Gong Lab at Zen Yoga Garage

by Jeff McMahonFirst you notice the nests.
We’re used to seeing yogis rolling out their mats, collecting blocks and straps, perhaps a bolster or blanket. But at a Gong Lab event, they build nests. Some bring pillows from home—head pillows, eye pillows, under-knee pillows, lower-back pillows. Some disappear under comforters.
The front of the room doesn’t look like a typical gong bath either—assuming a gong bath can be typical. There’s a gong up there—Oliver Seay’s mighty earth gong, tuned to the frequency of “OM”—but there’s also a buk drum, smaller jing gongs, maracas and other instruments all ashine in a blaze of candlelight.
And beside Ollie there’s the brightest light of them all, Shu Shubat, whose serene presence and angelic voice will carry us distances we didn’t know we could travel.
A typical gong bath may calm the mind, realign the body’s energy, bring one into communion with spirit—much like a good yoga class—but a Gong Lab event has a greater ambition:
To create a living gong.
From those nests, Shu and Ollie hope, will hatch a clutch of beings whose newfound radiance and contagious vibration will calm the minds, realign the energies and bring into communion not only themselves, but everyone they encounter in the world.

It all began with rock ‘n’ roll. Shu liked to dance.
“When I would go dancing, I would dance with the drummer. And I was always thinking, ‘Why is he in the back? Shouldn’t he be in the front?”
Shu played bass for the band Eleventh Dream Day, and then for the Indigos, whose drummer was Ollie. He was teaching her to drum. She kept wondering about the drummer’s potential. She wanted to move the drummer out of the back. She wanted more drummers, side by side. She wanted the drummers to dance.
In 1992, their collaboration birthed the Jelleye Drum Theater, a troupe of drummer/dancers who pranced and pounded across Chicago stages with choreographed precision.
As Shu and Ollie planned mightier performances, they sought mightier percussive instruments. Eventually, their quest brought them to the gong.
“We had never heard a gong like this. We were completely captivated by the sounds that could come out of this one instrument.”
They learned of Richard Rudis, a touring Buddhist practitioner and something of a Western pioneer of the “gong bath.”
Shu and Ollie acquired an earth gong of their own, which serves now as the central instrument of Gong Lab. But Shu again was drawn to experiment. Just as she had wondered about the drummer’s potential, she wondered about the potential of the gong bath.
“We called it Gong Lab because I just wanted to experiment with sound,” Shu said. “I see it as a space for exploration, for experimentation, a lab.”
And that exploration tended increasingly toward yoga and healing work. Shu already was studying Jungian psychology when she and Ollie were mentored in the Medicine Buddha Sound Healing Mandala by Lama Lobsang Palden, a Tibetan lama, teacher of Yantra Yoga and Buddhist meditation, and a practitioner of holistic energy medicine.
“He sort of became our mentor in healing sound at the time we were making the crossover from being musicians,” Shu said.
Lama Lobsang pressed them to incorporate mantra.
“From his perspective, without mantra it’s just a concert.”
So during most Gong Lab events, Shu’s transcendent voice animates two traditional Tibetan Buddhist mantras—the mantra of the Prajna Paramita (“Gaté Gaté Paragaté…”) and the mantra of the Medicine Buddha (“Bekanze Bekanze Maha Bekanze…”).
With therpeutic and yogic influences, Gong Lab feels at home in a yoga studio, and so do its two musicians.
“I love working in a yoga studio. I love the recharge it gives me versus working in a club. I love the acoustics in a yoga studio,” Shu said. “This setting sort of meets me at the level of comfort and revification. I like doing that for people…. I like that sacred space, that inviolable space, and I like being a sound in that space.”
So the duo that had married drumming with dance came into union with healing and yoga—not just for the yogis who attend Gong Lab events, but through them, through the living gong.
“Setting up the mandalas at the beginning,” Shu said, “it’s like you’re setting up the world in order to act upon the world.”
For the beneficiary there’s no more effort required than it takes to get a massage. You just have to get on your mat. Or slip into your nest. And let the gong do its work.
“That’s the vulnerable space of fairy tale,” Shu said. “You’re being tucked into bed and you’re going into the archetypal world. Do you remember how rich that was?”

Gong Lab will appear at Zen Yoga Garage, 1845 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 9. Sign up online here. For details, call ZYG 773-227-7748 or email General Manager Piper-Lori Parker at piper.parker@gmail.com.

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