Harmonies in the boom of a gong are transporting city dwellers into a meditative state
Leo Cosendai used to be an acutely anxious young man. “I couldn’t cope with taking the train,” he says. “I never felt safe.” So when he moved to London from Switzerland in 2008 to study music, he tried yoga to calm him down. But it was when he discovered gong meditation sessions, otherwise known as sound baths, that he started transforming into the smiley, serene person he is today. He was so deeply affected by the practice that he ditched his singing and composing career, invested in some gongs of his own and embarked on a mission to pass on his newfound contentment to others. “I’m not saying I’m happy all the time,” he qualifies, “but I’m comfortable with life even when it’s really uncomfortable.”
To find out exactly why banging a loud gong can have such a transformational effect on mind and body, I try out one of his sessions along with 20 other sound-bath novices. We gather on the top floor of a building near London Bridge with panoramic views of a sunset so dazzling it’s impossible not to sneak a phone snap, even though this feels unmindful and decidedly not in-themoment. However, Cosendai remains characteristically nonjudgmental as he checks his three beautiful gongs are in order. Yoga mats are laid out with eye pillows placed at one end. Once we’re all reclined and quiet, the bright lights, noisy air conditioning and squeaky floor all feel amplified. Cosendai begins by listing these as things to simply notice and acknowledge, along with how our bodies feel on our mats, as he directs our awareness to the present moment.
The sound bath itself is topped and tailed with Cosendai’s voice accompanied by the shruti box – often used to provide a drone sound in Indian classical music. His long, soft vocal tones meld into a spot of Mongolian overtone singing, in which he appears to sing two notes at the same time: a lower tone and a melodic whistle. However, the gongs are the main event, with a side order of conch shell for added ancient Tibetan vibrations. He weaves nimbly among us with his instruments to make sure we receive all sound frequencies from all directions and distances, creating added crescendos as he gets closer. The effect is a bizarre multi-layered wall of sound which, oddly, took me out of the city and made me feel as though I was in a cave.
He bangs and rubs the gongs with big fluffy beaters, teasing out deep, reverberating, alien sounds that you feel in your bones. The overall effect is soothing, but it can sound eerie or dramatic at times, too. Like a really satisfying massage, some parts challenge your senses while others gently lull you into relaxation.
While Cosendai says sound baths were developed by westerners in the mid 20th century, we have probably always used sound for therapeutic reasons. Although there have been no studies yet measuring the effects of sound baths on the brain, there are reams of neuroscientific literature on the effects of music per se.
“It’s an ancient tradition to use sound to alter our state of consciousness,” says Elvira Brattico, Professor at the Center for Music in the Brain at Aarhus University in Denmark, who is planning to conduct the first scientific research into the effects of sound baths on the mind. “The shamans have done it with drumming,” she says, “and to use music as a medium to deepen a meditative state is quite common in different yoga practices.” But with gong meditation, sound is offered without the physical poses – you just lie on the matt and soak it up. A method that is keeping Cosendai very busy indeed.
He is working seven days a week, from large one-off events (such as recent sessions at the Natural History Museum and London Fashion Week), to regular slots at yoga centres across London. His app Third Ear has 20,000 users and the audio book will be published early next year, recorded with “binaural” methods to render the sound in three dimensions. “Gongs produce a lot of harmonics,” says Cosendai, which is when we hear multiple tones in a single hit. “You get harmonics in everything, it’s just a question of how much of them you hear. While the piano sounds like one clear note to the human ear,” he says, “gongs are the number one harmonic-producing instruments. When you’ve got a lot of harmonics in the room, or on your headphones, they blend with each other, making baby frequencies if you like, and the more frequencies you have, the more your brain is activated in a different way.”
With these different frequencies, he says, you hear what are called binaural beats, which is “when the brain receives information from two sound frequencies that are so close to one another, the brain brings them together and hears a beat”. The thronging effect of a bell or gong sound is produced by our brains.
Brattico believes certain brain mechanisms observed in other music studies are also at play during gong meditations. One key effect, she says, is a process known as entrainment, whereby our brain waves synchronise with music. “Our neurons communicate with each other
‘The effect is a bizarre wall of sound, as though I’m in a cave’