wild sound came in Golden Gate Park. I wasn’t expecting to find therapy at the time, but halfway down JFK Drive, I came to realize that the affects of the yellowish Rainbow Falls are more than visual.
I’d decided to seek out the source of the falls, and traipsed uphill. It turns out the water from the Rainbow Falls lagoon is perpetually circulated, pumped uphill near the Prayer Brook Cross. As I sat down on the stone surrounding the water and machinery, I could feel it: a soft wum-wum-wum in my fingertips. I closed my eyes, stuck in some earbuds, and started playing a delta wave over the sound of the möbius waterfall.
The combination of the sounds and the tiny tremors were so soothing, I drifted off almost immediately. I had no idea how much time passed, and when I opened my eyes I briefly panicked. For a moment I was afraid that I’d been sleeping for days – except, oh, wait, people don’t actually do that. As it turned out, I’d closed my eyes for 30 minutes at just the right moment. I felt like the whole world had changed.
After these experiences, I was a lot less dismissive of sound therapy. Do I have proof that the buzzing and throbbing is what helped my back? Well, no. But the therapy definitely felt good, and since feeling good was my whole reason for trying it out, I consider it a success. I’ve experienced another benefit as well. These days, I notice vibrations and waves more than I ever did before, down to the insecty buzz of my computer fan.
Of course, I’m still not quite ready to listen to my new-agey friend when he begins waving his crystals around. But at least now when he starts going off, I can stick in some earbuds and drown him out with a delta wave.
Book some time with Pnina Shamsi by calling 415-742-0742 or emailing email@example.com , and a session with Stacy Simone by calling 415-254-4763. Their rates vary based on your treatment, but expect to spend around $100 for an hour-long session.
You can find various public audio experiences all over the city – just put your hand against a surface and feel for vibrations. (The tip of the Fort Mason piers on a foggy day is ideal for foghorn listening; or call 415-202-3809 to listen to live audio from the bridge.) The Prayer Brook Cross is tucked away in the woods of Golden Gate Park near 20th Avenue, just up a narrow, seldom-traveled path.