Lying on my back on a yoga mat with more than 60 other people in a dimly lighted room, the clear tones, harmonies and vibrations of ancient Tibetan singing bowls washed over me in soothing, sonic waves.
White lights covered with gauzy petals were strung across the floor, creating a warm, ambient glow in the Crosby Conference Center at Toledo Botanical Garden for “The Return of the Light … Winter Solstice Concert” organized by Stephanie Saba of SunMoon Healing Arts Studio.
Tibetan bowl master Mark Handler, of Traverse City, Mich., sat, kneeled, crouched, stood and spun around in the center of the room, using a variety of mallets to strike 34 centuries-old metal bowls that were carefully arrayed in tonal groups on a Persian carpet.
He also padded over to play a large gong placed against one wall, and put the mallets down for extended periods of multi-toned Tibetan vocal chants.
The Dec. 21 winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, one of the markers of the annual cycle that has been observed and celebrated by civilizations throughout time.
The Toledo solstice event started with Saba leading the assembly in breathing exercises while all were seated on their mats, raising their hands while inhaling and lowering them while exhaling. “Reach for the stars as you inhale … lower your arms, bring the energy down to the earth as you exhale,” Saba coached.
Imagine your arms are wings, she said. What kind of wings are they? What color are they? Let your imagination take flight.
“Tonight we are here to honor the solstice,” she said. “The word solstice comes from the Latin, sol for sun and sistere, to pause. Tonight people all over the world are pausing to honor the solstice. Let's open our hearts together.”
Saba said the singing bowls date to ancient China and Tibet and, while they have Buddhist origins, their meditative and healing aspects are practiced by people of all faiths.
Handler, who also is a concert pianist, recording artist, and yoga instructor, advised listeners not to try to analyze the sounds of the bowls or his chanting.
“Learn to be at one with the sound,” he said. “Don’t try to figure it out – ‘how does he do that?’ Allow yourself to surrender and let the cool stuff happen.”
The concert lasted for more than an hour as Handler struck the bowls in ways that filled the darkened space with layers of rich, ringing overtones. Each bowl, from those with deep rumbling notes to those with high-pitched tings, carried their notes through the air in extended reverberations, spinning layers of complex and mysterious vibrations.
The bowls range in age from 100 to 500 years old and are made of seven metals that correspond with seven planets and seven chakras, Saba explained. The metals used are gold, silver, copper, mercury, iron, tin and lead.
They are played for music, meditation and healing, with practitioners believing that the energy of the bowls vibrates on the cellular level to impact a person’s health. Handler brought some bowls for sale at prices that ranged from $100 to $700.
A lifelong musician who specializes in the sounds and instruments of indigenous cultures, Handler played an Art Tatum-decorated piano in the conference room foyer as people entered. In addition to Tibetan bowls, Handler also is known for the Peruvian Whistling Vessels, instruments that he said were played for 2,000 years but almost became extinct after Europeans colonized South America.
He has studied with Tashi, the Dalai Lama’s former chant master; Deepak Chopra; Lama Lobsang Palden Rinpoche, Jonathan Goldman and many others.
Handler has been traveling to Toledo several times a year for the last four years or so to perform bowls concerts at SunMoon Studio. Saba said her studio has outgrown the facility on Reynolds Road and she is in the process of moving to a new location.
Among those in attendance at the Botanical Gardens event was TeresaRose Keller of Sylvania.
“I’ve traveled a lot and I seek the bowls out wherever I go – or they seek me out,” she said. “It’s usually quite synchronistic. I’ve become quite enamored with them.”
Keller moved away from Toledo more than 25 years ago and returned to the area in October, and considers herself a very spiritual person who is inspired by the sounds of the ancient bowls.
“This has become more like my church, because it’s more about the vibrations than the sermon,” she said.
Asked afterward what she thought of the concert, Keller tilted her head back and simply said, “Aaaaahhh!”