Life is about risk and reward – so I venture out for a ‘sound bath’

I lie back as the gong is struck, its resonance washes over me like the tender lapping of a Mediterranean wave against a silky shore. A tide of sound gently pulls me out into an unplumbed ocean of zen serenity and for the first time in goodness knows how long, I actually feel (mildly) at ease.

As you’ve already guessed from the title, this isn’t the testimony of a prototypical gap-yearing backpacker finding himself in the depths of the Tibetan plains, but that of a stressed-out, neophyte journalist looking to forgo life-induced dread by plunging myself into a nice, warm, relaxing ‘sound bath’ in Kingston-upon-Thames.

For those wondering what a ‘sound bath’ is, it’s as simple as this: you lie back as someone plays unrhythmic, ambient sounds in an effort to bring about within you some kind of placid, meditative state.

But how did I end up in one? Story time.

Most of us, in a desperate bid to pluck us, if only fleetingly, from the insidious grind of the nine to five, will indulge in drink (or two…) on a Friday night. After all, why not? In our culture of ultra-expediency, with deadlines piling up, why would we not choose the most efficient route to temporary release?  

But then there’s that morning after. Your oesophagus has apparently played host to a gullet-sized black hole that long since sucked away any trace of H2O. There’s a pain in your head that throbs in psychopathic ode to the featureless junk-music you heard the night before. Then comes the reluctant check of your bank account (depending on volume consumed, possibly also a tear at this point).

So, if you’re anything like me, (that is a weedy, pathetic 24-year-old who curls up like a child at the mere mention of a ‘hangover’) after a while, you ponder gifting your Friday night to an alternate, less painful endeavour.

Man hungover.
Credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels The inevitable result of a usual night out on the town.

And pondering is exactly what I did. Then, come Friday morning, some last-minute research.

I Google ‘things to do near me’ like some kind of hermit-troglodyte venturing out for the very first time. Faithfully as ever, the search-engine overburdens me with 1,000,456 results – in 0.6 seconds it adds boastfully.

Endless scrolling ensues.

‘Escape Rooms’. I’m trying to escape reality not a room.

‘Haunted Tour of Kingston’. Again, I want to escape reality not start questioning it.

‘Tenpin Kingston’. No thanks – It’s not my tenth birthday.

Within minutes I’m on page four of Google, losing all hope, when suddenly I spot the golden ticket:

‘Sound Bath for Healing Relaxation in Kingston With Holistic Energy Bodywork Therapist Sue Ip’.

I try to unpack what I’ve read but I can’t. What is a ‘sound bath’? What is a ‘holistic energy bodywork therapist’? Who on earth is Sue Ip?

I click the link.

For £18 I can experience “an evening of gentle relaxation”, to “immerse” myself with “healing and soothing sounds of the gong, Tibetan singing bowls and beautiful simple chimes”.

 “Some people might experience feelings of joy, others can experience an emotional release as the body surrenders and let’s go,” it continues.

Then, in bold, a serious disclaimer:

Sound bath disclaimer.
Credit: Sue Ip

Food for thought.

No chemicals required, no awkward poses, no straining of the tissue – just lie back, close your eyes and listen to some far-out tunes by a holistic healer – sounds ideal. Luckily, I don’t (yet) have to worry about a hip replacement somehow bursting free of its fleshy prison, but there is a rub, I have epilepsy.

But as a (un)wise man once quipped: “Life is all about risk and reward.”

Never one to turn down a little danger, I was in.

I declare to my friends I will not be available on this fine Friday evening, for I, Charlie Johnson, have for one evening only, decided to depart this world at precisely 7:30pm for some greener sonic pastures.

Through the sheer power of the gong, I will ascend from this Earth, march the astral plains and touch the void.

After an afternoon of anxious anticipation, the hour finally arrives for me to meet my maker.

As instructed, I pack a bag full of warm clothes, water and a yoga mat (from my Mum) and make my way to Yoga Breathworks on Canbury Road – the chosen location for this, my assured divine awakening.

I arrive early and spot a woman, dressed all in black, shaking hands – this must be the woman I’m looking for, Sue Ip.

Introducing myself, I’m met by a diminutive individual who, as if she’d had a dampener installed in her vocal chords, speaks in soothing, hushed tones. She smiles invitingly and urges me to make myself comfortable on one of the many mats she has laid out on the floor.

I instinctively go for one in the corner of the room for surely the walls could protect me from the side-effects this spiritual mission might incur.

Soon, others start to filter through, and I before I know it, I am surrounded by all manner of mums. Old mums, middle-aged mums, new mums – this was a veritable smorgasbord of sleeplessness, stress and Chanel No. 5.

One sits down next to me and explains she’s just had a child and fears she’ll fall asleep – I politely say I think the same will happen to me (but really I’m only hoping I have what it takes to withstand the shattering consequences of Enlightenment).

Eventually, the experience begins with the ringing of bells.

I close my eyes, braced for Nirvana.

A buddha.
Credit: Photo by Martina Katz/imageBROKER/Shutterstock A visual representation of how I expected to feel after the experience (*spoiler*, I didn’t feel like this).

Sue begins by gently tapping the gong before slowly notching up the intensity. By now vibrations are enveloping the room in passionate embrace.

Soon, Sue switches it up with the eery, droning hums of singing bowls, calling us to distant mental shores. My mind starts to drift from the grim hustle of the day-to-day to a blissful thoughtlessness.

Not two minutes later, I’m thinking about what I had for breakfast that morning (two fairly average Sainsbury’s cinnamon swirls). Then about that washing up I hadn’t done. It isn’t long before I’m convulsed by in-depth internal debate over how long it takes to perfectly toast a slice of bread.

Next, Sue whips out the wind chimes, gently shaking them whilst gliding around the room like a ghostly yogi. Like a priest tinkering a sacring bell to signify the holy presence, she leans over the mums to my right and gives an obligatory swirl of the chimes.

As the tintinnabulation gets closer and closer, my hair starts to prick – soon its my turn to feel like a Eucharistic cracker.

Sue looms over and gives the chimes a jiggle close to my ears – I can’t help but crack a giggly smile as ASMR-like tingles scurry like a darting spider down my spine.

Then, another peal of the gong.

This time of an even stronger intensity, I’m sucked straight out of my mind-palace. I find myself lost in an oneiric soundscape – my angst and concerns dissipating like a morning fog.

It wouldn’t last long – my thoughts force their way back in and I’m back to ruminating on the banal. This to-and-fro goes on like a game of slow-motion tennis until, an hour later, the gentle rippling of bells rouses me from my stupor.

The session is over almost as soon as it began and I’m feeling mildly less stressed than I did before.

Sue instructs us to slowly stretch out, sitting up when we’re ready. Audible groans echo through the room as we realise reality must now resume. Slowly, we gather enough courage to stand and roll up our matts, primed to strike back out into the corporeal world.

As people begin shuffling out, I ask one of the women next to me how she found the experience.

Sian is a new devotee to the cause. She’s only been “sound bathing” for four weeks after a friend introduced her.

“The sound fills your mind, you feel empty of any thought…it’s an out-of-body thing for me,” Sian explains.

“I feel wonderful, I wish it was every day,” she added.

Woman at Sound Bath.
Credit: Charlie Johnson Sharn revelling in the post-bath afterglow.

Sian then packs up and leaves and I’m left alone with Sue, who begins to tell me her tale.

She reveals that she works with special-needs children during the day and does everything from “spiritual healing” to massage work at night. A life devoted to helping others, she reveals sound baths aren’t just for her clients.

“Doing these gong-baths has been an avenue for my own wellbeing…sound is another language which is perfect because I don’t like talking a lot, I just like feeling things,” she says.

She adds that “sound is just another vehicle – it’s not invasive, it just fills up the space wherever it is”.

My cortisol levels now back to their astronomically high levels, I ask what the real benefits of sound therapy are.

“It depends on the person,” she explains.

“Some people find it relaxing and de-stressing, like being in a meditative state, but there are some people I don’t recommend it to,” says Sue.

Sound Bath instructor.
Credit: Charlie Johnson Sue Ip sits proudly alongside her primary healing tool: the gong.

My mind pings back to the website and the health disclaimers – can mere noise really be that bad for you?

“Yes,” emphasises Sue.

“I’ve had a few individuals that were pregnant…our bodies are over 70% water so sometimes the vibrations can cause… a release,” Sue mournfully points out.

“There are others who find the sessions a bit too much for them – they’d be coughing quite a lot which is a sign in a spiritual sense, that stuff needs to be released. It’s at your own risk if you want to come,” she finishes.

Feeling like I’ve just had a brush with the sonic god of death, I thank Sue for the session and beat a hasty retreat to the door.

Other than the sound of a gong still ringing faintly in my ear, I hardly feel different. The full-on bodhi tree spiritual awakening that I had been half-seriously grasping for had eluded me.

But as I close the door behind me and step into the frigid February night, I feel obliquely proud at the minute accomplishment of having usurped my usual Friday night script.

There’s always more to discover, I think to myself as I plod home, even in the peculiar sonority of the gong.

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