Beauty of the Drum Circle, by Lyle Povah

Unusual? Unique? Perhaps… and you would be forgiven if you’ve never heard of using a Drum Circle as a health care intervention with eating disorder patients.

In this post, I’ll briefly describe what a Drum Circle in a health care setting might look like. Then, drawing from a few of the most common patient comments collected over 5 years at a Drum Circle Program at St. Paul’s Hospital In-Patient Eating Disorders Unit, we’ll look at the potential benefits for participants.

*** A Drum Circle, in general, welcomes all, requires no musical skills, finds us seated in a circle, drum ‘in hand’. Through drumming, songs, games, body percussion, and simple movements, we learn about rhythm, and the healing power of the drum. Some of the main intentions are to bring people together and to build community. In health care centres, and specifically for eating disorder patients, the overriding intention is personal empowerment. Any of the powerful effects possible within the experience are intended to boost health and aid the recovery process. The focus turns to expressiveness, relaxation, having fun, connecting with oneself and others, just a few of the things that can be lost through an addiction like an eating disorder, and all of which can be experienced in the Drum Circle environment.

*** “Playing the drum was like a way to speak words that I was holding back.” Self expression to set boundaries, or to take care of one’s needs can be challenging for people dealing with an eating disorder. The drum circle process can boost one’s confidence in order to speak up for oneself (indeed, one of the drums played in the African tradition is the “talking drum”). I think all of us can relate to holding back on what we want to say, as well as the freedom we feel when we speak our truth. Patients are offered the opportunity to express through the drum any issue they’ve been reluctant to address. The drum circle, as a expressive art, can provide a container within which one can let go of all the sticky emotions and insecurities that can be attached to the perceived riskiness of speaking out.

“I didn’t think of my eating disorder for the whole hour!” A quieting of the incessant thoughts concerning food and body image can be a welcome relief to patients. “Meditative” is also a common descriptor. As a musician and yoga teacher, I am interested in how we can still our unruly minds in these meditation-like states. The sound of the drums tends to relax us into a more trance-like state, less cerebral and more heart centred. A relaxed but energized state has a profoundly positive effect on our health. Many of us are challenged to turn off the continual chatter of the mind. When the mind is continually at work, the intuition isn’t able to guide us to the whisperings of our soul.

“I used to play my bass guitar and it reminded me how much I missed it.” – can provide a reminder of a healthier life before the eating disorder.

“Connected me to something else rather than always being solitary.” – can decrease social isolation.

“Allowed me to reconnect with my love of music.” “It gives me ideas for how to occupy my time out of the hospital.” – can encourage reconnection with healthy, creative activities to shift the focus away from the eating disorder.

“I was absolutely free from the eating disorder for a whole hour.” – can allow patients to imagine a life recovered from an eating disorder.

I am honoured to work (and play) with the creative and intelligent people who, in this stage of their life, deal with an eating disorder. The Dalai Lama said that “The world will be saved by the western woman”, leading the change to a more kind and compassionate world. We see it happening everywhere. It is my wish that all woman and men who have an eating disorder find their own version of health so as to make their own unique contribution to a better world.

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