It’s a chilly Monday night and nearly 200 people are queuing outside the Round Chapel in Hackney, east London. Many of them are carrying mats, blankets and sleeping bags.
“What’s going on?” a passer-by asks. A late-night gong bath session is the answer. The passer-by looks none the wiser, as well he might. Yet gong baths, a form of sound therapy that promises to bring deep relaxation to our harried, 21st-century minds, are rapidly growing in popularity.
Percussive instruments such as gongs and singing bowls have been used as a form of therapy for thousands of years; their powerful vibrations are said to be able to lower heart rate and breathing speed, reducing stress, anxiety and chronic pain, as well as improving sleep.
Whether you believe such claims or not, this year, gong baths are set to make a big din, according to Natalie Blow, content producer at Balance Festival.
“There’s a revived interest in ancient healing practices such as sound healing,” she says. “We’re going to see it becoming much more mainstream in 2018; you’ll be as likely to head to a sound healing session
as you are a yoga class.”
Gong baths are amazing at bringing people into deep relaxation very quickly, which allows the nervous system to calm down, which in turn allows the body to heal and regenerate
Before you reach for your swimming costume, there is no actual water involved in a gong bath. Water is simply used as an analogy for the rippling effect of the gong’s vibrations; our bodies, which are approximately 70 per cent water, are particularly good at absorbing sound waves.
So how does it work? As a variety of gongs are hit or stroked, a soundscape is created that allows participants to move into different states of consciousness as different sound waves affect their bodies. During a session, they can move from a normal waking state (beta) to a relaxed consciousness (alpha), to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, deep meditation (theta), and deep sleep (delta) where internal healing naturally occurs. Although listening to a gong recording may be relaxing, you need to experience the real thing
to get the full vibrational benefits. gong bath
Bedding down in the Round Chapel CREDIT: RII SCHROER
And while gong sessions can be enjoyed on your own, tonight’s event is a 180-person sell-out. The Psychedelic Society has been organising events like this one since 2016. Due to growing demand,
they now take place twice a month.
Many people will have encountered them at music festivals, Gaia Harvey Jackson, the society’s events coordinator tells me, but now they want to experience them in their daily lives.
And for stressed-out city dwellers like those in Hackney, a gong session can bring much-needed balance. Stress triggers the release of hormones such as adrenalin (the “fight or flight” response) and cortisol, which directly impacts blood pressure, blood glucose, immune function and inflammation.
“Gong baths are amazing at bringing people into deep relaxation very quickly,” says Harvey Jackson, “which allows the nervous system to calm down, which in turn allows the body to heal and regenerate.”
Tonight’s session is led by musician and sound healer Kat Bumbul, who had her first gong bath experience in 2008, while researching the healing power of drums. The experience was a revelation, and drove her to learn how to perform gong baths herself.
“In most cases a gong experience feels like a psychedelic journey, without taking any psychedelics,” says Bumbul. “It’s completely safe, legal, accessible and suitable for everybody. And it gives you that primordial feeling of something magical being present in the world around us.”
In the centre of the candlelit church are two huge Tibetan gongs, along with an assortment of smaller singing bowls. After everyone has found a spot to lie down, Bumbul instructs us, in a husky, steady tone, to close our eyes and allow our bodies to relax. Slowly a soft reverberating noise fills the hall.
It sounds lovely, but I can’t switch off. Nearby, a man snores contentedly. I though, am cold (I forgot my sleeping bag) and fidgety. Being some distance away from the gongs, I worry I’m not getting their full force. When Bumbul instructs us to come back to consciousness, I’m glad it’s over.
Kat Bumbul holds gong baths in London CREDIT: RII SCHROER
It’s not uncommon for a first gong bath to be a bit of a damp squib, Bumbul reassures me later. So I agree to attend one of her more intimate events in Covent Garden. This time there are just six of us and, feeling toasty under a blanket, after 20 minutes I feel myself slipping into the strange space between wakefulness and dreaming.
As my mind fills with colourful adventures, shapes and creatures, my visualisations are as intangible as dreams, yet I know I am awake. Although I enjoy yoga and revel in savasana (the relaxation period at the end), I struggle to ever reach such a deep meditative state. The gongs stop and are replaced by other-worldly throat singing from Bumbul that reverberates through my chest.
At the end of the hour-long session all is quiet and calm. I feel utterly rested. I just wish I was at home in bed, as I step out on to the busy street.
I don’t know about curing chronic pain, but I can certainly attest to the deep relaxation benefits of a gong bath. Next time I’m feeling frazzled, I’ll be sure to tune in and gong out.