“Oh, it’s the Zen lady, it’s Zen Day, they’ll say when I walk in.”
That’s the reaction that Karen Romano of Inner Light Sound Healing gets at her twice-monthly Teen Sound Bath program at Mt. Lebanon Public Library. And it’s fine with her.
Sound baths are a type of vibrational therapy that offers a meditative experience to participants who are surrounded by sound from different instruments. The aim is to reduce stress and induce calm.
Sound baths for adults, which Romano also does at the library in conjunction with Susannah Azzaro of Nourish and Move (formerly Himalayan Institute), are different than the ones she does for teenagers. Adults typically lie on mats and do deep listening while meditating and relaxing for 45 minutes.
“I knew that wouldn’t work for kids, who are coming straight from school,” said Romano, of Fieldbrook Drive, who is a certified drum circle facilitator. “So I have them sit around a table and just listen. I’ll just play the instruments and let them soak it in. And then I’ll offer to let them play.”
The instruments she brings with her include Tibetan bowls, zaphir chimes, rattles, an ocean drum, a rain stick, a buffalo drum and crystal bowls. They make a wide range of sounds from soft and low to loud and vibrating to rapid clatters.
Teen librarian Katie Donahoe said Romano has a special way with the kids who attend, who are mostly middle schoolers. “You can tell that she obviously enjoys working with them. She’ll say, ‘I had this really cool experience with them,’ doing this or that with the instruments.”
Romano, who also offers sound baths at Inner Light on Beverly Road, said her young participants sometimes do things that she has never thought of. “They’re just so creative! And they’re always discovering new ways to play these instruments. Remember, I’ve been playing these instruments for three or four years, every week, multiple times, and they will come in and show me a new way to play one of them.”
Sound baths are part of the library’s Shine initiative to promote free mental wellness programs, which include stress reduction, suicide prevention, and self-care for teens. Much of the financing comes from the nonprofit Matt’s Maker Space, which supports mental health programming as well as STEM youth programs.
“I think what the library is offering, mental health programs for teens, is just such a fabulous resource,” said Romano. “There are just so many things they bring to it. They ask great questions.”
Evan Snyder, 12, Park Entrance Drive, attended four of the sound bath sessions. “I liked how much freedom we had to explore the different things the instruments can do and the variety of instruments. She just let me and my friends make a little rhythm using the instruments. She was very welcoming and very fun to talk to.”
Gabriel Walker, 11, found the experience very soothing. “She brought one that was like a drum, a round drum thing with beads inside of it, and when you rolled it around, it sounded like a bunch of waves. I did that for a while because it was calming and relaxing.”
Romano gave an example of demonstrating different rattles. “I had them close their eyes and I told them that I wanted them to pick which ones they thought I was playing. They loved that! And then we talked about how almost every culture in the world uses rattles in some way. But look how different they are.”
Donahoe reported that she can perceive the damage that the pandemic did on teenagers’ stress levels. “I’ve worked here for five years and they’re more at their wits’ end than I’ve ever seen them.”
According to Romano, the sound baths help lower the frequency in the brain into a meditative state, which starts to heal it. “The kids are exposed to this and they’re starting to understand what it means to feel relaxed in their body. We want everybody to feel that, because we’re so amped up all the time. If you’re training your brain to calm down every day, you know how to get back to that space.”
Donahoe concluded, “There’s a lot of behavioral health, mental health issues that need to be addressed. And if we can be one piece of that puzzle, I feel that we’re helping make it a little easier for them.”