Feeling stressed? Try howling in a decommissioned cistern

The Buffalo Bayou Cistern (Katya Horner, Katya Horner)

It happened sometime recently — maybe in the last three months or so — that I seriously began to consider meditation.

I’d ignored my therapist’s recommendations for years, convinced I simply couldn’t do it. I’m an anxious, chronically distracted, caffeine-addled fidgeter whose brain pinballs from one errant thought to the next and back again in a violent, vicious cycle. Breathing exercises bore me to distraction. Yoga frustrates me.

I desperately needed some calm and focus in my life but left to my own devices, any attempts to meditate devolved into nap time or, alternately, an all-consuming existential crisis, panic attack combo. I knew I needed some structure and supervision if I was going to meditate even somewhat successfully for any amount of time.

I had heard that sound healing meditation sessions are held weekly at the Buffalo Bayou Cistern, and I was intrigued. The classes are 45 minutes long – about 44 minutes longer than I have ever successfully meditated. I wasn’t sure if I could hack it but my reservations soon gave way to an overwhelming curiosity. What the heck was sound healing meditation, anyway? I had to know.

I went to the cistern on a sweltering evening in the thick of August. The cool, cavernous space, which sprawls across more than 87,500-square-feet underground, proved a welcome reprieve from the hellish Houston heat. Built in 1926 and decommissioned in 2007 due to an irreparable leak, the reservoir opened as an event space in 2016. With its 221 25-foot-tall concrete columns, and a vast pool of reflecting water, the subterranean space felt reminiscent of the Basilica Cisterns in Istanbul. The sheer grandeur of the space, coupled with the dim lighting, lulled me into a state of deep calm before the session even started.

My first official foray into meditation was a sound healing meditation session led by Saumil Manek, a yoga teacher who’s mantra, according to his website, is “When you silence your mind, you awaken your soul.” During the ritual, for which he charges $15 per participant, Manek plays instruments including crystal singing bowls, chimes, a thunder drum, and a rainstick to create a “sweet, gentle and spiritual experience.”

“Have fun, let go and enjoy yourselves,” Manek told the dozen or so people assembled in the cistern.

We settled ourselves on mats and cushions along the walkway around the pool’s perimeter.

Manek instructed us to set an intention before asking us to howl into the dark.

“This is the most important moment in your life,” Manek said. “Make it count. Have some passion in your intention. When was the last time you moved energy around your body?”

The collective cacophony of barbaric howls scattered across the space in a deafening deluge of piercing noise that slowly faded into a ringing echo. The exercise felt incredibly cathartic.

“Now feel what you feel and let’s get comfortable,” Manek said. “For the next 40 minutes be still as we embark on a journey of self.”

Manek asked us to relax and let the transcendental tones he was about to play wash over us.

We closed our eyes as he struck a bowl to begin the session, and we were off.

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The sounds Manek played gained an otherworldly quality as they reverberated through the reservoir. The noises alternated between droning and tinkling. Though not melodic like music, they weren’t unpleasant to listen to. Some were soothing. Others though were eerie, unsettling, like something I’d expect to hear in a science-fiction flick or a horror movie. The words “alien abduction” came to mind.

I was skeptical this strange serenade of sounds could help me clear my head, which was already churning out a repertoire of not-so-Zen thoughts with which to resist the attempt to quiet it: “Is this working? This isn’t working. Bored already? Why don’t you sneak a peak at your work emails? (just super quick — one little look)” And so on and so forth it went until Manek interrupted my mid-meditation feelings of failure with a much-needed reminder to breathe.

“Focus on your breath,” Manek said. “Take a deep inhale, pause, and exhale.”

Laying still, I did as he asked and and after a few minutes, somehow, some way, I fell into a state of relaxation — Or at least as close to it as I was capable of. Whenever my mind began to wander from the present — to less tranquil topics like traffic, deadlines, and chores — Manek’s otherworldly acoustics brought me back to the here and now.

The mystical mélange of tinkling, dinging, drumming, humming, droning and whirring washed over me in waves as it roared, crescendoed, fell back, and rose again.

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The noise, nearly deafening at times, demanded my full and undivided attention. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less describe, how an unending tumult could bring me to a place of profound peace — but, it did.

As the session came to an end, Manek led everyone in the cistern through three loud “Oms.”

“Namaste,” Manek said, before striking a bowl and tinkling the chimes.

After several moments, I began stir. I felt as if I were being shaken awake from a deep sleep. I rose from my mat refreshed, relieved of a tension I could hardly ever shake. Paradoxical as it was, I felt so relaxed, I was giddy.

I met with Manek afterward to discuss the experience and talk about sound healing meditation in more depth.

“You have to feel,” Manek said. “It’s all about feeling and not thinking. And once the sounds get to you in that relaxed state your body is able to heal itself. You’re able to calm down and relax from all the irritations you had throughout the day. We’re made of energy and so if you throw in positive vibrations and positive energy you’re going to feel good.”

Manek said the experience varies from person to person.

“Everyone is different,” Manek said. “Everyone is in a different headspace. I’ve had people cry profusely. I’ve had people laugh. I tell people to be open to feel and allow anything to come up. We all have demons, we all have a dark side and the only way to overcome it is to become friends with it, to hit it head-on and understand it.”

Have you tried meditation before? Share your experiences and recommendations in the comment section.

About the Author

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.

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