Think of it as a massage of sound. As you lie on a yoga mat, eyes closed, you’re surrounded by waves of vibration, starting deep and layering upward, filling the room and your head until your skin tingles and your muscles relax.
Gong yoga has been around for centuries, but it’s seeing an upswing at local studios around the South Sound.
On May 6-7 you can explore how it feels to play gong yourself at a two-day workshop with touring artists Mike and Gallina Tamburo (Crown of Eternity) at Tacoma’s Jefferson Park Fieldhouse.
Why gongs? Because of how much better it makes you feel, say those who’ve experienced it.
“It’s a really effective way to drop deeper into a meditative state,” says Lisa Palace, co-owner of Tacoma’s Yoga Palace, which is hosting a gong session this weekend. “The gongs transfix you, they kind of envelop you, and all you have to do is lie down and feel it. … It’s very soothing. And afterward you sleep really, really well.”
“I use the gong to get out of my analytical mind and (into) a transcendental state,” says Melissa Balch, a Tacoma teacher of Kundalini yoga who uses gongs every day in her own practice and to teach, and who’s organizing the May workshop. “It helps the mind release from the torrent of thought and changes the parasympathetic nervous system.”
There are, it seems, two very different ways of explaining why playing gongs for yoga is getting popular. One, like Balch’s, draws on ancient philosophies of healing and spirituality that contemporary science is a little wary of. The other focuses, like Palace, simply on how that metal instrument makes you feel, both during a class and afterward — all the way from simple relaxation to pain relief and speeding recovery from cancer.
Feeling the gong
So what’s a gong yoga class actually like?
To begin with, some don’t actually involve any kind of active movement. The Gong Session this weekend at Yoga Palace Annex, featuring Wayne Marto of Beneficial Sound in Seattle, asks you simply to lie on your yoga mat and listen. Balch’s classes in her Proctor home involve an hour of Kundalini-based meditation and simple poses before the final Savasana (corpse pose), where you lie comfortably as Balch plays. You get to wear comfy clothes, with a blanket and pillow.
And then the sound journey begins. Balch has two gongs: one symphonic on a low D, the other higher but less tuned. Using a variety of mallets, she starts to create a sound structure, striking one gong for a deep bass note, then adding higher overtones that play and flow around each other in the resonant space (and in your head). Drawing smaller rubber mallets across the gong’s surface, she creates waves of vibrations that ebb and flow like water. To the side of the sheepskin rug she’s sitting on are a set of three small Burma bells, made of bronze and elaborately conical like a pagoda. They ring in vaguely harmonic sympathy (B, G, E flat) and add a higher, more pungent level of audio.
After just a few minutes you can feel your body vibrating in sympathy, your head clear and somehow calmer.
“You lose track of time and get into a flow state,” says Balch, who’s not a musician and plays her gongs more or less intuitively. “That’s when you get the best experience. I think a lot of outer space when I play, like NASA images. And people (in class) tell me they feel like they traveled during the gong playing.”
“I get lost in it,” says JoAnn Kahn, one of Balch’s students. “I can’t explain what it does, but somehow everything I’ve done in the day comes together with the gong.”
“The whole practice of Kundalini is about raising your vibration,” explains fellow student Necashaw Montgomery. “The gong is an external way of increasing those vibrations, like icing on a cake.”
For Palace, not only is the gong soothing, but it adds to the long-term effects of meditation: a calmer, less reactive approach to life’s ups and downs.
“It makes me a more pleasant person day to day,” she says. “It allows me to take stress in stride.”
Gongs for healing
Palace has also noticed physical effects like her heart suddenly beating faster and stronger while Marto had been playing a part of the gong that traditionally corresponds with yoga’s “heart chakra,” or center of energy. Another participant in a Yoga Palace session, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), reported both a big improvement in comfort and even visions.
Gongs for healing go back in history to ancient Egypt, Greece and India, continuing to the present in northern India.
“It is a portal that links the finite and the infinite experience of the self,” said the late Kundalini teacher Yogi Bhajan in a treatise.
But while benefits from gong yoga can sound metaphysical — a recent Sound Bath with gongs at Tacoma’s Good Karma Yoga was advertised to “align your chakras, clear negativity and ground your energy” — some doctors are convinced it heals. The late Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, former director of medical oncology and integrative medicine at the Cornell Cancer Prevention Center in New York, regularly encouraged sound therapy along with conventional medicine to lower stress and strengthen immunity in cancer patients. As Gaynor pointed out, sound is vibration, and with our bodies made of 65 percent water, human beings can be affected by vibration on a deep, cellular level.
In the 1980s, French scientists Fabien Maman and Helene Grimal explored the astonishing impact of sound waves on healthy and cancerous uterine cells, with the sound waves of a gong causing cancer cells to disintegrate or explode.
Other studies have shown that meditation and relaxation reduce stress and the ill health it causes.
“Sound is a powerful modality in our health and healing,” says Palace “I’d like to see them take gong therapy into hospitals for pain relief.”
Playing it yourself
If hearing vibrations is beneficial to health, then producing them yourself could be even better. A small 2012 study by the National Institutes of Health found that people who practiced meditative chanting scored twice as well on a mental health assessment as those who simply listened to relaxing music.
Balch, who’s been playing gongs ever since she discovered them while exploring sound healing in 2001, agrees.
“I play it daily, it’s part of my practice,” she says. “It’s a meditation. Your whole body vibrates, it reorganizes you and brings you more into balance.”
Which is partly why she’s helping to bring Mike and Gallina Tamburo, who tour nationally with gongs as Crown of Eternity, to Tacoma for a May workshop. The couple will bring an assortment of gongs, mallets and related instruments for participants to try and instruct in topics from gong strokes to deep listening, improvisation and how to “receive vibrations while playing.” Participants don’t need any musical experience or equipment, and it’s a great opportunity to try out brands of gong if you’re thinking of buying one, says Balch.
From mystic to mainstream
Some gong enthusiasts, like Balch, don’t need convincing about the benefits. But for the rest of us, Palace’s approach is to try it out and see how it feels — something that she, with partial hearing loss, is particularly sensitive to.
“I don’t want it (to be) airy-fairy,” says the studio owner, who’s planning a summer gong series. “I think of it as music, try and make it more palatable to people so they’re more likely to come in and experience it. It doesn’t need to be scary or weird. It just has to be available and accessible.”
After all, she adds, “who doesn’t like to feel good?”
Who: Wayne Marto of Beneficial Sound.
When: 6-7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Yoga Palace Cellars Annex, 2502 S. 12th St., Tacoma.
Gong resonance workshop
Who: Crown of Eternity, Mike and Gallina Tamburo.
When: All day May 6-7.
Where: Jefferson Park Fieldhouse, 801 N. Mason Ave., Tacoma.
Cost: $375. All equipment provided, but you may also bring your own. No experience necessary.