Didjeridu — a low-tech remedy for sleep apnea
July 15, 2013
Twenty years ago, when Andrew "Andjru" Werderitsch made his first unsuccessful attempt to play a didjeridu, he couldn't have known it would change the course of his life.
"A friend made a makeshift didjeridu and a group of us were trying it out," he said. "I was the only guy who couldn't make the sound."
The didjeridu, also spelled " didgeridoo," is a native Australian wind instrument, originally made from a long, hollow piece of wood. Known for its deep sound — a low drone — the didjeridu, or "drone pipe," is now popular around the globe.
After his unsuccessful attempt at the didjeridu with friends, Werderitsch took an evening walk on Venice Beach, where he happened upon a cardboard tube in the sand. After modifying it with a Swiss Army knife, he raised it up to his lips and blew. After a few attempts, he was able to create a deep, resonating sound.
"I dialed in the sound — there was a rich sonic quality that felt good to my body," Werderitsch said. "That night, I felt like something in my genetic memory had been triggered."
Today, Werderitsch, now a Nevada City resident, can look back at two rewarding decades of teaching the didjeridu to people of all ages. After making and selling the instrument — as well as teaching and performing at countless summer camps, school assemblies and music festivals — Werderitsch has moved into a new realm: health.
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According to a Swiss study published in the British Medical Journal — owned by the British Medical Association — playing of the didjeridu can improve or cure moderate symptoms associated with a sleep disorder known as Obstructive Sleep Apnea, or OSA. A person with OSA repeatedly stops breathing while sleeping with some sufferers known to have as many as 300 "apnea episodes" in one night.
Apnea happens when muscles in the back of the throat collapse and get temporarily stuck together, causing a blockage of the airway. Mild apnea sufferers often report daytime fatigue. According to the National Sleep Foundation, more serious cases have been associated with high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
The most common treatment for OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure machine, which is a small device attached to a small mask that runs quietly all night. But now there is evidence that the low-tech didjeridu can help strengthen throat muscles in the upper airway.
But it's not just the exercising of the throat muscles by blowing into the tube, said Werderitsch. The vibration of the low drone also massages the exact muscles that collapse during sleep apnea. In addition, the technique of circular breathing — which entails breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth simultaneously — also serves to strengthen muscles.
The practice is easier than it sounds, Werderitsch insists.
Working with area health care providers, Werderitsch — who once won a didjeridu contest in Cairns, Australia — now offers four-week classes specifically designed for those with sleep apnea. He says students from his most recent workshop at Haalo in Nevada City are already feeling the benefits.
"The didjeridu is a very non-demanding instrument to play," said Werderitsch. "You don't have to be musical — it's an instrument for everyone.
"Just don't judge yourself too harshly when you first give it a try."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.