Spirituality is a broad concept that takes on many different perspectives and definitions around the world. Generally speaking, it is a quality or belief in something greater than ourselves. I consider spirituality to be the acknowledgement of the immaterial aspects of the world, like the human spirit, the soul, and also the existence of higher powers. People often associate a person’s spirituality to religion, although I believe you can be deeply spiritual without any strong connection to one denomination. So what does spirituality mean to me as Māori and does it have any impact on my wellness?
Māori spirituality is described and understood through the concept of wairuatanga. It is deeply entrenched in all aspects of Māori culture. As Māori, we acknowledge that our physical and spiritual worlds coexist, and that they are inherently intertwined with one another. This means that all aspects of our lives through a Māori worldview contain a level of spirituality. This explains the large number of karakia (prayers, incantations) that exist across all aspects of traditional life; from waking in the morning; to food handling practices; to interactions with others and so on. There was no aspect to daily life that did not acknowledge the spiritual world.
Dr. Rangimarie Rose Pere describes the term ‘wairua’ through the two smaller segments of the word; ‘wai’ meaning ‘water’, and ‘rua’ meaning ‘two’. These “two waters” as Dr. Pere describes it, represent the waiora, or the immaterial divine element from the creator; and the waituhi, the human or physical aspect. Taken together, we can think about our wairua as the place where the spiritual world meets our human world. With such a strong connection between our physical and spiritual worlds, health from a Māori perspective must include the spirit or wairua of a person, not merely the physical.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of health “is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Māori wellbeing on the other hand, includes not only these aspects identified by WHO, but also an equally important spiritual component. This has been acknowledged through some of the influential health models developed by Dr. Pere, Sir Mason Durie and others. However, physical activity and nutrition practices across Aotearoa often neglect this spiritual component.
Understanding wairuatanga within the context of physical activity and nutrition can be difficult for some, so let me break it down a little. There are many different ways of acknowledging wairuatanga but it comes down to a belief system. As Sir Durie says, improving your spiritual awareness is about developing an understanding of the spiritual relationship between the human element and the environment we live in. Within physical activity and nutrition this means acknowledging the spiritual connection between ourselves as physical beings, and the world around us.
For example, walking as a physical activity is impacted by the very environment you are walking in. Mainstream practices are generally only concerned with the walking itself, paying attention to aspects of duration, intensity and distance, whereas Māori would also consider the place that we are walking. A built-up city does nothing for my wairua compared to a walk along the beach, up a maunga, or through the ngahere.
Wairuatanga is about understanding the spiritual relationship that exists in a Māori world. If we acknowledge that wairuatanga is threaded through the fabric of Māori ways of being, then physical activity and nutrition practices must reflect those beliefs. I believe this is the only way to make meaningful physical activity and nutrition recommendations to those that carry a Māori worldview. Talking about the benefits of walking as an exercise to our nannie means little. But, to describe how walking along the beach enhances your wairua, now that might actually mean something.