Over the past 5 years I have had the privilege of playing gongs for more than two thousand people in Shanghai. Each session has been unique both in sound and energy.
Partially it is due to the fact that it is very hard to play gongs the same way as, let’s say, a piano, following a pattern of composition. Gongs keep sounding long after you strike them with a mallet and create multitude of overtones, so any sort of rhythm is lost, and they also sound differently based on weather, humidity, phases of the moon and, probably, my mood, even I always aim to staying neutral.
Another part is group energy – every time different people gather and set intentions, we have a cocktail of personal vibrations, and each gets what they need – some go astral-travel, some get lost in a blend of sound and color, some sleep all the way through.
Then comes day after – and many questions and experiences that people share with me. I have collected some frequently asked questions and explanations – to the extent that my training as gong player and future TCM doctor allows.
If you are new to the gong, please check my previous article here.
How does it work?
In short: entrainment. Entrainment means synchronization, in which two objects start moving with the same cadence. In sound bath that would be synchronization of the brainwaves with the frequency of the sound. With sound waves taking center stage in your head during the sound bath we hopefully get to either enter state of thoughtlessness or uncover unprocessed emotions to clear them out and then get to “blank space”. The brain is not able to analyze the complexity of overtones as soon as gongs start playing in full force, so it gives up, allowing lower frequency brainwaves to take over – that is why we say that gongs have the power to alter brainwaves and consciousness.
What happens physically in the body follows – relaxed mind is a relaxed body, since they are one and the same “bodymind”. When we are relaxed, especially since most gong sound baths are received lying down, parasympathetic nervous system takes over and further enhances true relaxation.
Parasympathetic nervous system dominance is a primary state for healing and recovery, both from a hard day at work and from life trauma, illness or permanent stress. Any practice which allows deep relaxation is beneficial for overall well-being, as only in “rest-and-digest” mode the body is able to take notes on what needs repair and get to business of fixing it. I call this state “parasympathetic bliss” and my students seem to agree that gong evokes blissfulness.
I could not relax, was I doing something wrong?
Is it impossible to take a sound bath “wrong”, so first of all lay off the judgement. Typically, sound baths are marketed, for lack of a better word, as practice of relaxation, but we forget the key word: practice. How long has it been since you allowed yourself to fully relax, and I mean stare-into-the-abyss-blissfully kind of relax? If it’s been a while, then your relaxation “muscle” is likely to be weak and all it needs is a bit of practice and time to grow stronger.
The kind of relaxation that places us in repair mode is often not what we happen to reach for when we try to unwind. Movies and digital media are strong stimulants for the brain via optical nerve, and glass of red may overwhelm the already tired liver. A great movie can be relaxing, and dinner with friends and a few bottles of fermented grape juice as nourishing for the soul as a month with a therapist, but make sure to include some time alone with yourself in silence.
A long shower, a sneaky nap in a meeting room, a lie-down on the floor when you come home after work, just to allow yourself to switch over to home mode, or a meditation session – they all train the mind and the body to just be.
Typically, the more sessions you attend to train yourself to relax, the faster you will be able to drop down into calm, and regular spiritual practice of any kind – meditation, prayer, journaling – will help to ease off the intensity of deeper and longer sessions like sound baths.
Is it normal that it felt intense? Why do I feel so emotional?
Yes, intensity is just as normal as complete relaxation. Depending on what you are going through and how fully you have allowed yourself to express some emotions, they may rise up to the surface and demand to be noticed. It is not socially acceptable to anger, to rage, or to act “unprofessionally” (whatever that means), so at the end of the day all of the emotional imprints are bottled in.
In the same way, if grief was not given enough time or loss has not been fully felt, they would rise and possibly bring tears, either during or after the session. Relaxation with gongs mirrors back to us what we have not yet had the chance to process, consciously or subconsciously avoiding it.
It sounds a little fluffy, “emotions can get stuck and we need to release them” but having studied physiology I can assure you that every emotion has a very concrete chemical formula. “Molecules of emotion” is a phenomenal book that will help to understand how emotions influence our physical bodies.
Why do I see sound as color?
This phenomenon is called “synesthesia”. Simply put, when we stimulate one neurological pathway (hearing, in the case of sound bath) another cognitive pathway lights up. Most people tell me about seeing colors that match different tones. Synesthesia is not only related to sound, some synesthetes perceive texture in response to sight, hear sounds in response to smells, or associate shapes with flavors. I have heard that many professional musicians are synesthetes – may it be a reason why world of music is so enticing to those who dream of becoming musicians? I don’t know, but a few times I have experienced it I was utterly fascinated.
Why am I so thirsty?
I always warn people that they need to stay hydrated for the next 24 hours and recommend avoiding caffeine in any form as it can be more dehydrating.
I have to be really honest here: I do not know the exact reason why, but my thinking is that sound waves give a micro-massage to the body tissues and entrain cells to vibrate in healthy pattern. There is a theory that every cell of the body has its own healthy frequency – the liver, the heart, the connective tissue. Sound vibrations of gongs are believed to contain many overtones that match the frequency of healthy cells, which entrains them to drop the dead weight of toxins into the interstitial fluid. This cellular detox causes kidneys, which constantly filter blood, to dump contaminated body water to be expelled via urine, and we feel thirsty.
Another explanation that I heard from other sound practitioners and my teacher is that sound travels faster in water. Due to high content of water in our body, we basically rock the tub and it spills out from the cells, carrying away the toxins.
Either way, hydrate and hydrate and hydrate more and stick to herbal tea and water instead of tea, coffee, cacao and energy drinks.
If thirst persists no matter how much you drink, add a pinch of sea salt or Himalayan salt to your water, load up on celery and cucumber juice, the electrolyte champs, or eat some watermelon, if in season. I recommend avoiding commercial electrolyte drinks due to sugar, colorants, fragrances and preservatives.
Why do I have a headache?
Most likely dehydration and cellular detox, as mentioned before. It may also have to do with releasing mental and emotional blockages from the energetic body, and physical body is “catching up”. When people have Reiki or gong sessions with me in which we uncover old trauma and blocking patterns, and when I go through intense healing sessions myself, I may feel under the weather and I take it as a sign of a good release.
Hydrate well, move around in any comfortable manner – whether a brisk walk or a full sweaty workout or a good stretch – and avoid additional stimulation by sound, smell or too much interaction.
Why do I need more sleep or feel low on energy?
It is very likely that prior to attending a gong bath you were hustling, handling and fixing like a boss and your body was habitually producing high amounts of cortisol and adrenaline to keep you focused, fast and together. Finally allowing your nervous system to relax gave a signal that it’s safe to switch gears and finally get to long-overdue repair, and it is very hard to get back up to crazy levels of stress again.
People ask if it means that I would recommend holding off with sound baths or any other modalities until they have time to relax. There is a difference between not planning a loud dinner after a session and not taking any time for yourself for months, hoping that one day all the to-do’s will magically be crossed off the list. Pushing oneself for weeks on end as akin to driving a car with a flat tire thinking that you can fix it all together when all 4 wheels get a flat.
My recommendation in most cases is – take sips of bliss daily instead of running yourself to the ground first, when only CPR would revive you. Any athlete would tell you that muscles grow strength during rest, not during the workout. It is the same with everything in the body – we repair and grow stronger only on the periods of rest.
I couldn’t sleep, why is that?
Most often people who report that cannot sleep tell me they had recent change, trauma or massive stress that they didn’t have time to process properly, so during the gong bath all of it was rising to the surface.
Few reported that they were visited by ancestors and spirits and that energy kept them awake. I recommend energetically cleansing your space on a regular basis so that only spirits of highest of good are allowed in. I use white ceremonial grade sage and therapeutic resin-based incense, plus Reiki energy to cleanse the healing space before and after each session.
Sometimes in conversation it turned out that people had to continue working on their computers or had social events after the session, so that circadian rhythm was interrupted. Make sure to control your screen time before bed, even if you have brightness regulators and blue blockers installed and reduce the amount of stimulants like caffeine and sugar in the diet. When you use pick-me-ups you are running on borrowed energy and overstimulating nervous system, which can interfere with sleep as well.
Just like I mentioned before, relaxation “muscle” can get weaker when we lack practice, and for someone who is always ON it can be hard to let go. While it is not pleasant to toss and turn all night, try to stay calm, do a few rounds of slow, deep, diaphragmatic breath or sit up to meditate. Chances are you will soon be able to fall asleep.
Why do I feel electricity running through my limbs?
Vibration of the sound travels through all the tissues in the body, not just the brain. People often tell me they felt heat and pressure in the areas of old trauma, and several participants with lower back pain reported feeling of heat and comfort not just during the session, but the next day as well.
Vibrations try to break through the scar tissue, activating blood circulation, and that can explain the sensations of warmth and pressure. When people point to the areas on their limbs where they felt electricity, I see them often corresponding to meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some described it as the sensation they get when they receive acupuncture. Sound is energy, and it is possible that for those with more body sensitivity it’s easier to feel subtle, or not so subtle, qi movement.
I have experimented with acupuncture plus gong bath on a couple of willing subjects and they reported that wave of sound gently trembled the needles, adding gentle stimulation, yet it was more pleasant than typical twisting and thrusting with the needle that we sometimes employ in acupuncture sessions for stronger effects on certain patients.
Is it safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding period?
Yes, my teacher Don Conreaux always says gongs are suitable for anyone, he only cautions us to play gently when pregnant women are present or to move them further away from the gongs when we play “the big boys” in a large space as baby ears are sensitive.
I also asked my mom this question – she is a neonatal pediatrician and an obstetrician with 25 years of medical practice. Her answer was “if a mother is feeling great during the session, the baby will also enjoy it, but if mother keeps thinking and worrying if it could potentially negatively affect the baby, it’s best to avoid it”.
Just like some women continue to lift weights and run during pregnancy and some are ordered to stay on bedrest, there is not one size fits all, and mother feels and knows best.
I had women at various stages of pregnancy enjoy the sessions – and some came throughout, from first few months up to 38 weeks. The biggest challenge is positioning yourself comfortably on the floor – but I have extra bolsters and pillows for that. You know what is best for you in this miraculous period of time.
Do you use recordings in your sessions?
I have to address this one as I have been asked A LOT lately if I add pre-recorded music or sounds to gong sessions, possibly due to the fact that I have expanded my gong park and their sounds are very different and very rich. Or maybe I am getting better at it? Hehe. Either way, I never use recordings!
All the sounds in the session are live and nothing is pre-recorded, apart from the soothing spa-ish music you hear before the session start when you arrive.
I have 3 full-bodied gongs and some other instruments – singing bowls, chimes, drums, rattles and special mallets – that contribute to the fabric of a sound session. I use them to add interest and magic, but I am a gong girl through and through and most of the sounds you hear and feel are gong overtones.
Do you know any gong players in (insert the city or country)?
Chances are that I do – and I have already found some practitioners across the world for Shanghai gongstas who moved. Gong world is a fairly small world and most practitioners have been trained by Don Conreaux himself or some of his senior Gong Masters. If you are moving, or just visiting and happened to come to my gong bath, let me know if you are looking for a practitioner anywhere in the world and I will check with my network.
I hope this answers a lot of post-gong questions. Please know that I am always happy to hear about your gong experiences, so send me an email at WholisticTherapiesShanghai@gmail.com