Good vibrations

June 26, 2018

Brett Leigh Dicks

As soothing tones from a combination of Tibetan and crystal singing bowls and gongs filled the air, participants at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's recent Meditation with Sound class closed their eyes and sank into a state of total relaxation.

Instructor Izumi Asura Serra caressed one bowl after another, each producing a long, gentle note. Ms. Serra follows no charts or sheets and there is no melody or rhythm; instead, the sounds emanate from an improvised cascade of notes dictated by the room and participants.

"It is kind of like a jazz musician," Ms. Serra told the News-Press during a recent visit to the class.

"I try not to plan my session, and once I'm improvising, I trust myself and my response. We are meditating, so it's important not to overstimulate people. So the sound all depends on the participants and space, whether you're inside or outside. Every session is different, but the goal is the same — deep relaxation."

The notes and sounds gradually get softer and softer until they disappear completely and the room is bathed in silence. Only a few participants even realized the sounds had stopped as they were in a deep state of meditation.

"Silence is another important and beautiful element of a sound session," Ms. Serra said. "It is all about energy and is very organic."

The next class will take place 5 to 6:15 p.m. Sunday at the garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road. Cost is $15 general, $10 members.

Sound therapy and healing has been used in different cultures for centuries. Apollo was considered the Greek god of music and medicine, Plato noted that music affected emotions and could influence an individual's character while Aulus Cornelius Celsus, author of the Roman medical treatise "De Medicina," prescribed the sound of cymbals and running water for the treatment of mental disorders.

"Sound therapy can be explained in a lot of different ways," Ms. Serra said. "It can be explained in a psychological, spiritual or scientific way, because it affects us in many different realms. Physically, it changes brainwaves, blood pressure and breathing rhythms. It helps creates a parasympathetic state — a relaxing state — which helps reduce stress.

"Even though we go to church or other places for our spiritual well-being, sound therapy helps us go a little bit deeper spiritually by taking out all the rules and judgment from spirituality. We are divine beings, and without those rules and judgment, we have a greater opportunity to connect with that and feel gratitude."

Ms. Serra's journey into sound therapy and healing came through her work as a body therapist. Born and raised in Japan, she moved to California in the early 1990s to study child care at Allan Hancock College. After living in Lompoc, she moved to Santa Barbara around 15 years ago and attended massage school while transitioning from working in child care at UCSB to body therapy.

"Someone told me I had pretty good hands for massage," Ms. Serra said. "I felt like I needed a change in my life and I thought about what I could do. In Japan, we're not so touchy — we don't shake hands, we bow — so as a Japanese female, I had these cultural rules engrained in my head. But (massage) was something I wanted to try."

It was through a massage client that Ms. Serra was introduced to sound therapy. Her client was also a massage therapist who was recovering from an injury and when Ms. Serra arrived at her home for the session, she found her client talking to a bowl.

"I wondered if she was OK," Ms. Serra said with a laugh. "While I don't expect a reply, I can talk to a plant or an animal, but not to a crystal singing bowl! But then she started playing and there was something so divine about it, but I wasn't quite awakened enough to really accept it back then. After going through a hard time in my personal life, about three years later, I felt stronger and more spiritually awakened, so I went out and bought some crystal singing bowls."

After attending a sound-healing workshop in 2014, Ms. Serra started buying bowls of her own, building a collection of crystal and Tibetan bowls incorporating a range of different notes. Along with attending a sound healing conference in San Francisco, she also traveled to Washington state to attend a workshop with a therapist who works with the human voice as an instrument of healing.

"She would send us off into the woods just to listen to the sounds," Ms. Serra recalled. "When I came back, it changed the way I listened to the bowls and connected with them. That was around the time I wanted to start sharing this with other people. Everybody can play these bowls and that's the beauty of them, but when you add passion and intention, the sounds can be very different."

Ms. Serra started her Meditation with Sound classes at the Botanic Garden in February. The inspiration for reaching out and sharing sound healing with the community was in response to the recent Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslides.

"I wanted to create a healing space for locals because we've gone through the fire and mudslides and it's been horrible," Ms. Serra said. "The Botanic Garden was doing a free admission week, so I offered to do a sound healing class and that's how it started.

"I am thrilled that people are coming and relaxing and sharing this experience with me. I think it's something we all need."

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The next Meditation with Sound class takes place 5 to 6:15 p.m. Sunday at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Pritzlaff Conservation Center Gallery, 1212 Mission Canyon Road. The cost is $15 general, $10 members. For more information, call 682-4726 or

Sound healing practitioner Izumi Asura Serra was introduced to the form of meditation through her work in body therapy.


Top photo, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's Meditation with Sound class offers participants the opportunity to allow their mind to enter a deeper state of relaxation to help improve overall well-being.

Bottom photo, improvisation offers Ms. Serra the chance to customize the energy of the session depending on the class and room.

Izumi Asura Serra uses an array of crystal and Tibetan singing bowls and a selection of gongs to produce meditative sounds through the vibration of the instruments.