Sound baths are both an art and a healing modality that uses power of vibrations and sound to bring balance and ease into human mind, body and spirit. A sound bath is part assisted meditation, part relaxation and, for some, a restorative nap. It is a perfect tool for beginners in meditation – as vortex of overtones builds up, it becomes hard for the brain to think of anything, so we get a welcome respite from thoughts.
Gongs have been around for millennia – used in rituals, ceremonies, as a status symbol and as musical instruments. The Balinese have historically used gongs to treat schizophrenia and addiction. While sound baths with gongs have been used by Yogi Bhajan since approximately 1960s, they are still sometimes labeled as “out there”. Yet Western medicine conducted numerous studies on musical therapy that show effects of music on variety of physiological functions:
· reduced anxiety
· slower heart and breathing rates;
· lowered blood pressure
· increased immune cell messengers
· drop in stress hormones
· natural increase of “feel-good” endorphins, our body’s natural opiates that reduce pain and discomfort
I have written more about sound baths here and the aftermath of sessions here, so please check these articles out if you are new to the gong! As new people try gongs more questions are asked and I try to answer them to the best of my knowledge and experience with gongs.
How did you find out about gongs?
My love for gong and regular practice of sound baths comes from profound effect that it has on sensitive nervous system of a city dweller. I was first exposed to gong bath as part of kundalini yoga class, and it appears that Yogi Bhajan was the first yogi who started using gongs as a healing tool in yoga classes. Kundalini is a very challenging and intense yoga practice that exposes resistance and old, deep-seated trauma, and my first short gong session happened while I was lying exhausted in savasana after a VERY intense and physically challenging kundalini class. When the unfamiliar sound of gong started gaining force, I had a panic attack – while my body was paralyzed on the mat as if in REM sleep, painful memories that were dislodged by the practice started rising up like a nightmare. I could not breathe, move, escape, or even faint as a way out. I was desperately gasping for air that just seemed to refuse to enter my lungs, just like during asthma attacks and one highly unpleasant, but very necessary gastroscopy that felt like a very close brush with suffocation. I honestly can’t tell you if the experience was physical and if my air gasps were actually performed by my body, or it was all a purely emotional experience, but lying in a puddle of sweat at basement yoga studio in downtown Moscow I felt I was dying and I was not feeling at peace with it. #Fun, with sarcastic emoji.
But things let up fairly quickly, and I then entered bliss. It felt like intracellular brain massage while my body was levitating on sound waves, above the basement, the city, the planet. The sound was still very unfamiliar, with impossible-to-pin tune, and way too many melodies going in different directions, so eventually my very control-obsessed brain had to give up trying making sense of experience and I fully embodied just being IN the experience. This was many years ago (possibly 10 at this point), I play the gongs myself to create a safe, healing sound space and enter restful meditative state. I got my first gong and received first training nearly 5 years ago, and coming up on 4 years and 1500 participants of public sessions.
How does it work?
Ultimately, sound affects our nervous system and can have bidirectional effects, both exciting and causing stress and calming and reducing it. Now on for nerdy bits: “acoustic experience such as sound, noise, or absence of sound induces structural or functional changes in the central auditory system but can also affect limbic regions such as the amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala is particularly sensitive to sound with valence or meaning, such as vocalizations, crying or music. The amygdala plays a central role in auditory fear conditioning, regulation of the acoustic startle response and can modulate auditory cortex plasticity. A stressful acoustic stimulus, such as noise, causes amygdala-mediated release of stress hormones via the HPA-axis, which may have negative effects on health, as well as on the central nervous system.” Simply put, unpleasant noise can cause extra stress – just think of working next to construction site all day, and pleasant music can uplift, relax and energize, making us dance in the shower, increase running pace or just bust out some moves, cue the air guitar.
I learned from my Gong Master that gongs have de-materialization abilities, and that is why a lot of people have out-of-body experiences during gong baths, and this can include floating up and seeing yourself lying in the space, regressing back to life experiences we have long archived, and the typical sensation that people often describe as: “I was sure I was not asleep as my mind was busy with visions and thoughts, but then heard myself snoring”.
How many sessions do I need?
There is truly no limit at how often you can join the sessions. “The more the better” will sound a bit biased coming from me, but just as we sleep, shower, exercise, eat, pray and meditate daily, sound baths are a great tool for an “emotional shower”. I have between 1-7 sound baths a week when I am next to my gongs. An only occasional deep dive into parasympathetic nervous system bliss may be enough for you, but for your partner /friend/neighbor a daily (sound) bath may be just right, no pun intended.
How effective and long-lasting effects are for a particular person will be is influenced by:
Sensitivity: how sensitive you are to sound and energy. If you find that you are particularly sensitive to sound or often get vertigo, this may be a sign of adrenal fatigue, and regular relaxation practice is a necessary part of recovery. For a highly sensitive person or a deep introvert introspective time is key to wellbeing and health, but they may also be easily overwhelmed by overtone vortex, which is not a bad thing per se because this would crowd out repetitive thought patterns, if only for a few hours, even a short respite can help with gaining new perspective on things. You would know what’s best for you and how much you can handle.
Character traits: they determine how easily you get overwhelmed, triggered and exhausted by demands of life. Some are blessed with the ability to hit the pillow nightly with contentment of having done their best, and some find it harder to avoid overthinking.
Acquired stress resilience toolkit: family and culture conditioning and personal practice of stress management. This may include daily meditation, prayer, exercise regimen, positive habits that anchor and nourish your foundations and allow feeling of safety and security in the face of adversity.
According to those who regularly participate in gong baths, gongs eventually manage to overtake even the busiest brain and push anxiety out. Some gongstas have reported feeling very celebratory after they “finally fell asleep in the gong bath”, and now there are quite a few that start nodding off the moment they get comfortable on the cushion, before the first sound is made by the gong. I completely agree that this is the cause for celebration as it often means successful relaxation conditioning! Remember – it takes PRACTICE to feel all zen, om and shanti, and demanding instant fluency in relaxation from an overworked nervous system that hasn’t seen a nap in years is madness. The beautiful thing about our nervous system is that it is forgiving and malleable, and subtle skill of not giving a blip can be learned. I highly recommend reading works by Brene Brown to build emotional resilience toolkit, and set aside the time for gong, spa, massage, floating, naps, walks in nature to actually embody relaxation phases.
Your current phase of life: even with natural disposition and strong practice of resilience, some phases of life demand more of us and our ability to put one foot in front of the other and get through the day. People with chronic illnesses, exhausted mothers, overworked fathers, busy brides-to-be – many have found relief with help of sound baths. Ideally, we would have an assortment of stimulating days and restful days, or even busier and calmer hours during the day. But there are times when we have to give our all and then some, and in these instances more frequent relaxation sessions with gong will be a great support.
I read the claims that sound baths treat headaches, pain syndromes and other illness, but I am skeptical. How is that possible?
The harmonics of gong sound baths are capable of aiding chronic stress reduction, activation of self-healing through parasympathetic nervous system dominance; helping to ease headaches, fatigue, digestive unease, muscular spasms and menstrual pains. Insomniacs or those with interrupted sleep report improved sleep, often after the first session; those with depression find renewed sense of wellness and purpose and people who have long been disconnected from their body find new awareness and appreciation of their wholeness and physiology. Healing and cell repair is only possible when parasympathetic nervous system is dominant – that is why people with chronic stress tend to have poor physical health and slow wound healing. Once we get into that bliss – anything the body has to repair gets dealt with, and the longer we stay in parasympathetic dominance, the deeper the healing process.
I often hear that after people lie down for the sound bath and go through guided relaxation I offer before I start playing the instruments, they become acutely aware of tension in their neck and shoulders and lower back. These are common stress points for all of us who don’t have good posture (who does?), but going through the day we shun pain signals and power through. Naturally, when you lie down to relax, the body finally has a chance to express the pain, and you actually have a chance to hear it. Relaxing regularly and employing simple postural exercises on the daily basis can help with these pains, too.I find that gong helps me personally to overcome jet lag. I’ve experimented with herbal teas, melatonin based jet lag supplements, valerian root, and gong sound baths, hands down, are the best remedy to put me to restful, prolonged sleep, even with 8-hour lag.
What frequencies are your gongs? Are there magic frequencies?
432Hz has been touted as a “magic frequency” which singing bowls, tuning forks, gongs and other traditional instruments supposedly employ as their base frequency, but this seems to be closer to wishful thinking rather than reality. I am not a sound engineer, nor have I done lab research with sound, but some people have. This article has a great summary of myths and facts surrounding the magic frequency and the basic takeaway is that it does not really exist and that tuning of the instruments is a matter of conscious choice. Yet the work of Fabien Maman, a fellow acupuncturist and sound healer, specifies frequencies beneficial for certain organs.
There is a direct link between lowered blood pressure and listening to music, regardless of frequency: ‘A total of 48 adults ages 45 to 70 who were taking medication to control mild hypertension took part in the study. Of these, 28 listened to 30 minutes of “rhythmically homogenous” classical, Celtic or raga music daily while practicing slow, controlled breathing exercises. The remaining 20 participants, serving as the control group, made no changes to their daily routine. Blood pressure readings obtained one and four weeks later showed that systolic blood pressure – the top number in the blood pressure reading – dropped significantly in the music listeners. In contrast, the control group experienced only small, non-significant reductions in blood pressure.” Bottom line, music makes us feel good and lowers blood pressure.
I currently own and play four gongs: 2 symphonic and 1 planetary from Paiste and a custom WOM. Only one of them, the planetary Nibiru, has indication of frequency on a sticker, and the rest are not concerned with such details. They have distinctive voices, get deep and moody during rainy days (oh, how I love to play gongs on a rainy day!), and are really hard to pin down precisely with a frequency measuring app. Where I strike on the surface of the gong, what mallet I use, what technique I use and with which force, how big the space I play at is – there are so many variables that make sound fabric of each session unique. Most often gongstas call these sounds “planetary”, “cosmic”, “other-worldly”, and whether you choose to believe in frequency unicorns or not, you will reap the health benefits of sound bath relaxation.
Are gongs and singing bowls the same?
In short – gongs are more powerful, based on their shape and size. Bowls are deep, concave instruments and a lot of vibrations are contained inside the bowl, as if soup, and they are great for placing on the body and playing in a smaller space, although some giant singing bowls can accomodate even an adult curled up inside.
The sounds of bowls and gongs are quite different. Flat thin gongs, also known as tamtams, swing back and forth while played, creating gusts of wind that carries sound further. It is much easier to agitate the gong with a mallet than it is a singing bowl, and some contemporary bowls are made of crystals which require fairly delicate touch of the rim. I happen to be in love with the gongs – but I have singing bowls in my arsenal, too. Just because cello is more powerful doesn’t mean we need to cancel out violin.
I hope this demystifies a few things about sound baths and answers important questions, if you have any more – please let me know! I will be happy to see you in a gong bath!