This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
As a young person, there can be a lot to worry about. To name a few: soaring rents, low pay, shitty jobs, mental health problems, romantic disasters, and a sinking sense that we'll never make anything of ourselves.
We all have a lot on our plates right now, and for that reason we all regularly need time to chill out. We give this cute names, like "self-care" or "me time," but basically we just mean microwaving some dinner, lying flat on the couch, and watching Netflix until it prompts us to tell it that yes, we are still alive, and, yes, we would like to continue streaming the current episode of Stranger Things.
TV binging feels like it should be good for your temperament, but often leaves you feeling sort of empty and alone. As you pull yourself off the couch and into bed after four hours of watching old 30 Rock, you feel guilty, like you just jerked off over some particularly grizzly porn. And this isn't just a weird feeling; a study released earlier this year found that people who binge watch TV are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and stress.
So if having a relaxing night in isn't actually relaxing, what are the other options? I know some people read books in the bathtub, but who are those people, really? Moms and nerds. What about the rest of us? What's a good way for us to properly unwind?
Well, there's a bit of a craze emerging, brought to us—I'd imagine—by the same people who introduced yoga, meditation, and other New Age mysticism to the Western world. It's called a "gong bath," and despite the name, there is no water or nudity involved. Instead, a group of people lie on the ground while a shaman-like leader bangs gongs over you. The Independent called it "the zen new craze" last month, and the New York Times said the practice is moving "from the metaphysical to the mainstream." If you needed further proof, Robert Downey Jr., Charlize Theron, and Robert Trujillo of Metallica are all reportedly into it.
To me, a gong bath is of particular appeal because it taps into my hippie inner-core. In my day-to-day life, I take pride in a bitchy cynicism that guides me. But I spent much of my youth with my weekend-hippie parents, going to festivals called things like "Earth Spirit" to hang out in drum circles and drink chai out of melamine cups. I feel a certain affinity with the hippie-nonsense community; when I see group of patchouli-smelling, middle-aged stoners bashing on a djembe, it feels a bit like home.
So instead of my normal afterwork practice of throwing my bag down in the hall, kicking my shoes across the front room, and settling in for a night of tortellini and Transparent, I instead headed to a community center in Peckham to see if a gong bath could chill me out.
I arrived at Bosse & Baum gallery in Peckham, where mats had been arranged on the floor and there was hot ginger tea awaiting us. Already my inner hippie felt sated. We needed the tea because it was the coldest day of the year, and two gas burning heaters were doing little to heat the space. Our leader would be Leo, who quietly assembled his two impressive-looking gongs at the front.
After everyone arrived, the lights were switched off, and we all took a mat. Before we began in earnest, Leo explained to us what we'd be doing. Despite my preconceptions, Leo was not a New Age type in the traditional sense: He was wearing a scarf and had thick, slick hair. Also, he was as posh as posh can be; every time he spoke about the positive energy in the gong, I felt like he was really saying, "I've made some life choices that make my parents feel absolutely sick."
Leo says that a gong bath is like a shortcut to meditation, which sounded great to me, because I really don't have the patience or temperament for meditation. Then he said that, before the bath, we would do 30 minutes of yoga to get us in the right frame of mind, which sounded bad to me, because of the effort it would take.
After a few breathing exercises, we were told to shake with our arms in the air—to shake with wild abandon, nonstop, for half an hour. Leo took the shaking very seriously: "KEEP YOUR ARMS STRAIGHT!" he would shout. "CHALLENGE YOURSELF! IF YOU GET COMFORTABLE, CHANGE HOW YOU SHAKE, NEVER GET COMFORTABLE!" It quickly became apparent that constantly shaking is incredibly tiring, but also does a weird thing to your brain where you can't really think about anything else but the shaking, because it's taking all your energy just to keep moving. In that moment, it was impossible to want to check my phone or worry about work, because I had someone screaming "MOVE YOUR BODY IN UNEXPECTED WAYS!" at me.
I felt amazing after the shaking: energized and exhausted and weirdly calm. When it finally ended, there was a sense of sweet relief, and then we lay down on the mat and started to hear the music. Leo, it turns out, has the voice of an angel, and sung with the gongs and various other accordions, creating this weird harmonic sound that seemed to reach inside you.
I realized then that you have to be incredibly musical to lead a gong bath, because this guy was like emulating the different harmonics it was making with his voice. For about three minutes, I started to see cool patterns as the different sounds passed around the room. I thought what everyone must think in these situations: This would be very cool if you were high.
Then I must have fallen sound asleep, because the next thing I knew, Leo was holding the gong directly above me and banging away. Suddenly the mystical properties didn't feel so strong as I tried to work out how long I'd been out for and if everyone had heard me snoring. I must have been dead to the world for a while because, about ten minutes later, it all finished. We took a final few minutes to breathe and then the lights came on.
Afterward, I spoke to Leo about how he got into gonging.
VICE: How did you get into this? Doesn't seem like something you can quickly pick up.
Leo: Five years ago, I went to this amazing workshop—they were teaching yoga, but at the end, they did a gong bath, and I actually preferred that to the yoga. I thought, I need to get one of these. So I got a little one and just played on my own, and did that for quite a while by myself—about ten months. It's done a lot for me; it's had a massive impact on my nervous system, my movements, the way I think.
What's one thing that's changed since the introduction of the gong into your life?
I feel much more fluid. It reminds me of the element of water. The vibrations are so strong, and, for me, the gong is quite feminine. I was much more angular before; now I think I round things off more. I'm calmer. Even though it's a wall of sound and you feel like you have every single note at the same time, somehow, in my composition skills, it's improved them—it's made me more creative. It's stopped me trying to be clever, because you can't be clever: It's just a disc that you strike with a mallet.
I thought this would be more of a mystic thing or a New Age thing, but your background is more musical.
I think healing therapy with music is very old, if you look at ancient shamans who sing and chant for hours. But it's also very fashionable at the moment. And these gongs are not from South East Asia; they're European musical gongs. The gongs you get in Bali tend to produce one note. These guys, when you strike them, you get so many notes. That's what makes them amazing, in my opinion.
So it can be linked to music therapy?
Other practices are heavy on the yoga, and you get a little bit of gong at the end. I focus more on the gong because there tends to be less bullshit. Words can only take you so far. That's why sound is so cool, because it's beautiful.
Sometimes when I do something like this I just think, Well, is this properly working? Am I relaxed, or am I just trying to be relaxed? Oh shit, I'm thinking so hard about being relaxed.
Well, I mean, I don't think it's possible to have no thoughts. Some people go places and don't realize. They fall asleep, and they don't realize they were. I think it's a bit of a dark area, and it's better not to overanalyze the experience. It's beneficial regardless of what the mind wants to say.
Do you have thoughts when you do it?
I have lots of thoughts. Whether I'm playing or receiving, because my partner is trained, too, so we give it to each other and that's really nice. But with several sessions you do learn to let go and ease into the sound as well.
You said at the beginning that it was a shortcut to meditation. I can see why that would be appealing—meditation seems like a lot of hard work.
I disagree with the idea at having to work at "meditation." There's a lot of pressure around that word. I don't think anyone in London knows how to meditate. There are probably a few people in the world who really know how to meditate, but before that comes concentration—being able to focus your mind. I can't really do that; I don't think some of my teachers can do that. So this really is a fast track to observing some of the feelings that you have. It's really like we're throwing you in a cage with some wild animals, and there's nothing you can do. You're really courageous in a way, because it can be quite intense. It really comes over you.
I didn't feel thrown in a cage, and when I left the gong bath, I wasn't sure I was really feeling any different. But then, that evening, I managed to process all the stuff I had to do the following day in a clear way. I felt kind of calm in myself; I didn't have that grizzly post-TV-binge feeling. Even days later, I think I felt more positive about life.
Perhaps you wouldn't be able to bring yourself to do this; perhaps your inner cynic is just too strong. Perhaps you think there's nothing three pints of Guinness and a Westworld before bed can't sort out. But I say: Embrace your inner hippie. Lie on the floor in a cold community center and see how it makes you feel. Maybe you'll find out that you've never known true relaxation until a man in a scarf shouts "KEEP SHAKING, WITH YOUR ARMS, SHAAAAAKING!" at you.
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