Tag Archives: drumming

Drum Therapy

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LATE BREAKING NEWS: Drum Circles Cure Common Cold!

These are some of the drums I bring to my monthly drum circle.

But like any miraculous headline, there’s a catch.  In my case, the effect lasted only so long as I was actually drumming.  Once the drum circle ended and I was packing up the drums to go home, all of the symptoms of my heavy head cold returned.  But while we were playing last night, it was a surprising miracle.  It was such a noticeable difference that the other members of the group remarked on the change in me. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  Research supports the idea that drumming truly is a healing art.

Mostly I drum for the sheer joy it brings me.  Rhythm touches something deep inside of me, and affects me in ways not usually so dramatically noticeable.  Drumming relieves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, anger – the entire range of emotional states that leaves people tied in knots.  For me, at least, it’s impossible to hold onto these states while drumming.  I may start drumming from that place, but the rhythm lifts me out of that emotional state and transports me to a stronger, calmer, more genuine state of relaxation.  Relaxation doesn’t always mean calm – I’m usually energized by the practice, but it relaxes and unwinds all of the emotions that have me wound up.  And when you clear that away, what is left is a natural feeling of well-being and joy.

Necessary Context: I’m something of a science geek.  I enjoy reading the latest research findings from a diverse range of fields of study.  I like looking for connections between these domains, in search of my own unified theory of the universe. A lofty ambition perhaps, but really, aren’t we all in search of greater understanding and unity of meaning?  So I subscribe to science newsletters, and try to give attention to the front lines of research.  I’m no expert, but I try to stay informed.

Scientists have been studying the healing effects of drumming from a number of different angles.  One of the most interesting to me are the effects that drumming has on the brain.  As you may be aware, the activity of our brains can be measured in brain waves with devices such as an EEG (Electroencephalography).  Electrodes are attached to the scalp which measure the electrical activity of the neurons firing in the brain.

(Aside:  isn’t that COOL?)

Through EEG studies, we learn that there are different brain wave patterns associated with different states of consciousness, both awake and sleeping, and the stages in between.  When we are awake and focusing our attention, our brains produce beta waves.  By immersing ourselves in highly structured rhythmic environments such as drum circles, our brain waves begin to align with the rhythms in a process known as entrainment, which alters brain waves in measurable ways.

(Again, COOL!)

Alpha waves bring us to a state of deep relaxation, where creativity is unleashed.  This state can be achieved in the brains of drummers fairly easily and quickly.  It produces feelings of euphoria and well-being.  As the drumming persists, the brain can shift gears again, and produce theta waves.  Theta waves are associated with a deep meditative trance state where a doorway to the dreaming mind is opened. Insight and inspiration are often found in this state of mind.  Drumming is a key that opens the door to these states of consciousness.

But wait!  There’s more! (I apologize for the excessive use of exclamation marks, but I really find it quite difficult to curb my enthusiasm when it comes to this subject.)

The effects of drumming extend beyond their influence on brain waves.  In addition to producing a measurable relaxation effect, drumming also releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural opiates which relieve pain and produce natural feelings of euphoria.  Recent promising research also shows that drumming boosts the immune system, helping the body produce more killer cells that work to combat everything from viruses to serious illnesses such as cancer.  Cortisol, the stress hormone suspected as the root cause of many diseases, also decreases measurably while drumming.  Our entire biological response seems to get a tune-up when we immerse ourselves in highly rhythmic environments.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that I should feel so fantastic while I was drumming last night.  I went to the drum circle feeling generally miserable, chained to my box of tissues, and desiring little more than to crawl into bed.  But drumming lifted me out of that entirely, creating a state of energy, joy, and euphoria that lasted even after the drumming stopped and my nose resumed it’s dripping.  It’s no wonder why I’m such an enthusiastic ambassador for the drum.  Next time, come join me.

For a well-cited overview of Drum Therapy, see http://healing.about.com/od/drums/a/drumtherapy.htm
Another nice summary can be found at http://www.shamanswell.org/shaman/powerful-healing-benefits-drumming-circle
To find a drum circle near you, visit http://www.drumcircles.net/circlelist.html 

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Gong Bath

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The sound of the gongs are tuned to the frequencies of the planets, creating the “Music of the Spheres”

As a drummer, I’m keenly aware of the effect that sound vibrations can have on a person physically and psychologically.  I can physically feel the vibrations of drums resonating in my body when I play, and I have observed the psychological uplift typically experienced by people immersed in the rhythmic environments of drum circles.  So when I had the opportunity to experience a special “Gong Bath,” I couldn’t resist.

Conducted by Universal Sounds of Saratoga Springs, NY using a wide range of singing bowls and planetary gongs, participants are immersed in a rich vibrational soundscape. Based on the premise that all matter has a vibrational frequency, they believe this resonant gong bath will help people retune themselves to find harmony.  They are called Planetary Gongs because each one is tuned to the vibrational frequency of each planet, as calculated by Swiss mathematician and musicologist Hans Cousto.  When played together, the air throbs with the music of the spheres.

It was a beautiful spring morning.  I arrived at the Hindu Temple with my yoga gear and an attitude of hopefulness.   I have been managing heavy stress loads lately, and I hoped this experience would help me hit the mental and emotional “reset” button.  Although I normally have a regular yoga practice to rely on in difficult times, my practice had evaporated over the past month, leaving me stiff and shaky on many levels.  My meditation practice has had to double down to compensate, but my internal resources were stretched too thinly. This special event was a yoga class followed by a gong bath, and I was equally looking forward to both.

The event was held in a large carpeted room with a stage running the length of the far wall.  Approximately 50 people had pre-registered, but I saw many walk-ins register at the door.  The room easily accommodated all of our mats without feeling too crowded.  I unrolled my mat, wrapped my blanket around me, anointed my chakras with essential oils that support meditation, and settled myself in to wait for the class to begin.

We began with a yoga class led by Jim Whiting, a Kripalu Yoga instructor from Body Mind Spirit Yoga in Delmar, NY.  Suitable for all levels, the practice consisted of gentle stretches that left us grounded and open for what was to come.  After a brief break to allow people to get settled and comfortable, the gong bath began.

I was laying down with an eye bag over my eyes when the sound began, and I had an immediate experience of synesthesia where  I perceived sound as color. I was quite surprised by the psychedelic light show that appeared against the inside of my eyelids as the gongs began to resonate.  It was a bit like Fantasia; each time a gong was struck, a different splash of color would appear in my mind’s eye, rippling out wider as the sound of the gong spread.  I was surprised by this experience simply because it seemed so unexpectedly cliché, and it happened so immediately.  This synesthesia only lasted a few minutes, but I found it fascinating.  But as the gongs began to overlap and the sounds became more layered, I became untethered in ways that are difficult to describe.

As the gong bath began, our only instruction was to get comfortable, stay present and immerse ourselves in sound.  As a seasoned meditator, “stay present” means something very specific.  Our minds all have the tendency to jump around from thought to thought.  We spend much of our thinking lives either dwelling on past events or thinking/planning/scheming/worrying over future events.  To be focused entirely on the here and now is a meditation practice precisely because we do it so rarely we NEED to practice.  For after all, life only really happens here and now.  We miss the richness of many experiences because we are mentally checked out.  Staying present is at the heart of Mindfulness Meditation techniques.  Just about any activity can be done mindfully, with focused awareness.  I’m not perfect at this, and my success varies according to my internal landscape, but I’m generally able to put aside distracting thoughts and focus on one thing attentively, especially if it’s something as lush and interesting as the rich soundscape of gongs that was making the whole room vibrate.

And yet, I could not.  As much as I returned my attention again and again to the sound of the gongs, as each wave of sound washed over me, I was swept away again and again.  Images arose, disconnected and unfathomable.  I saw a strange bearded man eating peanuts.  I saw a friend in a wedding dress. I saw fragments of images that never held still long enough to identify.  It was very much like a dream, yet I was very aware of and observant of this experience.  Interesting visual phenomenon replaced the color splashes of the synesthesia; the images in my mind wavered and spun, brightened and dimmed, shattered and reformed.  I was completely unable to bring any kind of mental discipline to the idea of staying present.  I was swept away.

I eventually sat up so I could hear and feel the sound of the gongs completely surround me.  There was a very physical sensation associated with the vibrations.  There were at least eight large gongs, and the sound was palpable.  An hour flew by in what seemed like only a few minutes.  Gradually the sounds tapered off, and there was silence.

I have had experiences that left me feeling charged and energized, but surprisingly, this wasn’t one of them.  What I mostly felt was emptied. I could clearly feel a residual sensation of vibration throughout my body, but it didn’t leave me bursting with new energy like I had expected.  Instead, I tapped a pool of exhaustion I didn’t know I had in me.  I went home and slept like the dead for two hours, an extremely rare event for me unless I’m ill.  As I explored this after-effect, I believe this result is because the gong bath actually did what I was hoping for.  I’ve been too tightly wound up for too long, and this gong bath managed to unravel that tight knot of tension.  The nap was my body’s response to my spirit unknotting.

It was a beautiful experience; one that I will seek out again.