The History of Poi
Poi is both the name of the object (a weight on the end of a flexible cord) and what you do with that object (spin it in circles around your body). It is believed that poi originally came from the Māori of New Zealand. Today, poi continues to play an important role in Māoridom and across the globe as a form of performance, play, and fitness.
Why Do Māori Use Poi?
Though there is little information about poi in New Zealand prior to European arrival, it is generally believed that poi was used by Māori men to train strength and flexibility, and by Māori women as a form of entertainment. According to Māori researcher Dr. Karyn Paringatai, poi was originally part of the “dance” section of the whare täpere, meaning the “house of entertainment” (Paringatai, 2009).
One early account of poi by Edmund Halswell, the Protector of Aborigines and Commissioner for the Management of the Native Reserve, reads: “…they make, however, baskets in colours, and toys of various sorts, such as balls very neatly made of black and white plait, which are swung by a cord in a peculiar manner, whilst the performers, many in number, sing in excellent time. Most of the women excel in this, and the exact time, the regular motion, and precise attitude which is observed by all the performers, are peculiarly striking.” Another account by Lietenant-Colonel St John in 1830 reads: “One pretty haka they have, in which each performer holds a ball with a short piece of string attached, and the different motions given to it with great rapidity and in perfect time form a pleasing accompaniment to the monotonous dreary sing-song recital. At times the voice seems to proceed from the heel, it is so deep.”
During the wars waged against Māori in the 1860’s, Te Whiti and Tohu, two Māori leaders committed to resisting the European land invasion through non-violence, utilized poi as a religious and spiritual messenger. After the wars, poi took on the role of attracting tourists and became a staple item in kapa haka (Māori performing arts). Poi continues to play a prominent role in Māoridom today.
Know Your Kupu
Learning the kupu (words) for the parts of the poi in te reo Māori (the Māori language) is a great way to preserve and celebrate the history of poi. Three parts you can practice saying are “pōro” (the poi ball or the head of the poi), “taura” (cord), and “hukahuka” (tassel). If you need help pronouncing these words head over to the Māori Dictionary and type the word into the search bar to bring up an audio recording.
What Are Poi Made Of?
Early poi were made by wrapping the leaves of harakeke (a type of New Zealand flax) around the soft down of raupō (a wetland plant also known as bullrush) to form the ball. Harakeke fibre was used to weave the cord. Today, poi come in many different shapes and sizes, are made of many different kinds of materials including wool, cotton, and plastic.
The Health Benefits of Poi
A clinical trial conducted at the University of Auckland on poi and older adults proved benefits in grip strength, balance, and attention after just one month of poi practice. These are exciting results, especially when thinking about maintaining quality of life as we age. Additional research has been conducted in aged care facilities across New Zealand, and there has also been early research on poi and Parkinson’s. You can learn more about the clinical trial or click here to read further articles on poi and health.
In addition to the scientific research, people across the globe are sharing their personal stories about the positive effects of poi, be it physically, mentally, emotionally, or anything in between. Check out our poi stories page to read personal accounts of the benefits of poi, or even share your own poi story.
Hauora is the Māori philosophy of health. Like a house, hauora has four sides or components: taha tinana (physical), taha hinengaro (mental/emotional), taha whanau (social) and taha wairua (spiritual). Each of these components influences and supports the others, and like a house, each component needs to be strong and stable in order to stand. As a precious Māori taonga (treasure), poi equally encompasses all sides of hauora and can be used as a tool to holistically improve wellbeing.
See It In Action
Learn about the history of poi and the health benefits of poi in this segment on The Project, TV3, which features Dr. Kate Riegle van West of SpinPoi and her work with poi and seniors.
Start Your Poi Journey With Our FREE Guide!
Whether you are looking for a new hobby, a way to get more exercise (that you’ll actually enjoy!), or would like to start teaching poi in your community, getting started with poi is super simple and so much fun. Download your FREE copy of our poi and wellbeing guide to get started.
Paringatai, Karyn Ailsa. Poia Mai Taku Poi: A History of Poi: a Critical Review of Written Literature on the Poi in New Zealand and the Pacific. VDM Publishing, 2009.