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SLO County has a new sound meditation pod that aims to help some members of the justice system, but getting there wasn't easy 

A glimmering pair of golden scissors sliced through a bright green ribbon in front of a dozen people at the San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health Department on Feb. 25.

"Green is the heart chakra," SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg said with a laugh as she cut the ribbon.

A small crowd watched Ortiz-Legg inaugurate an immersive sound meditation pod meant to alleviate stressors for the county's jail diversion population.

But getting to the commencement wasn't all smooth sailing.

Leaders from Heal—the organization that created the meditation pod—and the SLO County Prevention and Outreach office first had to wade through the pandemic and questions from a handful of disgruntled residents and two county supervisors about the cost of the project.

"I sat here thinking, 'This is like the emperor has no clothing on.' To me, it's outrageous that we're going to spend half a million dollars on this program. I don't know why you have to keep reinventing the wheel. If you have a mousetrap that works, use that mousetrap," 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton said at the Dec. 14 board meeting where the project was discussed. "I don't think I've heard our staff talk this hard in pushing a project forward ever in my seven years on the board ... I don't even understand this pod concept. A tent! Why can't a tent work?"

The Heal pod was paid for using Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) innovation funds, a state-allocated pot of money dedicated to testing and trying new practices in the field of mental health. At the county level, the Board of Supervisors is responsible for ensuring that something is learned from those new practices, according to Frank Warren, the SLO County MHSA coordinator.

click to enlarge SOUND TEST Mahesh Natrajan, founder of Heal, walks SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg through a demonstration of a meditation pod at the Behavioral Health Department. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SOUND TEST Mahesh Natrajan, founder of Heal, walks SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg through a demonstration of a meditation pod at the Behavioral Health Department.

Warren added that the MHSA funds come with a "three-year clock." All unspent dollars will have to be returned to the state if there aren't plans to introduce creative projects in the community. Costing $175,320 in the first year, the Heal pod's budget would total $576,180 by the end of the 2024-25 fiscal year. At the December meeting, supervisors approved the fiscal plan in a 3-2 motion, with Compton and 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold dissenting.

Compton and Arnold said they were concerned that taxpayers would be unfairly impacted by the pod's costs and the source of the MHSA funds.

"It's out of people's paychecks ... that are working hard and barely surviving in this county and in other counties. I honestly think this is an outrageous waste of money but I guess I'm in the minority here," Compton said at the meeting.

But tax dollars from hard-up residents aren't what's funding the project. MHSA money comes from 2004's Proposition 63, which is a 1 percent tax on incomes totaling $1 million and above.

"Those funds are then allocated to each county based on an algorithm that includes the number of people who live under the poverty level, the number of people who are eligible for Medi-Cal," Warren told New Times.

Compton and Arnold weren't the only people who raised objections to the Heal pod. At the December meeting, some community members criticized the project for being allegedly unscientific.

"I was alive in the '60s when the transcendental meditation gurus were leading thousands of gullible people in Hindu chants ... to effectively relieve them of their wallets. How is this any different?" a Paso Robles resident asked.

First District Supervisor John Peschong had the answer.

"I was leaning against it ... but this program, I believe would probably show benefits. I grew up in Los Angeles in the '60s, too, so I know exactly what we're talking about when we're talking about meditation. But meditation is a little different than what it was 60 years ago," Peschong said at the meeting.

Mahesh Natrajan, the founder and CEO of Heal, told New Times that the sound meditation pod provides more than regular meditation through its use of vibrations and tactile feedback. People in the county's justice system—those on probation, court-ordered appointees, and some of the recently incarcerated—will get to experience it first.

"When we took it to the county, we were really excited about being able to serve a population that is either incarcerated and in the prison system, or a larger set who are in a spectrum where they should get services but don't qualify, or people who are just unsure as to whether they need help. This is a program of preemptive action," Natrajan explained.

Natrajan is a computer engineer and yoga teacher based in San Jose. He began working with SLO County on the Heal pod in 2019, but pandemic pressures postponed the project's review before county supervisors until 2021.

The pod, Natrajan said, takes an existing mental health practice—meditation—and revamps it through sound intervention to provide more robust help. The Heal pod is supposed to be used prior to therapy appointments. Once participants emerge from a meditation session, they're expected to journal their insights and intentions and subsequently take those notes to the therapist.

"Our value proposition is more to deal with how the clinicians and therapists can benefit from this and say, 'We're going to use sound meditation intervention as a way to calm their nerves or bring them into a place where they can have conversations with therapists that go deeper than what's immediate,'" he said.

The pod is an orange booth with a red velvet curtain at its doorway. One at a time, clients sit inside and choose from several audio sets curated by a musicologist. These sound files are less than seven minutes long and range from themes like 'focus', 'relax' and 'letting go'. Once the participant selects a soundtrack, they're instructed to follow sounds and vibrations like those belonging to wind chimes.

Currently, SLO County hosts only one such pod at the Behavioral Health Department office though officials hope for more in the future. Warren said that the trained staff would start bringing in appointment-based clients during the first week of March.

Of the supervisors, Ortiz-Legg provided the most vocal support of the Heal pod, citing it as a money-saving opportunity that avoids pharmaceutical intervention and minimizes psychiatric staff hours.

"This is really about helping the millions of men and women in our country, and thousands in our state who need the support of programs like this," she said at the December meeting. "Sound therapy has been around for thousands of years. It's us who are late to the party as far as modern medicine is concerned." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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