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Altered States

Musician to teach Memphians to meditate with the didgeridoo.



Australian Phil Jones has been working Eastern philosophy into his music for years. He spent seven years training under a Hindu master in Europe, and in the 1960s, he put together a band that merged Indian mantras with a Western rock format. But until he learned to play the didgeridoo, it took him nearly two hours to reach a deep meditative state. Now, it only takes him 90 seconds.

Jones will teach students at Midtown Yoga to play the ancient instrument on Thursday, April 29th, in a workshop titled "Discovering the Sacredness of Breath and Sound." He'll repeat the meditation workshop at the Unity Church of Memphis on Sunday, May 2nd.

Didgeridoos are carved from the branches of Australian eucalyptus trees by the country's aboriginal people. Traditionally, aborigines would go on a three- to four-week stint in the woods, known as "going bush," tapping limbs to find ones that have been hollowed out by white ants.

"When they find an appropriate branch, they'll cut it down and take it back to the village where the wood is treated and cleaned," Jones explains. "They place beeswax at one end to make it soft against the mouth, and then they paint artwork on it. The whole process can take three or four months."

The didgeridoo produces a low, continuous, single note that mimics the "om" mantra. The deep sound induces meditation more quickly than traditional mantras.

"You don't have to be a graduate of Julliard to play this thing," says Jones. "It's only one note. You put it to your mouth and you blow into it."

But Midtown Yoga owner Sarla Nickels says playing the didgeridoo is not quite that simple. "The last time I tried to play one, I blew into it and absolutely nothing happened."

Like yoga, playing the didgeridoo requires a certain type of patterned breathwork. The sound of the didgeridoo should be a hum uninterrupted by the player breathing in air. By learning circular breathing -- breathing out through the mouth and in through the nose -- a didgeridoo musician can keep the drone steadily moving out of the instrument.

The circular breathing technique sounds complicated because Western minds focus too much on how the chest, diaphragm, and neck are moving, Jones explains.

"My teacher told me to stop thinking and just blow. When you disconnect from your mind, it really begins to play," says Jones. "When you're trying to think it through and force it, there's going to be a resistance from the instrument."

Jones says circular breathing may help lower blood pressure and enhance the body's ability to cleanse the blood. (Although he will have didgeridoos for sale at the workshop, students will be taught to use the technique with a balloon.) He says it's also an excellent way to prepare for meditation.

"As you relax the breathing, the mind begins to relax," he says. "It suddenly gives you the intense ability to concentrate and eliminate all that monkey chatter in the mind."

Jones first discovered the didgeridoo about 15 years ago on a visit home to Australia. He and his wife were living in New Mexico at the time, and they had planned a six-week trip. However, the six weeks turned into six years once Jones discovered the instrument. He sought out an aboriginal teacher, who told him to take the didge home and "blow spirit into it."

No stranger to music, Jones claims to be one of the forefathers of Australian blues. At age 16, he had a hit blues record at a time when the genre was virtually unheard of in the country. He later traveled to England and formed the band Quintessence, which fused rock, jazz, and Eastern modalities. They opened for Pink Floyd, the Who, and Ozzy Osborne in England but never played a show in the U.S.

Besides teaching the didgeridoo, Jones is currently playing raga-rock, a blend of Indian and American musical styles, with his band Shiva Shakti. The band includes several ex-members of Quintessence and records songs meant to transport listeners "from the depths of inner spirit to the outer reaches of blissful consciousness."

"Discovering the Sacredness of Breath and Sound" will be taught at Midtown Yoga (524 S. Cooper, 270-5373) on Thursday, April 29th, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. On May 2nd, Jones will teach the workshop at the Unity Church of Memphis (2570 Kirby Rd., 754-4241) from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

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