By Emily Weitz
There are some things that are just so much fun, it’s hard to believe they’re not bad for you. Unlike chocolate cake or a fine cigar, these precious indulgences won’t compromise your health in any way. Quite the opposite, when you’ve finished with fifteen minutes of blissful hooping or a session of joyful poi, you’ll be healthier in mind, body, and spirit.
Hula hooping used to be in a class with roller skates and sock hops as something of a bygone era. But in the past few years, it has experienced a Renaissance at festivals like Burning Man and on the beaches of the Hamptons. Last summer there were a number of places, from Amagansett Square to Sagg Main Beach, where you could meet up with hoop groups and get swinging.
“The movements of hooping really opens up the chest and spine, thereby opening up the meridians and the heart chakra,” says Samantha, a member of The Fiery Sensations, a group of hoopers and poi dancers that rocks parties across the East End. “When you open up your heart chakra, you react with people in a more open way… the specific movements help open the heart, and this causes me to smile most of the time I’m doing it.”
Beyond the happy factor that a few minutes of hooping will give you, it also tones the body.
“Not only is it good for coordination,” says Samantha, “but it strengthens the core. Your arms will tighten, your stomach tones, and your butt lifts. It’s a fun way of exercising.”
You can pick up a hoop and start playing around with it, and before you know it you’ve been exercising for an hour straight. Not until later in the day will you realize how much effort your body exerted.
Poi is the Maori word for “ball” on a cord. Practitioners of poi swing these balls, which are usually set on fire, around as a type of dancing with the fire. The poi will take the pattern of ellipses, and this pattern is illuminated in flames and trails. Evan, another member of The Fiery Sensations, says that poi “tones the body without putting any strain on it. I’m in my 50s, and it’s amazing for keeping the body in good shape. Poi fully engages both sides of the body… If you put yourself into it, it’s as aerobic as anything. But it’s also healing and fun and beautiful.”
Where many forms of exercise isolate certain muscles, both hooping and poi are full-body workouts, like swimming or yoga.
“When you do a spin class,” says Samantha, “you’re hunched over working the same muscles, getting tight. With poi and hooping, all the muscles are worked in a fluid way. You stretch in different directions, and elongate instead of contract.”
While the physical benefits of hooping and poi are remarkable (you’ll definitely get hotter), there are also much more profound effects. Susan Blacklocke, who teaches poi to older adults, children, and people with special needs, has her own daily practice.
“I go to my little town beach with the poi every morning and see the water, sky, and field. With the poi I give thanks. It’s a kind of prayer. I think about the day and then I don’t think because I’m doing poi. I bring that energy wherever I go. It helps me feel calm and at peace. Poi has brought that into my life.”
What she describes is a meditation, a way of quieting the mind and connecting to something bigger. Meditation as a practice has the known benefits of lowering the blood pressure and strengthening the immune system, as well as decreasing stress and increasing clarity and focus.
Another benefit of these two forms of expression is the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting better. The first time you pick up a hoop, it may fall right down to your ankles. But the learning curve is sharp, and if you stick with it, you’ll soon improve.
“One day I got a move I had never been able to do,” Samantha recalls, “bringing the hoop from my waist up to my chest and back down and up again. I felt like whatever had been blocking me from being able to do that was released and my spine totally opened up. I felt like a warrior… When that happened, I felt like I had more strength to deal with the outside world because my inside was open and stronger.”
This open, happy warrior is not Samantha’s alone. With the help of these strengthening, life-affirming practices, these warriors reside in each of us. And once we open to that, we’ll tap into a community right here on the East End. Nate, a drummer with The Fiery Sensations, believes in “the tribal community and the ancient feelings that many of these practices bring up.” You can unlock your warrior on the beach, in your living room, or with The Fiery Sensations. They’ll be leading an 8-week course in hooping and poi this spring in Amagansett. Check their web site, www.thefierysensations.com, for details.