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). My guest today is the founder of SpinPoi and we’ll explore uses and health benefits.
In today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about SpinPoi. SpinPoi? What is it? Is it a food, or what? Let’s find out!
This podcast is about entrepreneurship, spirituality, and self-care. My name is Lourdes, and I am the host of this show. Thank you for listening today!
My guest today is Dr. Kate Riegle van West. Dr. Kate is a scientist, artist, and entrepreneur with a passion for play and well-being. She completed her PhD in the health benefits of poi at the University of Auckland, where she conducted the first study to scientifically investigate the effects of poi on physical and cognitive function. She was awarded the Future Leader Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Best Doctoral Thesis Award for her work in the poi/health field.
Lourdes: Dr. Kate, thank you so much for joining me on my podcast interview today! How are you?
Dr. Kate: I am so good, thank you so much for having me! How are you?
Lourdes: It’s good. It’s 5 PM here in Kansas, and I know you’re in New Zealand, right?
Dr. Kate: It’s true, I’m in the future!
Lourdes: [Laughs] Yes! So what time is it over there now?
Dr. Kate: It’s just about 10 AM on a Friday.
Lourdes: Oh, so nice. So your week is almost over. Okay so, one of the first questions I want to ask is what is poi? Because I’ve asked my husband, I’ve asked a few people, a couple of people said “Oh, it’s a Hawaiian food!” And other people are like “I have no idea, how do you spell it?” So, what is poi?
Dr. Kate: Well, they’re not wrong. It is also a Hawaiian food. The kind of poi that I’m working with comes from the Maori people of New Zealand, the indigenous people here in New Zealand, and it’s actually just a ball on a cord. That’s all it is, and you spin it in circles around your body and make different patterns. It has a history of being a form of entertainment, a game, and a dance, and the oral history passed down says it was a way for warriors to train their dexterity and their hand and arm strength before going into battle.
Lourdes: Okay, so that’s interesting. So it’s spelled P-O-I, does it stand for anything, or is it just the way they say it and spell it?
Dr. Kate: It’s not an acronym. It is the Maori word in the native language, te reo Maori. It’s the word for either “ball” or “ball on a cord” depending on the context.
Lourdes: So what made you get into poi?
Dr. Kate: I first saw poi when I was in the circus. So, I’m in New Zealand now, but I’m from the US, and I was in the circus there, and someone there was doing poi. So poi has traveled from New Zealand across the globe. We don’t really know how, but we see it popping up everywhere. And I just fell in love with it when I tried it. I didn’t know what it was, and someone just handed one to me at circus practice, I started spinning it in a circle, and I loved the way that it felt. There was something really entrancing about it.
Lourdes: Okay. You were in a circus?
Dr. Kate: Yes.
Lourdes: Wait, I did not know that! What were you doing in the circus? Were you a clown, or were you born into the business?
Dr. Kate: I was mainly doing stuff in the air, so trapeze, things like that. And no, I just happened to come from a town with a circus history. So the name of the town is actually Normal, of all things. So I was in a circus in Normal, Illinois, can’t make this stuff up, and I just really loved it because I was quite athletic, but I didn’t like competing. So the circus was a great home for me because I could do all my challenging physical stuff, but it was like everybody wins at the end of the day, because you’re there to perform and have a good time.
Lourdes: Huh, I grew up in Chicago, so I’m from Illinois. We just moved here, I know where Normal is, that’s down south, ain’t it?
Dr. Kate: Yeah, Bloomington-Normal, it’s a twin city. I lived in Chicago for a while, I did my Master’s degree there.
Lourdes: Okay cool, and I was living in Peoria before we came here. So you know where that is.
Dr. Kate: Oh no way, woah! Small world!
Lourdes: So, you get into this poi stuff and you’re amazed with this. When did you decide that you wanted to make a business out of it?
Dr. Kate: That was a long journey. The first thing that happened was I just started teaching people around me because I thought it was cool. One of the very first things that happened is that I was just doing it everywhere. I would just bring it with me, and if I got stressed out somewhere, or even if I was just going for a walk, I would get out my poi, do a few movements, and it just felt really nice. And people were asking me about it, and so I started teaching. And I was living in the Chicago at the time, I’d moved there at some point when I finished my undergraduate degree. And so I started teaching lessons, and people were feeding back to me all kinds of things, like “Oh I’m going through a divorce, and when I’m doing poi I find my mind is really clear and I’m not thinking about it.” Or “I’m sitting at a computer all day, and after I do poi I feel like my posture is better.”
So I was hearing all of this feedback at the time, and I was running a little space in Chicago where people could come take lessons and learn about other flow arts of poi. Outside of New Zealand, poi is part of something called flow arts, which is like hula-hooping, staff, and other objects that you manipulate and move around your body. So I was teaching people, and then eventually – I don’t know how long you want this story to be, I’ll cut to the chase. I did some stuff with poi in my Master’s degree, I was working with poi as a digital musical instrument. So I embedded accelerometers and gyroscopes inside the poi, and it was making sound and light patterns.
Lourdes: That’s cool.
Dr. Kate: Yeah, we can side quest to that if you want later. But eventually, I realized through these students that were coming to me and telling me about how they felt, and through my own journey with poi, because I actually tore my rotator cuff quite early on and poi really helped with that rehab along with mental health, I thought “This is obviously really good for you.” Even not knowing too much about it, just my own experience and others’ experiences. And so I was trying to bring it to places like hospitals and senior living centers, and everyone was like what is this, who are you, where’s the evidence to substantiate this as a therapeutic tool? And then it dawned on me that if I went and did some clinical trials and got some proper evidence to support poi as a therapeutic tool, I could actually open the door for it and so many places. Because it’s so simple and accessible and affordable, and I thought so many people could benefit from this, there’s just a paucity of research.
So I moved to New Zealand, I promise I’m getting to the business, I moved to New Zealand to do my PhD on the effects of poi on physical and cognitive function, which we can certainly talk about if you want, and the business started organically out of that PhD research. It was never something I intended to do, but as I was doing the research and getting the results, people were getting curious, wanting me to teach them, asking me if I knew someone where they lived who could come in and do poi, and it just grew and grew from there.
Lourdes: That’s so crazy! So, people would ask you to go to their house and show them how to do poi as a therapeutic thing?
Dr. Kate: It was more organizations, so senior care facilities, rehab organizations, community centers, things like that. People were getting in touch globally, which is what actually spawned the certification program that I have now so that people can train in how to work with poi as a therapeutic tool.
Lourdes: So are they doing that with PT, physical therapy stuff, here in the United States, you think?
Dr. Kate: Yeah, definitely. I have some instructors in the US who are doing awesome work, and it’s continuing to grow. And there’s people doing poi everywhere. There’s SEA communities getting together and practicing poi in the park. But working specifically with it as a therapeutic tool, people are probably potentially doing that on their own in the same way that I discovered it on my own, but I do also have a team that’s working globally on five continents actually.
Lourdes: So are there different hardness to the ball? I always think, will I hit myself? Would it hurt?
Dr. Kate: [Laughs] Yes and no.
Lourdes: Are there different lengths of what it’s attached to?
Dr. Kate: Yes, there’s many kinds of poi, in the same way that there’s many ways you can move with the poi. So, the traditional poi going back a couple hundred years, they were made of plant materials, natural materials. So we have some native plants in New Zealand, harakeke, which is like a flax plant, and raupo, which is a bulrush plant. Anyway, those were used to make poi. And eventually that evolved to more durable materials, and now today you see all kinds of poi, fire poi, glow poi, everything. But when you’re working with poi as a therapeutic tool, you definitely want the actual ball part to be very soft, because you would absolutely hit yourself, that’s part of it. But I’ve never had any injuries! And all my instructors use something very soft for the head. There’s a couple different ways you could make that, but the easiest one is to get a sock, like a knee-high sock, and put some rice in the end of it to give it a little bit of weight, and that’s it, you’re done! That’s your poi.
Lourdes: Interesting. And if I did that, what would I do? Would I do it as a fun thing, what would I do with it?
Dr. Kate: So I have all kinds of resources, depending on what you want to do with it. I have resources for kids all the way to older adults, people with dementia, Parkinson’s, etc. But you could try some easy first movements, like the figure 8, that’s a really fun first movement. And you can do that with one hand, two hands, there’s all kinds of different patterns and combinations you could do. Poi is pretty versatile; if you want to workout, it can be a workout. If you just want to chill, if you want to zone out, have it be more of a mindfulness practice, it can be that too.
Lourdes: How interesting, that is so diversified with uses! So, what is that material made of today?
Dr. Kate: People made them out of all kinds of things, so there’s not one universal – I guess in the same way that you can do a lot of things with it, you can make it a lot of different ways. There are different poi on the amrket, I just work with my instructors in different communities with their resources, what they have, what they’re trying to do, and then we figure out what poi is best for them.
Lourdes: Okay. So, when you started thinking that this was gonna be a business, how did you go about that?
Dr. Kate: You know what, it happened so organically. There was not a moment when I thought “Okay! I’m gonna sit down and make a business plan!” It didn’t happen like that. So I guess what happened was towards the end of my PhD, after I had the results, so poi actually improved grip strength, balance, and the ability to sustain attention, I started going into a few senior living facilities because I was curious, outside of this double-blind randomized control trial that I did, how does poi work in the real world? So that was the early start of the business, because as any good academic would, I was gathering some data as I was there in that senior living facility asking both the people living there and the staff, “Okay, if you were to work with poi as a therapeutic tool on a regular basis, what would you need? What kind of support would you need, what kind of resources would you need? Do you like it, is it too hard, is it too easy?”
So I was asking all kinds of questions, and I used that to form my first product, which was actually just a PDF. And I just put it online, and it had the results of my PhD research and some suggestions on how to work with poi in senior care. How to make the poi, what kinds of movements, just really basic stuff, how to structure a session.
And it started growing organically from there, different kinds of people were getting in touch with me, asking me questions, so I started to slowly expand into other markets, create more resources, more robust resources. I was getting grant money and a lot of organizations getting in touch to collaborate. And I did get a few offers of investment, but I decided to turn those down for a few reasons. Mainly because I wanted the products and services to be high quality and true and tested, and maybe that’s my background as an academic. In a world of business, it’s often you make something, you throw it out there, you see if it works, but for me at that time I was very rigorous, so I wanted to go quite slow and make sure everything I was putting out was tried and true and tested, and very high quality.
And also entering investment is a big, it’s a relationship, and I didn’t know these investors very well. And also, capital wasn’t key to starting up. Sweat equity, my time was key. I didn’t have physical products that I needed money for or technology. I mean, I just said you can make poi out of a sock and rice, so. So I ended up not taking investment and just growing slowly and organically.
There was one little push that I got, I got second place in a competition through the university and I got some seed capital. But in order to take the money, I had to have a company. And I didn’t even have a company at the time, I was just doing stuff. So I incorporated SpinPoi, and that was a good push, and quite a paradigm shift for me. I went from me and SpinPoi being this nebulous meshed thing to SpinPoi being its own entity, me properly shifting into being a CEO and having to think about my relationship to money, my personal morals and values, the values of the company, things like that. So that was a shift, but it was all quite organic.
Lourdes: How interesting. So, SpinPoi, I love the name. How did you get it, I mean I know it’s poi, you know it’s poi, but how did you get spin in there and playing around with the domain name and all that?
Dr. Kate: I think I’ve had that domain name for like 15, 20 years or something.
Lourdes: No way!
Dr. Kate: I got that domain name when I was quite young. So, when I was a kid I was doing a lot of digital stuff. Making little web pages and animations and graphic design and stuff. I was probably at least 17 or 18, cause I only discovered poi around then. But I caught that domain name like then. I just remember thinking about it, and also there’s another person who had the domain playpoi, and I really liked that, and I thought oh I wish I could have that! But I think that maybe got me thinking and led me to SpinPoi, which, yeah, thank you old me. Me of the past, I was great at thinking!
Lourdes: It’s like the universe is out there knowing what you were gonna do with this thing, how odd! It’s so how weird how the universe and our mindset just kinda works in that direction. I mean, you had no idea you were gonna start a business! So when you talked about how you introduced this first to senior citizen homes, did you get any nos?
Dr. Kate: Yeah. I get some push-back to this day in a few different areas. One area that’s very sensitive is because poi is a Maoritaonga, or a Maori treasure, there’s a lot of… It’s an interesting area to be. Even though my business is a social enterprise, and at our core we are wanting to do good, that’s what drives everything that we do, is improve well-being for people. We’re still using and working with traditional taonga and traditional knowledge, and I am not Maori, I’m an outsider. So I get some nos, I mean I get a lot of yeses, but I get some people are skeptical in that area. “What are you doing with our taonga, profiting from our tradition?”
And in terms of participants, sometimes in senior care, I see this a lot actually, there’s usually a few people around the edges who aren’t that interested to participate. But lemme tell you, when we start spinning the poi and we put some music on, I am hard pressed to find someone – You know first they start tapping a finger, and then you just see them sneakily grab a poi and maybe they’re swinging it a little bit, and they get into it. Almost everyone gets into it.
I’ve done quite a bit of research on how much do you enjoy doing poi, and do you wanna do it again? Those are two questions I ask a lot. And it’s around 93% across thousands of people and many different populations saying yeah I enjoyed it and I wanna do it again. So, that’s pretty high, cause not everything’s for everyone. That’s pretty good.
Lourdes: So when people say no to you, how do you handle that?
Dr. Kate: Oh yeah, that’s not good. That’s the great thing about my business, I’m not trying to push anything on anyone. It’s like, if you like this and this works for you, that’s awesome, I’m here to support you. And if not, I’m here to support you too in whatever else you want to go do.
Lourdes: Is there an age limit to people using poi?
Dr. Kate: Absolutely not. I have worked with all ages, including babies who are just barely old enough to hold on to a poi. They still like squishing it and twirling it around. Well, maybe not twirling, that’s quite a challenging action for a baby. They like playing around with it. And here in New Zealand, kids grow up doing poi, and same with the kuia and kaumatua, the older adults, poi is something you can do sitting down, laying down, even if you can hardly lift a finger you can still do poi.
Lourdes: So did you introduce it here in the States by just running around Illinois and all that?
Dr. Kate: I’ve been based in New Zealand since I started this as a business, but I do courses all the time online. And I’m actually coming to the US in a couple months, and I’m running two certification courses there. So I’m running one in Kansas City, in contention with the Parkinson’s Exercise and Wellness Center, and I’m running one in Seattle with Koch, a senior living community. So I usually pair up with organizations and then run training courses, and anyone can participate. They don’t have to be in the healthcare or senior care industry.
A lot of times I get people who just want to give back to their community. Or maybe they found poi, for example I have one woman in the US who had a stroke, she lives in Arizona, and she discovered poi and it really helped her on a number of levels, and she wanted to give back to her community, so she took my certification course and now she’s teaching poi classes at her local senior center. So, all kinds of people come and learn and pass the benefits onto their communities.
Lourdes: Okay, so it has many health benefits. Does it cure anything or heal anything? People who’ve had stroke or other diseases?
Dr. Kate: It seems beneficial for basically every population I’ve worked with. So, as I mentioned briefly, the results of the clinical trial, and this was a trial for healthy older adults, so older adults living out in the community. It improved their grip strength, the strength in their hands, their balance, and their ability to sustain their attention. Which is quite exciting to see cognitive change, especially because it was a pretty short intervention period. And beyond that, poi is kind of a total package, because it’s exercise, which we all know is good for us. It’s a gentle movement, it’s a repetitive rhythmic movement, and there’s a lot of research about rhythmic movement, things like dancing and drumming for example, so it has all those benefits going for it.
It engages not just the body, but the mind. Because you have this object, you have this external stimuli. If you do something, you’re trying to do a move and you mess up, the poi is gonna hit you. So you have this immediate feedback to what you’re doing, and so it’s really cognitively engaging as well. It ticks a lot of boxes for coordination, mental health, emotional well-being, physical exercise. I haven’t seen it not work anywhere.
And it’s fun! That’s the major one. In terms of therapeutic interventions, something being fun is actually very important. Because that’s why we don’t do, like when I tore my rotator cuff they gave me one of those exercise bands, and like two days later I couldn’t even find it. I put it in a drawer and was like “this is boring I don’t wanna do it.” So what’s really cool and a little bit sneaky is that poi is really fun. And so people are not thinking about getting exercise or something like that. When I’m using it in a hospital for example, people aren’t thinking “Oh this person’s asking me to swing the poi and reach forward and to hit something,” they’re not thinking “I’m engaging my core.” They’re just enjoying the movement of the poi, so that’s pretty cool.
Lourdes: Yeah, that sounds pretty cool. Cause y’know, I’ve had injury in sports, I’ve had PTs, I’ve had shoulder problems, I have all those bands too, the different colors. My husband had two shoulder surgeries, and then his shoulder has never been the same, so maybe this could help, I’m hoping.
Dr. Kate: Absolutely, it’s worth a try! It costs very little, just give it a try to see how it is.
Lourdes: So when these are in PT places, there’s just that one specific poi for PT and then there’s a different poi for fun?
Dr. Kate: No, it’s all the same. It depends per person, right? So you can adjust the length, you can adjust the weight, you just need to make it whatever works for you. So everyone has different length arms, and maybe someone has an injury, or maybe someone is a bodybuilder and someone else has an injury and they need very little weight. So you just need to customize it. And my facilitators, that’s one of the first things you have to do is see who you’re working with, be like “what are your needs” and then go from there.
Lourdes: So where do people buy this poi?
Dr. Kate: You can buy them all over the place. I encourage people to look for someone making them in your local community. So if you just look up poi spinning, so that way you don’t get the poi the food or any other poi acronyms or whatever, you look up poi spinning, you can look on Etsy. There’s some big companies as well. But I also have a tutorial on 3 ways that you can make poi in less than 5 minutes from stuff around your house, so you can also make them yourself.
Lourdes: That’s so cool. I’m learning a lot about this poi stuff, I had no idea. I always thought it was Hawaiian food too, never heard of it, so this is good. So we’re just about getting ready to the last part of my interview, I think I’ve asked you all the questions I wanted to ask you. Do you have any other comments?
Dr. Kate: I’m around, so if anyone wants to try it out, has any questions, https://spinpoi.com is where they can find out more. But also, don’t hesitate to reach out to me! I always have time for people who are interested in learning. You can reach me, just https://spinpoi.com my email is all over the place, email@example.com
Lourdes: Sounds good. Alright, so I’m gonna go ahead and ask you a funny or weird question that you don’t know ahead of time. So, if you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Dr. Kate: Oh my gosh. Okay… Hm, I think I know. This I particularly challenging. I’ve been vegetarian almost my whole life. I decided to become a vegetarian when I was 2, somehow. My parents were like “What is wrong with her?”
Lourdes: Wow, seriously? Wait, are your parents vegetarians too?
Dr. Kate: No, they’re not. But I’m vegan now, but only semi-recently. So like, I had my go-to things when I was vegetarian, but now everything is shuffled around in my head, I’m like what is my favorite things now, cause it’s very different. I would have to say some kind of sugary cereal, like a really bad for you cereal. Like in New Zealand we have very limited options. I’m not even sure Lucky Charms is vegan. If Lucky Charms is vegan, I would maybe say Lucky Charms with oat milk, or something like that. Just any sugary terrible cereal.
Lourdes: Oh how funny! But you are allowed to eat those things as long as it’s vegan, right? Those crappy crappy crappy cereals so bad for you.
Dr. Kate: Oh yeah, you can eat really badly and still be vegan. I try not to do that, but you can!
Lourdes: So one other question and it’ll be the last question. Are you working on anything else right now?
Dr. Kate: Yes, I’m working on so many things! But you mean outside of SpinPoi, or just whatever?
Lourdes: Whatever you’re working on, sure.
Dr. Kate: Within SpinPoi, I’m about to go on a tour, so I’ll be doing some workshops in New Zealand and then on to Vancouver to present in a conference, and then on to the US. So I’m busy planning for that, and I’ll get to see my family, which is great. So yeah, if you live in the US I’m coming your way in July, August, so that’s exciting. Also doing you know, all my other stuff like making music and skating and drawing and reading and dancing, and plenty of other things happening.
Lourdes: Do you still do trapeze or stuff like that? Flow arts is what you call it?
Dr. Kate: Yeah. I’m a little old and battered. But I say old lightly, I just don’t want to do that hardcore stuff anymore, cause it is pretty hard on your body. But I do some acroyoga and I still like doing handstands and climbing trees and stuff, but nothing too intense.
Lourdes: that sounds intense to me, climbing trees and handstands! Oh my gosh, I couldn’t do it.
Dr. Kate: I guess it’s all relative.
Lourdes: Yeah, I don’t have that kind of strength, you’re so lucky you have a lot of strength there.
Dr. Kate: I’m sure you have a lot of strength in a lot of other ways.
Lourdes: So thank you so much Dr. Kate for joining me. And it was so nice to learn about poi today.
Dr. Kate: Thank you, I had a great time sharing it with you, and thanks for having me!
Lourdes: Sure. Alright, I’ll talk to you soon!
Dr. Kate: Bye!
And join me next week, when we talk about how to use the law of attraction to get what you want.
I hope that you enjoyed this podcast and please share this episode with your friends! Please subscribe, rate, and review this episode! And as always, the show notes will be available at https://8thlevelpodcast.com. Thanks for listening!
SpinPoi was founded by Dr. Kate Riegle van West, a scientist, artist, and entrepreneur with a passion for play and wellbeing. Kate completed her PhD in the health benefits of poi at the University of Auckland, where she conducted the first study to scientifically investigate the effects of poi on physical and cognitive function. Kate was named one of the University of Aucklands Top 40 Under 40 inspiring alumni in 2021, and was awarded the Future Leader Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Best Doctoral Thesis Award for her work in the poi/health field.
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