Can an ancient musical instrument created by the Aboriginal people of Australia help ease stress, sleep disorders, and respiratory problems?
You may have heard the exotic sounds of the didgeridoo on movie soundtracks and in world music performances. Essentially, the didgeridoo is a young eucalyptus tree that has been hollowed out by termites and then harvested, finished, and painted by humans. It has been used for thousands of years by Aboriginal people of Australia as part of their culture.
Musicians and tourists alike have been captivated by the didgeridoo and find its tones to be both exotic and relaxing. Primarily a percussion instrument producing various sounds and rhythms, the didgeridoo requires a long out-breath with a very brief in-breath. This breath work proportion stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a relaxation response.
So, how can the didgeridoo contribute to your health? “Didgeridoo for Health” is a complementary health practice emerging in the United States and Europe. The practice does not demand musical talent because there is only one basic tone for the instrument, called a “drone.” Once an individual becomes proficient in the deep and relaxing drone sound, they acquire important lessons in breath control and self-relaxation. (Inexpensive plastic versions of the didgeridoo are available, and the principle is the same.)
After mastering the drone, the next step in “Didgeridoo for Health” is to develop “circular breathing.” Circular breathing requires that the individual playing the didgeridoo gradually learn to control the tissues at the back of the throat that close and open the airway so that the breath can be directed into the nose while still being expelled by the mouth. This may sound complicated—like a stunt demonstrated on late night television—but it is actually akin to yogic and other breath work practices that have been used for stress-reduction and meditation for thousands of years. Though still an emerging practice, didgeridoo playing appears to be producing health-conscious results.
An example of one such result is in regards to the use of didgeridoo as a complementary treatment for sleep disorders, as investigated in a 2005 study at the University Hospital of Zurich, published in the British Medical Journal.1 The study concluded that training sleep disorder patients to play the didgeridoo “reduced daytime sleepiness and snoring in people with moderate obstructive sleep apnea and also improves the sleep quality of [their] partners.” In addition, “severity of disease, expressed by the apnoea-hypopnoea index, is also substantially reduced after four months of didgeridoo playing.”
Research on the health benefits of didgeridoo is still in its early stages. As with other complementary health modalities, there are major pharmaceutical and medical device industries that already provide medical treatments for respiratory, sleep disorder, stress, and anxiety problems. Because there are important benefits in the current medical treatments that must not be dismissed, modalities such as didgeridoo playing should be considered a framework to complement, rather than replace, what modern medicine has to offer.
There are also reasons, however, to step back from our high-tech world and focus on the botanical, climactic, and cultural resources that abound on this planet, while still utilizing the tools of science to help determine the safety and efficacy of complementary and alternative medicine modalities. We cannot afford to dismiss cultural practices that have helped people for centuries merely because the power supply is human breath and muscle rather than electricity. And besides, playing the didgeridoo is fun. In cases of sleep disorder and stress management, where motivation is a primary concern, the warm, creative tones of the didgeridoo may be just what the doctor ordered.
Sources for Didgeridoo Information and Products:
Earon Davis, JD, MPH, LCMT
Earon Davis is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences. He teaches Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences program. Mr. Davis is also pioneering "Didgeridoo for Health" classes in the Chicago area. In addition to having a background in environmental health law, public health, and writing, Earon is currently an integrative bodyworker and licensed massage therapist at a major hospital system in the Chicago suburbs.