Drumming Circles a Hit

From a distance, it sounds like music from a car stereo. But as you draw nearer the park shelter, you realize that there is no melody, just a pulsating rhythm. Close inspection reveals a group of a dozen or so people playing drums of all kinds: big and little ones, both primitive and high-tech.

You have encountered one of the drumming circles gaining in popularity across the country. Some celebrate Native American customs and heritage or other ethnic traditions, but all are outlets for people expressing a primal urge that drives their spirit, amidst camaraderie and fun.

Now, scientists have discovered that drumming can be a useful tool in physical and psychological therapy. It seems that repetitive rhythms can initiate changes in brain wave activity, including calm and concentration. Researchers currently are expanding their studies into related fields, with positive results.

Drumming has been used for centuries in every tribal culture on Earth, for communication, rituals and healing. Why is it so effective?

It has to do with the fact that the first sounds we hear in the womb are the rhythms of breath and heartbeat. The late Babatunde Olatunji, an award-winning jazz composer and founder of Harlem’s Olatunji Center for African Culture, said, “Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.” This includes everything from the changing of the seasons to the vibration of atoms.

Though rhythm therapy was once considered a fanciful New Age concept, major universities such as Harvard and Duke are conducting present-day research into its positive effects on stress reduction, immune-system strengthening and addiction treatment, all under the evolving aegis of integrative medicine.

Seeking to help victims of dyslexia, attention deficit disorders and autism, the Hannah More School in Reisterstown, Maryland, is trying drumming therapy. Students there are playing shakers, rattles, bells and drums to help improve their physical conditions. Laurie Precht, drum circle facilitator, says, “I would say it’s beneficial for them, both psychologically and physically.”

Michael Drake, author of The Therapeutic Effects of Drumming, agrees, advising that, “From the shamans of Mongolia to the Minianka healers of West Africa, therapeutic rhythm techniques have been used for thousands of years to create and maintain physical, mental and spiritual health.”

Recent studies are indicating positive effects from use of drum therapy in wide-ranging areas. These include stress, fatigue, anxiety, hypertension, asthma, chronic pain, arthritis, mental illness, migraines, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, paralysis and emotional disorders.

A 2003 study, for example, found that drumming induces deep relaxation, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress, which contributes to nearly all disease and is a primary cause of such life-threatening illnesses as heart attacks, strokes, and immune system breakdowns. A 2001 study indicates that drumming circles boost the immune system. Barry Bittman, a physician and leading cancer researcher, demonstrated that group drumming increases cancer-killing cells that also kill other viruses, like AIDS. Remarks Bittman, “Group drumming tunes our biology, orchestrates our immunity, and enables healing to begin.”

Life-draining chronic pain is another ailment that can benefit from drumming. Researchers suggest that drumming not only serves as a distraction from pain and grief, but also specifically promotes the production of endorphins and endogenous opiates, the body’s own morphine-like painkillers.

Psychosocial issues can be successfully addressed by drumming strategies, too. In Durango, Colorado, adolescent offenders participate in drumming circles hosted by the Department of Youth Services. The sessions provide the juveniles, “A ritualized way to blow off steam,” according to Kulu Speigel, a professional musician and leader of the group, and may teach the youths skills for building successful interpersonal relationships. After a drumming encounter, disciplinary problems among the teens plummet. Even major corporations, such as Motorola and AT&T, use drumming seminars for team-building exercises.

Drumming circles everywhere welcome everyone who wants to join in.

Sources: AlternativeDepressionTherapy.com; Advances in Mind-Body Medicine; Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine; The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing.

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