Yoga And Drumming: The Quest For Prana

Hand Drums and Yoga Props

There is a synergy between yoga and drumming that is both beautiful… and cautionary…

Last Thursday I went to hang out with my friend Ailon Freedman from Lotus Exchange in Queens Park. He was running a drum circle for people who want to learn African drumming – and specifically, how to play the djembe. The experience was a great release because I spent a lot of years as a professional drummer but I don’t get the chance to play ‘just for fun’ very often.

I was reminded of the incredible power of drumming and also how rhythm is a part of you that you can use to your advantage. I was also reminded of the power of drumming to increase the Vital Energy of the body…

Yoga and Drumming: Conflict Or Synergy? 

First, I love drumming. I think it is awesome and I believe everyone – yes, that means YOU – should do some drumming.

As a matter of fact… over 25 years ago…  when I started practicing asana (hatha yoga postures) my intent was to learn yoga to help my drumming. The bassist in the band gave me my first yoga book… he needed me to be calm and centered on the bandstand. That little book became my companion for 8 years of regular practice. Little did I know how much my yoga practice would evolve and how the relationship between yoga and drumming would take on new layers of meaning.

 Drumming Reduces Stress

Like yoga, recent studies involving participants in group drumming show that the activity helps to reduce stress and boost the immune system. This article on Web MD, Beating Stress – On The Drums, is just one example of the growing body of literature based on scientific study that supports the use of drumming to beat stress.

“[…]blood measurements on more than 50 subjects before and after group drumming showed a significant increase in chemicals related to immunity and to decreasing stress.”  ~Barry Bittman, MD – excerpt from Beating Stress – On The Drums

The great thing about drumming is that, like yoga, you don’t have to be a master to experience the benefits. As a matter of fact, it might be even more beneficial if you are not taking it too seriously. If, like me, you become a professional drummer… well, let’s just say that at times that can be quite stressful!

It’s a well established fact that the various techniques of yoga, practiced correctly, are also stress reducing and immune system boosting.

So you would think that drumming and yoga go hand in hand and are a great match – since both activities can have these positive effects on the body and mind. In general I would agree with that observation. I also believe from personal experience that yoga is a a discipline that will show benefits in most areas of life. But yoga and drumming can both be very powerful stimulants of the vital ‘life force’ energy called prana or chi – and without proper understanding of how to contain that energy both activities could even leave you feeling more out of balance than when you started.

Rhythm and Trance

As Ailon led the Queens Park Drum Circle I found myself being lulled into a trance-like state. For me it not only felt natural but very comfortable and familiar – almost like returning home after a long journey abroad. As I became aware how the rhythm was affecting me I looked around at the other drummers. Interestingly, several of them had their eyes closed and gentle smiles on their faces. They, too, had been lulled into what I like to call the Rhythm Trance.

Even for inexperienced drummers this state is fairly common. Rhythm, after all, is a huge part of our lives. Every time I hear someone say “I don’t have any rhythm,” I laugh and point out to them that their entire life is built around rhythm. From movement to speech, from sleep patterns to work patterns… it’s all just one big interweaving set of rhythms. Putting that into practice on a hand drum is more about belief than whether it exists. If your heart is beating… you have rhythm.

If your Heart is beating… you have rhythm.

Personally, I love this trance-like state. I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve continued to drum for 35 years…

Through concentration, called dharana in yoga, the mind becomes much more focused. I won’t say it becomes still because I sense this is a mis-interpretation of what actually happens when you enter a meditative state. Studies show that when the mind becomes more focused that the brainwaves move to a higher/faster state, first to high Beta and then into the Gamma state – and not, as is usually explained, to a lower Alpha state. The Alpha state does bring on a feeling of relaxation but not the meditative state [N.B this is my opinion based on 35 years of experience in both meditation and drumming and several years of research and study].

The meditative state is one of high-focus, high-concentration and ultra-high brainwave activity. That is the state of consciousness called dhyana in yoga. Drumming is one means of achieving this, although it does take practice.

 Cautions When Drumming – From A Yogic Perspective 

After all that… why would I possibly caution anyone regarding drumming? It’s cool, right? Let’s all get funky down by the beach with a bright fire burning and adult beverages and/or ganja flowing freely…

I suppose that is a good example of my  point. Drumming can be extremely Vital, Primal and Intoxicating. Perhaps not such a bad thing but perhaps not such a good thing either. It really depends a lot on you:

Are you well grounded? Are you balanced? Are you able to control that increased flow of Vital Energy so that it doesn’t increase aggressiveness or the urge to fight?

These are all valid questions for your asana practice as well. Many people go to class, learn some sequence created for a teenage boy, and then assume that it is “the sequence” they should be practicing for the rest of their lives. Asana practice is much more effective if you use it to bring you closer to a state of balance – physiologically, mentally and spiritually. That means developing discernment and facing your ego head-on so that you don’t become attached to the sequence or a particular pose.

I would argue that drumming is the same in many respects. A sense of awareness and discernment along with some serious self-study, called svadhyaya in yoga, goes a long way toward understanding how to effectively use drumming as a means of progress. Of course, with proper focus and intention the tendency to be overcome by lower Vital Energy can be controlled. It takes awareness and practice.

At the same time, some people are so far out there that they NEED the sense of grounding that can come from a group drumming session, especially if they focus on the bass drums – the root of the rhythmic interplay.

What, exactly, are the cautions then? My experience is that you simply need to be aware of yourself and your tendencies, both physically and psychologically, and then observe how the drumming is affecting you. Based on this observation it is easy to alter your focus in order to make the most of the experience:

If you tend to be extremely Vata – focus on the bass drum rhythms. If you are too Kapha – focus more on the moving rhythms or even the lead drummer’s call. If you are very Pitta – observe as if you are outside of the performance.

If you are functioning more on the Mental, Vital or Psychic planes you might look at it this way:

If you are overly Mental – bow your head slightly and feel the rhythm flowing through you. If you are overbalanced toward the Vital – open your eyes and focus on the interplay of the different rhythms, the intricacy of the rhythmic counterpoint. If you are  completely in touch with the Psychic but it tends to take you “out of yourself” – thereby making every day life a challenge, then try focusing on the feeling in your hands, arms and shoulders as you settle into the groove.

Of course, these are all oversimplifications – the experience is both more complex and more basic than described. Only through experience will this become clear. Your intention could be simply to have fun and blow off the stress of your day… or it could be to achieve Samadhi, with drumming being one of your methods. Just like the rest of yoga… your reason determines your method.

We’ll come back to yoga and drumming in the near future… in the meantime… have a great day.

For more on Corporate Yoga and Drumming contact Ailon at The Lotus Exchange. Also, check out his other website offering even more cool drumming events: JooDoo Drums

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