Whakapapa Fridays: The origin of physical movement

 Te Miri Rangi looks at traditional development of movement and its connection to ngā atua.

Heritage / 8 December, 2016

Whakapapa Fridays: The origin of physical movement

Exercise or physical movement is a daily activity for most of us. It is a fundamental activity that not only helps us stay fit and strong, but it also enables our brains to develop and function effectively. In earlier days, fundamental movement skills were developed amongst children in Māori communities through various traditional games known today as taonga tākaro or tākaro tawhito. There are hundreds of different games that helped a growing child discover their body and their physical capabilities. Developing movement skills for tamariki was centred around fostering capable warriors for protecting the iwi, and competent individuals for hunting and snaring food. As Māori, I believe we had a deep understanding of the human body, and how to develop it for various pursuits.

As a Māori physical educator and a strength and conditioning coach I have always been interested in movement and physical activity. However, over the years, I discovered a clear disconnection between popular sport and exercise, and our culture as Māori. Physical education once used Māori activities like tītī tōrea (pictured above, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 471-9743) in an attempt to deliver Māori concepts of physical activity. However, underlying those activities were non-Māori concepts of fitness such as strength, speed, coordination, balance or cardio-vascular endurance to name a few. At the time, it was a step in the right direction, but a few steps short of a unique Māori approach to understanding and developing the human body.

The origin of movement from a Māori perspective can tell us a lot about how we develop our bodies. Across many regions in Aotearoa the creation of the Māori world depicts of a time when Ranginui and Papatūānuku held each other in a tight embrace. Their many children, ngā atua, were all compressed in a confined space of warmth between them. These atua, such as Tāne, Tūmatauenga, Rongo, Tangaroa, Tāwhirimātea and others were all capable of various movements. Some are said to be standing upright (whakamatika), some are lying face down (tāpapa), others lying face up (tīraha), some are embracing (awhi), some have their legs and arms drawn up (pēpeke), while others are crawling (ngoki). A whole range of positions and movements are described of within this tight embrace. This is where physical movement was born. In order to move freely and unrestricted Tāne and his brothers decide to separate their parents. Tāne of course, completes the deed by laying on Papatūānuku and extending his legs up to Ranginui, separating them in what could be described as the first leg-press of all time.

Tane-Mahuta-Jane-Crisp-Landscape 88

Jane Crisp, Tane Mahuta's Triumph, 2007

In terms of physical activity these legends can explain a number of things. In particular, this kōrero tells us that a range of small confined movements are the foundation to larger movements. This means that as an adult or as a child, learning a new skill requires you to execute a number of smaller fundamental movements first, in order to then successfully perform larger more complex movements of the body. Being a hero and jumping straight in to the big stuff will ultimately result in injury, and in traditional times, injury often led to something much more severe. So, spend time on the basics and on all of the various simple movements first, then in time progress to something more complex. This is a Māori rationale for a skill development process that is based on the movements of various atua within Ranginui and Papatūānuku. For our tamariki, let them engage in as many active pursuits as possible, grow their fundamental movement skills in an array of areas, and as they age, they will have a greater chance at developing a range of complex movements. Having the competency to perform physically means that our tamariki will be more likely to engage in physical pursuits, and will therefore have the skills to live a healthy active lifestyle.

Read last week's Whakapapa Friday: Kai atua – how Tangaroa can help improve your health

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