Gong baths are applying the millennia-old percussion instruments in new ways, using its vibrational tones as a means of healing and facilitating inner calmness.
We lie down onto the yoga mats, nestle into our thick blankets and lie down in shivasana, before putting on lavender-scented eye masks. Amulets and stones of all shapes and sizes are pressed into the palms of our hands, which we’re to hold onto during the meditation to keep us “grounded” in case we drift too far away into individual states of ecstasy. For many of us who’ve congregated at Red Door Studios in Hong Kong on a weekday evening, this is our first gong bath and until about half an hour ago, few knew what was in store. Many walk in the door motivated by little more than a friend’s recommendation and a quick glance at the studio’s booking page. But Martha Collard, Red Door Studio founder, kundalini yoga instructor and resident gong player, starts each group session with a brief introduction followed by a 15-minute, seated pranayama breathing meditation, before we roll onto our backs, snuggle into our blankets and await our collective reason for being here: to hear the melodious sounds of the gongs.
The brief moment we lie there, still and unsure of what to expect, is immediately pierced by the ethereal echo of the mallet meeting the surface of the gong, as the vibrating sound shakes the essence of our beings, rendering us into a state of calm. The first strike cues the playing of other gongs, producing successive waves of sound that swell and diminish resulting in an evermore surreal symphony. Gong bath practitioners believe that the sound from the instrument induces a state of deep, meditative relaxation, facilitating the movement of qi and ridding unwanted blockages along the chakras for better energy flow throughout the body.
“When it’s played, the gong freezes up the mind and some of the things that have been repressed come up to the surface”
~ Mehtab Benton
“It’s very good for depression because it gives a sense of something outside themselves”
~ Mehtab Benton
The origins of the gong can be traced back several millennia in Eastern civilisations, deeply rooted in the histories of India, China, Burma and Bali where it was often played in religious rituals, as a form of musical entertainment, and at times, of war. Historical accounts recall certain kings having the gongs played to alert their people of impending danger, to create momentum while troops trained for combat and ultimately, to promote greater concentration and visualisation before the battle.
The instrument first appeared in the West through the practice of kundalini yoga by Yogi Bhajan (1929–2004) – a yogi and spiritual teacher accredited with introducing this particular method of yoga in the US during the 1970s, where it first gained traction in California before spreading to the rest of the Western world. In The Art of Gong in Kundalini Meditation, a paper written by the Kundalini Research Institute in 2000,Yogi Bhajan proclaimed the gong to be “the most sublime instrument of the yogi, a healing tool for the nervous system and a cauldron in which you can create alchemical blends of qualities that open and develop the inner self”. Today, many of the gongs used for healing are handmade in Europe, such as the ever-popular Paiste gong makers in Germany, which are used worldwide by both musicians and gong healing practitioners.
Healers believe that the gong holds all of the sounds in the universe that align with the chakras of the human body. By playing different areas on the surface of the gong, the sounds can generate vibrations that alleviate pain from the corresponding areas of the body. US-based gong master and author of three books on the subject, Mehtab Benton, has been playing the gong for healing purposes for over two decades and teaching others to play the instrument for 10 years. He believes that gong therapy can truly “heal the world”: “Gongs are prominent in therapy and healing because of the way they’ve been tuned and manufactured. They’re tuned to different frequencies and produce specific responses to various areas of the body. The other powerful thing about gongs is that you can use a variety of frequencies to heal the body and mind.”
According to devoted gong teachers including Collard and Benton, the instrument is unlike other types of sound therapy because the music cannot be recorded and listened to. They suggest that gong baths must happen live, as the vibrations from the sound can realign chakras and speed up the healing of a plethora of physical and psychological ailments. There have been accounts of gong healers being able to cure a wide breadth of illnesses and disorders, with anecdotes recalling treatments that have reset a heart rate, eliminated kidney stones and glandular conditions, such as a hyperactive thyroid condition, which all mysteriously disappearing upon a patient’s first gong bath.
Meanwhile, the psychological conditions cured by the treatment also render it all the more appealing because of the gong’s efficiency in clearing emotional blockages. When Benton played the gongs for inner-city children in Los Angeles, he was surprised at how the participants were rendered into a deep resting state within minutes; the children, many of whom struggled every day with long-term instability and violence, were finally given the space to simply relax. “When it’s played, the gong freezes up the mind and some things that have been repressed come up to the surface,” explains Benton. “I’ve had many people become aware of trauma and old grief, for example, that they feel like they had to deal with. It’s very good for depression because it gives a sense of something outside of themselves.”
“You’ve got to get people to stop the treadmill and that’s what these tools do; it’s the first step”
~ Martha Collard
At Red Door Studios, we awake from our gong bath in a state of awe. Of the six participants, no two have the same experience and we’re all eager to share our journeys over tea, fruit and moreish homebaked brownies. One participant recounts his out-of-body experience in great detail, while another describes a tingly, numbing sensation in her right shoulder (where she’d experienced chronic pain before the treatment). Yet another fell into deep sleep, looking finally rejuvenated and seemingly recovered following weeks of stress-induced insomnia.
Collard is keen to hold gong baths twice a month, which are held close to the time of the full moon to channel maximum energy flow, and she hopes to teach more people to play the gongs for healing purposes. For her, gong baths are an accessible and efficient form of healing because they require so little effort from participants, who simply arrive, lie down and let the healing progress occur en masse. She believes that everyone, especially in urban hubs such as Hong Kong, need to take a break and reflect inward. Collard says, “You’ve got to get people to stop the treadmill and that’s what these tools do; it’s the first step.” The rest is up to the melodious sounds of the gong to reach every cell of their bodies and transmit a restorative sense of physical and psychological balance.
THIS PAGE: Mehtab Benton teaches people to play the gongs for healing purposes. OPPOSITE PAGE: Red Doors Studio’s Martha Collard holds gong baths at least twice a month