From the moment of conception, we are surrounded by and immersed in rhythm - heartbeat, movement, breath, speech - and our development is continually impacted by all these factors in numerous ways. All of these elements can also form the negative patterns and ‘enculturation’ that can so readily be transformed by breathwork in all its forms.
Our heart beats for the first time at around four weeks in the womb, at eight weeks our skin becomes receptive to touch and vibration, and our hearing develops from as early as 16 weeks, well before the ear structure is complete (1). Many studies now confirm intonation, patterns of pitch, stress, and rhythm, as well as music, reach the fetus without significant distortion.
Sounds can have a surprising impact upon the fetal heart rate: a five second stimulus can cause changes in heart rate and movement, which last up to an hour. Some musical sounds can cause changes in metabolism. "Brahm's Lullaby," for example, played six times a day for five minutes in a premature baby nursery produced faster weight gain than voice sounds played on the same schedule (2).
In our development after birth, heartbeat and breath are the primary conscious nurturing rhythms, and the most evident somatic triggers. Babies are comforted and develop a powerful bond with their mother by being placed against her breast, present to her breath and heartbeat. We can all identify with the gasping for breath and thumping of our heartbeat in our ears after physical exertion, holding our breath in shock, sighing with contentment.
The breath is also the key to our self-expression, speech being simply a complex modulated exhale. Pattern and rhythm is evident even here, the cadence of speech is essential to its comprehension, something that we have all experienced when attempting to speak a foreign tongue with English intonation and rhythm.
Drumming and rhythm is probably the most ancient and diverse modality for individual and communal expression, and has been used for thousands of years to induce meditative states in cultures around the world.
Ancient Hindu and Buddhist cultures have used rhythmic chanting, singing bowls, finger chimes and other methods to transcend the ‘ordinary’ states of consciousness. Shamanic practices in Eurasia, Oceania, Africa, North and South America have all incorporated the repetitive sounds of drumming to create rhythms with profound effects, creating altered states of consciousness in which healing can occur.
The physiological effects of sound, particularly regarding these altered states, have been well documented. It has been shown to ‘entrain’ (5) alpha, beta, and theta states in the brain (3), and the therapeutic effects of drumming are becoming more widely researched and documented.
A number of studies with patients suffering from dementia and degenerative diseases such as Alzenheimers and Parkinson’s have yielded conclusive evidence that group drumming and music making have significant positive impact on these conditions, boosting the immune system and affecting the expression of genomic stress factors (4).
These studies also demonstrate that persons in the late stages of Dementia often discontinue their participation in most traditional activities but continue to participate in activities offering structure through rhythm.
It is clear then that music and rhythm has the power to stimulate memory and emotion, impacting our physical being, and altering our biochemistry at a fundamental level. This relationship has been understood for Millennia and is now further validated by current medical research.
Having experienced numerous breathing sessions accompanied by pre-recorded music, I began to experience its power to ‘steer’ or direct my experience. With repetition, a familiar song can cue an emotional state, give rise to familiar thoughts, and elicit specific physical responses. This can be a beautiful way to facilitate the process and create a specific ambience, but over time it can become almost ritualised, and this entrainment into fixed patterns of behaviour may then become an obstacle to freely gaining access to, and working with, the issues we are committed to transforming.
The Drum Breathe brings together conscious breath and live rhythmic music, primarily drumming and percussion. There are multiple levels of interaction between the drummer and breathers, an active dialogue generated spontaneously by the relationship that evolves through the session. The music is unique to every event as it is an emergent quality of the specific mix of people, relationships, and location. At any moment the drummer will respond to the group, to a specific individual, or to a personal impulse.
What participants often report is that the unpredictable nature of the music does not allow them to fall into familiar ways of being, something unexpected begins to emerge. The live drumming entrains the group into the theta state, calming and dreamlike, but the energy and variety of the rhythms and sounds keeps the brain alert. We postulate that what is happening is similar to the impact of yawning - both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems are being activated. This brings about a deeply resourcing experience, where the engrained survival and habitual defense mechanisms are not triggered, and the stimulation of the constantly evolving dialogue with the rhythm taps into our core and very simply allows an opening to occur.
After a recent DrumBreathe, one participant expressed how at one stage of the breathing session a particular sound had activated her into a faster rhythm of breathing. Being transported into a deeply relaxed but alert state, she watched how the new faster rhythm of her breath completely changed the shape of her body as though she was being squeezed like a concertina. From this tightening in her body, she felt the emotion of fear passing through her in waves. The music and rhythm changed again at that point and she experienced her breathing becoming relaxed. Her insight was that her breath is profoundly interlinked with the shaping and holding patterns of her body, and how this in turn connects to her emotional state.
Another breather expressed after a session that the sound of chimes and bells had evoked a transcendental experience of being at the point of her death, and beyond, and that it was very tranquil and beautiful. I was interested to hear this because at that point I remembered being powerfully drawn to playing chimes and some Indian singing bowls. I had been concerned that they sounded somewhat funereal, and this ‘feel’ remained even when I consciously tried to change it.
Subsequently, my attention was drawn to another area of the room and I found it difficult to play coherently, becoming very drowsy, and even stopping playing completely for a few moments. It was later confirmed that two of the breathers there had entered a more Shamanic journeying space and had also found it difficult to stay awake.
It is therefore evident that there is another level of activation that occurs in the DrumBreathe that is similar to that created by the typical group dynamic, where one breather’s experience may trigger activation in another. Unlike this dynamic, which may occur as an intrusive ‘blurring’ of boundaries and process, the Drummer facilitates the same acceleration in the process, yet allows the breathers to remain independent.
Apart from the apparent stimulating and nurturing quality of this form, Jane and I have been exploring ways to promote personal responsibility inside the relationship to health and wellbeing. Our interest is in encouraging people to be active participants in shaping the context within which they manage this, moving away from the traditional hierarchical ‘patient <> therapist’ relationship, towards a more holistic partnership. We call this ‘Interactive Health and Wellbeing’ encompassing awareness (spirit), sensuality (body), and inspiration (mind).
Jane has been developing this work for over a decade, working with Rebirthing, Integrated Breathwork, Craniosacral therapy and somatic trauma work. The synergy that has emerged with the incorporation of drumming and group work has expanded its power and effectiveness, moving from empowering the individual to empowering community. The DrumBreathe has opened up new areas for exploration, and an exciting new direction in which to expand the reach of Breathwork. It is the result of our belief that physical, emotional & spiritual healing, wellbeing and growth are enhanced by the freedom in our breath.
Mudimo and Jane Okondo are based in Blackheath in London. Mudimo leads rhythm based events with special needs populations and community groups. Jane has a private breathwork practice and runs regular trainings and retreats in the UK and Italy.
Telephone: 0208 318 9466