Interview with Alexandra from Rhythm Bliss: the healing powers of drumming

I (Tanja) had the pleasure of interviewing my (and Jelger’s) drum teacher Alexandra. To say it’s only about drumming would be an understatement! Alexandra is an incredible teacher who takes drumming to a whole new dimension. But instead of writing this introduction, I’ll share the beautiful video on the Rhythm Bliss website about Alexandra and her background. Check it out before diving into our interview!

Alexandra Jai’s Story – A Heart Healed by Rhythm | Rhythm Bliss –

On your website you recommend the healing power of hand drumming for optimal health. Is it about vibrations or is it about the meditation, or both? Do you want to share something about that?

Rhythm is healing, and it’s a big topic for me. There are two aspects to drumming. One is performance playing: being a somebody who has skill and has worked very hard to learn material and then go out and perform it. And then there is the reason why I do it, which is the healing. I have now in my life moved into that one hundred percent.

I love the learning of more complex patterns and the performance, but I have delved into research and learning more about how to receive the most benefit and healing from hand drumming. And there are a few aspects that make that [healing drumming] different than performance.

1. Connecting to a repetitive pulse

The first one is the connecting to a repetitive pulse with our brains. Basically our brainwaves function at different frequencies: the higher the brain wave pattern, the more stress we are experiencing. A fight or flight brain frequency is very fast with many beats per second.

We don’t need to play complex rhythms in order to receive the benefit of hand drumming; we just need to connect to a pulse.

And when we play certain beats, we naturally slow down the brain wave frequency and we train to the slower frequency. We experience a sense of calming. This is called connecting to a beat, to a pulse. Just a simple pulse. No complex pattern, nothing like that. So step one is understanding that we don’t need to play complex rhythms in order to receive the benefit of hand drumming; we just need to connect to a pulse.

2. A safe environment, where you’re allowed to make mistakes

Step two: when we’re drumming for healing, we want to make sure that we’re in a really comfortable environment [so] that we feel safe to make mistakes, and to try different things. At Rhythm Bliss studio we focus on the process of drumming and enjoying the experience, without any expectation. It’s all about the process and not at all about a goal of getting somewhere.

Alexandra with her hubby and son.
3. Drumming with intention and using healing patterns

The different patterns that we play, some of the rhythms have been used for centuries for healing. If we’re able to find that pattern and feel comfortable playing it, we can receive the the ancient healing powers that are being used playing those rhythms for centuries.

At the studio I “watered down” many rhythms to be able to access the healing without the frustration, because we don’t come from a rhythm culture. We need to play a little differently in order to access the benefit, because if we’re trying to play the rhythm the way that it’s been played in a rhythm culture, we may get frustrated because it’s too complicated. The most important thing is always to connect to the beat. How we’re going to play and what we’re going to play is less important.

That’s why I offer different rhythm levels, to teach those rhythms in a way that is accessible based on the different people that are in the group. I may change a rhythm in order to fit the needs of that particular group. And that’s taken me years. 30 years of teaching and learning to really understand how I can sift out the stuff that isn’t that important and focus on the stuff that is.

4. Connecting with the body and the breath

The next part, which is perhaps different than what you might see in a rhythm class or a drum circle, is that we connect with our body and our breath. Those are two other elements that I tie into the practice, based on my experience as a yoga teacher and as a meditation teacher. I feel that we can access our state of mind and well-being through connecting with our bodies. How is our posture when we’re drumming? We might not even notice that we’re clenching, that we’re stressing our bodies out and that we’re not in alignment. By changing the positioning of our body, we can change the hormones and the way we feel.

A regular drumming class might talk about position, but they won’t talk about the neck position or where the shoulders are; how we can position our elbows so that we can open through the heart. Or how we can sit evenly on our sitting bones so that when we’re playing, we’re playing evenly and are feeling a sense of balance and symmetry. Usually they’ll just say “oh play even strokes.” I really like to bring that sense of kinaesthetic awareness.

And then there’s the breath.

The breath is is one of the tools that is used in yoga to connect the mind with the body and also to connect with the more subtle aspects of our being.

It’s very important to breathe and some people come to class who are having perhaps a time of grief, or a time of great transition. For these people I’ll say: “just come find a very simple pulse”. Be really gentle and breathe and that’s it. And they’ll leave with a sense of calm. We each have to be where we’re at and the studio accepts everyone.

Your way of teaching is so different in comparison to the “classical way” where people only play of a sheet of music and follow everything to a T. It sort of takes the emotion out of it.

Yes. I think we need more embodiment learning and less intellectual learning. I would say that the next wave of our evolution is that we move out of simple mind-intellectualizing. We need to connect the mind with the body, with source connection that we have with Mother Earth, [with] that we have a spirit. The whole thing needs to gel.

When we’re just thinking and intellectualizing, I think we actually can create more neuroses. Because it’s not grounded.

It’s a big part of our society to always have the emphasis on anything brain related. We value the mind. But we haven’t seen the body as wise just yet.

And we’re starting to trust that a little bit more. This is a more feminine quality. Trusting in the fact that we are connected to a wisdom that is inherent and within us.

It’s what makes the acorn become a tree. It’s what makes the sperm and egg become a human. There’s an intelligence that’s much greater than what we’re capable of understanding right now.

This ties in with another question I have: I used to be someone who was not very spiritual. Right now I am, but sometimes refer to myself as “a closet hippie”. I noticed how amazed I am that you can speak so freely about these topics. Have you noticed students being a bit skeptic about spirituality or do you feel like you attract people when they’re in the right place in their life to accept more words about that.

When I teach a drum class, I tell myself beforehand to get out of the way. Let it happen. I have enough tools. I’ve learned enough, I’ve done enough studying. Now my job is to let go of all that and let the rhythm take me. And so what comes out is never something I’ve thought about. It is what needs to come out at that time.

And then when I have to reiterate what we did, what we talked about, how it flowed, or why did I do it, then I go back into the thinking. When I’m really present and I get into the rhythm, I’m out of the way. I’m no longer in my head. It’s like I become a vessel and the words just come out. I have to just trust that what needs to come through me is going to come through me. It’s not about me. And in that way I guess I’m spiritual because I trust in that. The more I do that, the more it seems that what comes out seems to be the right thing. I’m moving out of the way and being there to serve the community in the best way that I can.

Which is really letting go of my ego. I have to just be open to be there. And I really trust in the pulse. I trust in rhythm because it’s transformed me. It’s allowed me to be well, to birth my children, to raise my children, to stay in a relationship, and to continue to work within community. I would be very isolated, alone, fearful and depressed if I didn’t have drumming community in my life. So I trusted.

When speaking about skeptics, I can see how someone may have this idea of how it’s going to be, and then maybe they’re a little startled. I also do corporate team building, for f.e. accountants, lawyers, massage therapists etc. The language that I use with the corporate team building community is very different. But the moment I start, I say: “breathe more deeply”. There’s the rhythm slowing. Breath is a rhythm.

“Breathe and move your shoulders up at the same time you inhale. Bring the shoulders down and exhale.” Naturally people start unwinding. I don’t have to explain it and don’t have to use language around it. I might just do process-oriented drumming and count numbers one, two, three, four. We don’t have to say mantra, we can say count.

So I don’t do anything and at the end everybody has a really good time, feels a connection and everybody has experienced a spiritual connection with each other. Whether you call that spiritual or a group connection, there’s something in the cohesion that feels great. And I’m not there to say whether that’s a god, or whether that’s love, or whether to call that group-cohesion, or celebrating diversity, or the team. Who knows. However people want [to] interpret that, is different, so I don’t have one idea about spirituality.

The less I know, the more I connect. And the more I try to explain what is spirit, the less I understand that I feel the space between the notes. Can you be present with the space between the notes, so that every note that you play is connected with each other? It’s almost like becoming a child again and allowing myself to surrender to not-knowing.

The more I try to know, the more I’m in my ego, the more I get away from being present. It’s a hard one, isn’t it? Surrendering is a feminine quality. Because women do have to surrender: with birth you surrender. Surrendering is a quality of not-knowing, of becoming open to allow spirit to enter and come through you instead of “I need to control you”. We need to meet this more masculine power (which is not a bad thing) with a feminine quality of surrendering and then we come into our higher essence of being.

Power is not a bad thing. But we need to meet it with surrendering and then we have community. I don’t want to negate the masculine, because masculine is incredibly important. We have to work through the grit. In fact I would say it takes the masculine quality to work with the ego to be able to say “I’m going to get up and I’m gonna do this”.

We all have within us these two qualities.

I heard you say something that really stuck with me: “everyone is a drummer and the first sound we hear is the sound of our mother’s drumming heartbeat.”

Yes, before we were even born we had connected to a pulse. And that pulse comforts us once we’re born. Intuitively a mother will hold her child and begin to bounce or pat the child in rhythm, in a repetitive pulse that soothes the child. We know this. This is a connection between us and it’s not something we learn. Just like a flock of birds know how to fly together, we know how to connect in rhythm without having to learn this.

My job as a teacher and as a facilitator is to help people remember something that they already have within them. So I’m not a teacher, I’m basically helping them remember who they are and what they already have. The heartbeat is something that connects us all on this planet. It is the one thing that unites us.

The heartbeat is something that connects us all on this planet. It is the one thing that unites us.

A Navajo Elder has been said to say that the the drum is the great Spirit’s favourite instrument. That’s why we were all created with a beating heart. And throughout the shamanic traditions the drum or rattles are used to bring people into a calmer state. It’s also a more active bridge between the material world and more subtle aspects of the spiritual world. The rhythm is a very powerful force.

Alexandra, you mentioned before that you also teach yoga. Can you share more about the connection between yoga and drumming?

The word yoga means to yoke or to unite. In yoga the philosophy is that we don’t just have one body, but we’re made up of many many different bodies. And the key to our practice is that we unite the different bodies. The physical body is the least subtle body. There’s also the breath body and the mental body, which has many different aspects. There’s the positive mind, the negative mind, and the neutral mind.

The idea when we unite the bodies is that we experience enlightenment or bliss. In drumming, with the way that I like to teach, I speak to a method of uniting the breath, the beat and the body, very much like we would unite the bodies in yoga. The only difference is that I’ve included rhythm as a separate aspect of our being. It’s an even more subtle one. And some would say that the mantra is a vibration, and a vibration is a rhythmical frequency. So the beat or a mantra is an aspect of who we are.

In fact we’re like a battery and we are constantly at our essence vibrating at certain frequencies in our rhythm. What rhythm and momentum we are currently residing in is very important.

So when I think of our drum class I almost think of it as “we’re going to recharge the battery”. We’re going to decide for ourselves what frequency we want to vibrate [at], so that we can receive the most, receive life force and love force energy versus fear-based energy.

I use the beat, the body and the breath to connect to life force energy. And in yoga, you use the subtle bodies and connect them to receive enlightenment. In both there’s a sense of being present in the moment. And there’s nothing like being in a groove to keep you in the moment. The rhythm mantra is a dummy’s meditation because when you’ve lost it, you’ve lost the groove. So being right in the rhythm and being present with it allows you to be right in the moment.

That makes a lot of sense to me! I’m someone who’s bad at meditating when just “sitting still”. But when I’m here in your class it’s impossible not to be just present in the moment.

That’s called a rhythm and movement meditator and we haven’t really talked about this enough in our culture. There’s this whole movement towards mindfulness and “what is mindfulness”. We want to quiet the mind, because we’re living at a very anxious frequency. And people are feeling that that’s ok, but I don’t think it is. People are on all kinds of medications to try to reduce anxiety and depression.

So our norm is not a very healthy norm. There’s something wrong. And when we talk about “oh sit and watch your thoughts and follow your breath”, [while] you’re in a frequency that is that high brain wave frequency (that altered the brainwave state): how can you sit in stillness? We first need to slow down the brain and then sit.

I would say that most of us are like you, and we can use a rhythm. This is what the shamans have been doing forever. We use a rhythm to first calm the mind. Then if you want to sit in stillness meditation and feel the thoughts and the breath, you can. But generally to just sit down and go okay now I’m going to watch my breath and follow my thoughts, that’s just going to create more anxiety. It’s almost like turning a flashlight on and pointing at the anxiety and the fear. So first we calm. Fifteen minutes of breathing and playing a simple pulse and you’ll notice that you will be able to sit.

Studies have been done on this: even a person who has never meditated that connects to a pulse for 15 minutes, can find meditative state equal to a Buddhist monk who’s been meditative for 30 years.

I had no idea that these things had been studied!

It’s because nobody makes money playing a drum. Bang two sticks together, or take some shells and shake them and you get the same benefit as you do from some of the pharmaceuticals people are spending millions of dollars on.

I was walking in the forest and my seven year old nephew put these two sticks together and started playing a pulse. He just found two sticks in the middle of the bush, nobody told him to do so. And then I took two rocks which were like the metal sound and then somebody started vocalizing and then all of a sudden we were singing and when we finished our walk, we felt high. We were making music out of earth elements. It was just joy, nature, and connection.

And here we are in the cities with the news broadcasting in our face 24/7 and the fear-based everything. Music is often tones that don’t really “go with us”, that don’t that create a frequency, but just spastic notes. What we listen to makes a difference. The music we hear, the mantras we listen to are important. A mantra can be what you’re repeating in your head: “I’m [a] shitty person, I’m not good at this, I’m scared.” These are the mantras that we’re seeing every day, all the time.

So how are we going to break that cycle? It takes a very powerful frequency and so to me the drum is like a sword that cuts through the subconscious brain and just gets us into an experience that can knock out the crazy ways of this world, so that we can connect to the universe which is actually incredibly wise.

You mentioned your nephew. As a kid you don’t have all these inhibitions that you later on learn by society. As an adult, there’s so much shame. When I hear rhythm somewhere and I feel like dancing or moving, I wouldn’t do it in public because I fear judgment. It’s constantly suppressing these feelings that you still have.

Absolutely. When I do corporate team building I ask people to shake their body, just like an animal shakes when it has tension. We’re animals [too] and shaking it [tension] off is so good. If I can get people to drum for a while first, and then we shake and have already gotten into relax [mode], they’re starting to open up. What can come is incredible healing just to move the energy out. But if I just start and say “ok, everybody let’s just start shaking”, people just think I’m crazy.

To go and just dance in our culture is not very acceptable. In [a] rhythm culture it’s much more acceptable, like where I come from in South America. If there’s a street performer people are dancing and moving. People are also much more affectionate, f.e. public displays of affection are accepted, whereas here we’re much more repressed, much more not free. Our bodies are seen as almost sinful.

I feel that the body is sacred and we need to move into that and really respecting our bodies is part of respecting Mother Earth.

Life is incredible. I think that this community we’re creating at Rhythm Blues studios and what I’m wanting to create online is more of that wisdom to come through and connection, so that we can feel our strength in our collaboration versus fear that somebody is going to hurt us. Rhythm Bliss is about creating a connection, showing our feelings, our similarity, so that we can trust that we can hold each other.

There used to be a time where the yogis would go off to the Himalayas and meditate and live their life away from other people to try to find enlightenment. The householder yogi is doing that within community, within raising children, within having to manage work and business.

And so for me mindfulness is not a “I need to leave to go meditate so that I can be grounded”. I learned my every moment can be mindful. I can be sitting in a conversation in a business meeting, be shopping and at the same time while I’m doing that I can bring a sense of presence to what I am doing, a sense of connection to the moment.

Awareness of my body and my breath while I’m doing what I’m doing. And I think this is the new evolution, that we can be the householder yogi. And it’s the hardest practice: to be connected to your family and stay present and stay mindful and not lose your shit is really hard.

So this is everyday for me and I have a lot that I do in order to stay grounded and a big piece of it is drumming in community. So I teach drum to 7 groups a week and every time that I drum, I’m meditating. Like I mentioned before: I get out of the way, get the ego out of the way, be present, be here to serve my by students. I also have my yoga practice that I do regularly and my own drumming practice.

Every day, I take cold showers. I go pretty regularly in the ocean, even in cold temperatures, to knock out the ego, move into love and remember who I am. Because if I don’t do anything, my natural state is fear-based thinking. So I need to actively work every day to to keep my mind open to a love-based thought system.

Everybody has to find their own spiritual teachers.

There are many [spiritual teachers] that I like through Oprah Winfrey’s Soul series. People can explore that and find something that works for them. It doesn’t matter. I think we’ve moved into a time to where it doesn’t matter what spiritual practice you have. It’s whatever system is going to help you move into a love-based thought system, so that you can live with health, because we know that connection leads to health.

Fear leads to anxiety, depression and destruction. So even if we just simplify it [to] “are you in a fear-based thought system or are you living your life from a love-based thought system?” And you can think of that, every moment, every breath: “where am I residing”, “what am I”, “how am I present”, “what am I downloading from the universe right now?”

It all starts with awareness, right? Even the concept of fear-based living is so much the norm, it makes a difference to talk about it because a lot of people have absolutely no clue.

There is a lot of work to be done and we can’t take it all on. We just need to find one thing that we can do to be a contributor to helping. I think in every moment we can ask ourselves: “am I contributing to the problem?”, “am I helping the problem or am I just sitting doing nothing, and whining and complaining about the problem?”

And every morning I can say “ok, if I’m just whining about the problem because I feel like it’s too much, I’m not helping anybody, just sitting there feeling terrible.” So just saying “ok, I can do something, I can go outside, and I can walk the street and I can smile at someone and I can have eye contact with somebody” [is enough]. It is that simple. You know, I can give somebody a compliment. Contribute to making the world a better place by just giving a positive vibration.

And when we come to drum class, I get so much benefit because I know that people come from their jobs and they’re stressed out or they’re coming in with all kinds of different ailments. It could be physical or emotional. And if they can have a little bit of a softening, a little bit of space, a little bit of experiencing joy, then they give that. We’re all affecting each other.

Thank you so much Alexandra for this incredible interview! If you want to try drumming for yourself, check out more info here:

Website: https://rhythmbliss.com/ with info on both online classes (yay for worldwide access and you don’t even need a drum!) and in-person courses.

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