Gongs, sound baths

Gongs: a sound practice

The amazing therapeutic wonders of gongs and sound baths. Words by Duncan Williams, Martyn Cawthorne and Jaz Sperring

Gongs and sound baths are a wonderful addition to yoga practice. Yet how to capture the history and essence of these ancient instruments? How to begin to explain the profound effect that being immersed in their sound can have on the player or the listener, when these effects are always personal and must be experienced to be truly understood?

As Head of Percussion at Korg UK, one of the most rewarding parts of my role is that for the last 18 years I have been the UK product specialist for Paiste Cymbals and Gongs. During this time, it has been my privilege to introduce their beautifully crafted gongs to thousands of people up and down the country, running sound baths and offering hands on demonstrations at numerous events, including the OM Yoga Show at Alexandra Palace.

Despite my long relationship with the ever-emerging field of sound therapy, I called in another expert, Martyn Cawthorne, a long-standing friend, who I have had the pleasure of working alongside at a number of events. He is the founder of both Gong Spa and the Northern School of Soundsmiths, working every day with private and corporate clients, conducting one on one and group gong baths, as well as offering certificated training courses.

Here is Martyn in his own words.

My name is Martyn Cawthorne, of Gong Spa, and I play gongs around the north west of England, spreading out from Manchester. We call these sessions gong baths, with the idea that people who attend are bathed in sound, immersed in soundwaves as you are when you bathe in water.

Gongs, sound baths

When people come to our gong baths they lie down, with mats, cushions, blankets and lavender eye pillows; there is a gentle talk down then I play a soundscape mainly dominated by gongs, but also including singing bowls and other atmospheric instruments. It is deeply immersive.

At the end people are brought back with wind chimes and grass sounds. We serve jasmine tea afterwards to give people a chance to come around.

Though each person paints a different and unique picture according to their experience, the main themes arising again and again are of relaxation, of finding calm and of entering into a meditative space.

We can understand why gong baths are so restful, so calming, when we consider the context of our daily lives. Many of us are on screens for a large part of the day, and our environments are highly stimulating. We are seemingly an integral part of a huge flow of information and decision making.

Gong baths are an hour in which all this fades into the background, an overwhelmingly engaging experience of mindfulness, holding our attention without cluttering it. A gong bath is a revelation of being at home in ourselves, in which we seek nothing but that which appears from moment to moment. The processing part of the mind is at rest, and experience is just happening by itself, entirely unique to our own requirements.

Thoughts may rise but just pass by. The experience of a gong bath is that of no-mind, and the orbiting of no-mind. The qualities of the gongs work brilliantly with yoga practice.

Gongs, sound baths

I frequently play alongside yoga teachers running sessions in Nidra, Yin, Restorative and Vinyasa Flow. The experience of no-mind allows us to mindfully practice flows and positions, to fully breathe, and to embrace stretches.

Sometimes questions come up about the gongs and how they work, how vibrations and tones give rise to relaxation, how they free the mind from identification with thoughts. I love that I don’t fully understand how the gongs have such a profound effect.

I know that some gong players select their gongs based on planetary or elemental relationships. This makes sense given the long relationship that humans have with these aspects of the universe. In terms of my own understanding, the vibrations of the gongs resonate within us and are simultaneously hypnotic and agitant: loosening tension, undoing knots, releasing blockages. Each meeting of mallet and gong creates ripple effects, like those formed when a leaf falls into a pond. Each new ripple holds its own, while effortlessly interacting with the others. Layers of tone and vibration build and play in kaleidoscopic form, experienced at the core of body and mind; we are silenced. Though many of the hows and whys are a mystery, what we do know is the conversations we have with people after the gong baths, in which they talk about sleeping well for days after, that their anxieties are reduced, that they feel completely relaxed.

Gongs, sound baths
Image: Andrew Twambley (twambley.com)

For me, playing the gongs is intuitive and this is reflected in how I have built my practice. As a gong player I find listening to be invaluable. Listening to people. Listening to my intuition. Listening to my heart. Listening to the instruments I am surrounded by. Building my set of instruments over the years has been an organic process. Every gong has a personality and like any good instrument, it takes time to get to know them, to build dialogue, to find their secrets. My first gong was a Paiste Symphonic and seven years later I still feel we have discoveries to make.

The bulk of my gongs are Paiste; a couple of symphonics, a few from the planetary range, and three bronze gongs. I also use two wind gongs from Wuhan and some other gongs from Germany. They are all visually beautiful and each one produces a unique range of sounds and vibrational qualities.

All this began with a deep love of sounds and silence. I had been a musician and a meditator for 30 years. Then I happened to stumble upon Colin and Olive in the healing fields at Glastonbury Festival. They gave me my first gong bath. Actually, my partner went first, and despite being the best kind of cynical, they came out saying, “you need to play gongs, I want that on demand!” Curious, I went into the gong tent, laid down and sure enough, I had perhaps the most profound experience I’d ever known. Music and meditation came together. I was entranced. My mind was completely and joyously silent aside from one briefly passing thought: “You need to do this.” Three months later I quit my job and I’ve been playing gongs ever since. It has been an amazing time. I am deeply grateful. I have met so many lovely people, played at festivals, played in caves, in gardens and in so many lovely yoga rooms.

If you haven’t tried it yet, then now is the time. Your body, mind and soul will very much thank you for it.

For information visit: paistegongs.com gongspa.co.uk

Images Cecilia Cristolovean (yogaandphoto.com)

Martyn thoughtful on mercury

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