Feature
Spring/Summer 2018 issue

Comfort in sound

Whether it’s a piece of music, a voice or a sound outside, what we hear has the power to change our state of mind. But some sounds are believed to have the power to go even deeper and help bring our bodies back into balance. Sound practitioner Ali Gunning explains all.

Everywhere we go, we’re surrounded by sound. From listening to a song on the radio, sharing laughter with loved ones, to the sound of nature outside, what we hear–and how it makes us feel–can be powerful.

Some sounds can have a deeper impact on our lives, with studies suggesting meditative sound practices (also known as vibrational medicine) using gongs, Tibetan singing bowls and the human voice can help with stress, anxiety and depression.

In 2012, a small study in America revealed the benefits of sound in improving mental health. Involving two groups of people caring for family members with dementia, the first listened to relaxing music for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks, while the other practised kirtan kriya, a meditative form of yoga that involves chanting.

At the end of the study, just over a third of the group that listened to relaxing music said they felt good, but the results from the chanting group were significant–65.2% said they had fewer depressive symptoms, and 52% had better mental health scores.

A modern-day renaissance

While wellness practices like yoga and meditation have erupted in the Western world, sound healing has been quietly reverberating in the background. Anything but new, it’s a return to the practices adopted thousands of years ago in the Far East.

The idea behind the practice is that, like everything around us, our bodies have their own natural vibrations–or resonance. If this is knocked out of balance, whether down to stress, illness or something else, it can have an impact on our physical or emotional health.

One form of sound healing is the “sound bath”–a practice that usually involves lying down comfortably on a mat while you’re immersed in sound vibrations. Practitioners typically use a number of instruments during a sound bath, but the star of the event is the gong, which creates a vast spectrum of frequencies and overtones that help to bring our bodies back to their natural state.

“The gong removes energetic blockages that cause ill health and harmonises the body’s systems, while at the same time shifting our state of consciousness into a more meditative space, or a state where we can access self-healing,” says sound practitioner Ali Gunning.

Because the vibrations from the gong can be felt as well as heard, the effect on our brainwaves is significant. “The gong takes us from the active, thinking mind (beta) towards feeling relaxed and present (alpha) to creative-intuitive, meditative states (theta) and deep healing sleep (delta) very quickly. In certain brainwave combinations we access and process unconscious material like past experiences or emotions, as well as receiving wisdom and insight,” Ali adds.

This can lead to a fall in stress hormones and heart rate, as well as helping to rebalance the nervous system.

Back in tune

Sound healing can also be seen as an aid in challenging emotions that affect people’s lives and negatively impact on their health. Supporting the idea of how sound can improve your emotional state of mind, Ali says: “The gong is ultimately a spiritual tool; it leads us towards realisation of the Self and oneness with all.”

This reflects Ali’s own journey, which started when she began practising yoga as a hobby in 2003 while working in events and public relations in Glasgow, then London. Shortly after finishing her yoga teaching training in India in 2009 she decided to deepen her understanding of sound as a healing and meditative tool.

Ali recalls her first experience of the gong as “almost overwhelming”, adding: “Like many people I was surprised at how many different frequencies and sound combinations could emerge from one instrument and how quickly the sound could dig into my emotional stuff.”

Later, a friend of Ali’s–a sound healer–asked her to play the gong for a small group. “I’ll never forget the feeling of that first strike when I realised I had been searching for this connection… or it had been searching for me.”

Now practising gong has become Ali’s main focus, and as it’s moved more into the mainstream it’s taken her all over the world–from playing in the jungle in Goa to offering personalised sound treatments across the UK. This summer she’ll be playing at several festivals–the surf and music event Boardmasters Festival in Newquay, and Exhale Festival in West Sussex. And, together with her partner Andy, she’s in the process of setting up a sound temple and retreat centre in Cornwall.

Drawing on her own experience of how sound can help to deal with difficult emotions, Ali’s keen to give back to the community too. “The value of ‘alternative health’ is becoming more appreciated as people can become empowered in their own wellbeing,” she says.

She volunteered with the mental health charity Mind for many years, offering yoga classes which included gong therapy. Now she’s working with the charity Children’s Hospice South West, which offers palliative and end-of-life care to children in Cornwall, as well as supporting their families and carers. “Sounding very gently can offer a few moments of much-needed respite and connection and it is extremely rewarding work,” Ali says.

The future of sound

In more recent years, Ali has focused more on the voice as a healing instrument, completing training with the College of Sound Healing. “The power of the human voice combined with the receptivity of the body as a sound chamber is remarkable,” she says. “In the future, I see voice healing being widely available and accepted; in the same way that the gong has gone from a bit ‘out there’ to mainstream in just a few years.”

But she believes sound is most powerful when combined holistically with other wellbeing practices like yoga, nutrition and Ayurveda, among others. This spurred Ali on to create Resonant Retreats with best friend and raw food chef Fran Paz in 2015. Drawing on seasonal transitions, the pair hold mini retreats across the UK offering a combination of food, yoga and sound.

“I feel that working holistically is the way forward–not being stuck in our little boxes of ‘yoga teacher’ or ‘sound therapist’, but exploring new and old ways for the current times,” Ali says. “What we eat shapes our body, how we move and breathe affects our energy levels, and what we think shapes our reality. So through food, yoga and sound we can regain healthy and holistic resonance.”