Good vibrations: Hongkongers embrace sound therapy to retune their bodies
Striking gong after gong with her padded mallet,Martha Collard sends ripples of sound reverberating through her Wong Chuk Hang studio on a recent full moon evening, soothing rumbles which occasionally rise to a fierce crescendo.
The sound waves cocoon a class of 30 people as they slip into a dreamlike, meditative state on their yoga mats or, judging by the snores from different corners of the room, deep slumber for some.
After the last notes of Collard’s 45-minute gong playing fades away, the group comes back to life and gathers in the foyer outside to exchange experiences over fruits and home-made brownies.
For fashion designer Makin Ma, it was as if he had been “transported into outer space” and he has come back to earth feeling “invigorated, as if [my] system rebooted itself”. Christina Chu, an operational executive who divides her time between Hong Kong and San Francisco, reckons the session gave her “more mental peace and helps [her] stay grounded”.
A growing community in Hong Kong and around the world are gathering in wellness centres, beaches and even office meeting rooms for this alternative treatment called sound therapy.
The practice employs sonic vibrations generated by gongs, singing bowls, tuning forks and other instruments to relieve common aches and pains. Besides promoting relaxation, practitioners believe it works by correcting blocked energy flow and out-of-tune frequencies in the body that they reckon lead to various ailments, and can complement chemotherapy
Western-trained physicians remain sceptical about the efficacy of sound-healing approaches although they recognise their ability to soothe.
Nevertheless, Jennifer Tang Yee-tung, co-founder of Sound Therapy Hong Kong, became a staunch advocate of the alternative therapy after suffering a personal tragedy.
Her elder brother died 10 years ago after a five-year battle with cancer, and she blames the illness largely on his high-stress lifestyle.
“He was always wound up and irritable,” Tang says. “His passing made me reflect whether good grades and a high-flying career equal contentment. I used to run a sales team at a multinational company, but I didn’t feel happy.”
It was Jasmine Hui Wing-chi, her then colleague and eventual partner in the sound therapy service, who introduced her to the healing properties of Himalayan singing bowls.
Hui had been hypnotised by the sound of singing bowls after tuning in to a YouTube clip of a performance by Hans de Back, a renowned master of the instrument.
She found their resonance was like no other.
“The notes banished all thoughts and emotions from my clouded mind, leaving it in total peace for the first time,” Hui says. “While [notes played on] the violin or piano evoke joy, mystery and perhaps anger, the sound of the singing bowl is neutral and helps me look within myself.”
Hui and Tang trained with de Back and eventually quit their jobs to set their Sound Therapy service in Wan Chai two years ago and make it their life mission to promote its benefits.
“I believe sound therapy is my true calling in which I found inner fulfilment,” Tang says.
Singing bowl therapies are a more serene and tactile affair compared to gong meditation. When someone comes in complaining of backache or an anxiety attack, they would first have the person lie down on a massage bed.
Singing bowls are then set out in a ring around the client as well as on the torso before they strike the rims of the instruments with padded mallets. This generates subtle, calming and harmonic tones – which many liken to the sound of “om” or “aum”, the sound associated with Hindu and Buddhist chants.
By placing one bowl on the chest and another on the abdomen, the sound waves aren’t only heard by the ear, but also felt by the body.
“We use singing bowls to listen to what their body has to say – it doesn’t lie – before we diagnose and treat the patient,” Tang says.
For the uninitiated, the singing bowl might sound the same when placed around different individuals, but she can tell that her instrument is missing some of the overtones because a poorly organ would absorb those frequencies to self-heal.
For Collard, who discovered the power of gong meditation four years ago during a course for yoga teachers in New Mexico, they are just the thing for an impatient modern society.
“When we get stressed, we want a fast, effective cure … The gongs are it. In seconds, they can alter your state of consciousness, [taking] you from beta to theta state in which your immune system kicks in and your body fixes itself.”
But her eureka moment came after she fell into one of those lucid dreams during a gong meditation. “[When I was dreaming] I felt a really cold liquid dripping from my side … When I woke up, I wasn’t wet at all. It was the sound that created that feeling. And I knew my kidney stone had melted. And that was when I went from one gong to five.”
She went to study under one of the world’s foremost gong masters, Don Conreaux, acquired a set of 16 gongs and opened Red Doors Studio,which now offers regular group meditation and yoga sessions with gongs.
Collard, who often takes her gong set to businesses and outdoor yoga festivals, says that rather than her playing the gongs during the sessions, it’s the other way around. “I serve as an instrument and tune in to the energy of the individual or the group … If I don’t think the gong sounds right, I’ll play it until it does and gets rid of the energy blockage.”
“The way sound healing works,” she says, “is sound plus intention equals impact” – meaning that she and participants need to have the will to restore health for recovery to begin.
But can sound waves generated by copper bowls and gongs really fix stiff necks and other complaints?
There is no clinical evidence to show that sound therapy works, says Dr Cheung Chi-wai, director of the Laboratory and Clinical Research Institute for Pain at Hong Kong University.
Patients may feel their pain diminish because the tunes might lift their spirits which has a positive effect on acute pain and even cancer-associated pain, says Cheung.
Dr Henry Tong Ka-fai, a pain management specialist at the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital, echoes such scepticism.
“The placebo effect is a common phenomenon in pain treatment,” he says, noting that between 20 to 30 per cent of patients find relief from a placebo.
That said, neither physician rules out the potential of sound therapy in treating pain although they want to see empirical evidence before recommending it to patients.
“I need to know that [sound therapy] facilitates a lasting recovery, and isn’t just a band-aid solution that distracts the mind and breaks a stress cycle momentarily,” Cheung says.
Singing bowls seem to have worked for Sybil Chan, whose family has a history of thyroid disease. Chan always worried that the same fate will befall her and was distraught after being diagnosed with an overactive thyroid last year.
“With hyperthyroidism, I felt like a car parked without killing the engine. I hardly ever felt rested and was walking on an emotional tightrope,” says Chan.
She sought help from Tang and Hui and, after 18 months of treatment, Chan says she has being able to keep her thyroid hormone levels in check.
Whereas she used to suffer mood swings associated with the condition, and was often nervous and fatigued, Chan now has a rosy glow on her cheeks and is more energetic and outspoken.
She has become such a convert of the power of singing bowls she even bought one to practise at home.
Asked what she liked best about the bowls, Chan says, “[The vibrations] feel just as satisfying as scratching an insect bite”, prompting Hui and Tang to burst into laughter.
Whether sonic vibrations can actually treat physical ailments is open to debate. But what is certain is that a relaxing hour with gongs or singing bowls would be a welcome break from the cacophony of city traffic and the unrelenting stress of work.