Poi Health

Kate Riegle van West has been interested in the health implications of poi for many years and in many ways, from the personal stories of poi’s impact she heard while teaching lessons, to studying the physical and cognitive effects of poi in her PhD research. Below are some of her past and present projects and thoughts relating to poi and health.

PhD Research on the effect of International Poi on physical and cognitive function

Kate is currently conducting a clinical trial at the University of Auckland as part of her PhD research, to determine the effects of International Poi and Tai Chi on physical and cognitive function in healthy older adults.

– Poi is a physical activity that draws upon the key components of fitness and is highly customizable. Physically active lifestyles have been proven to reduce risk factors and improve functioning and quality of life in the elderly (Daley, 2000).

– Poi is intrinsically playful, and play is proven to have a vital role in keeping the mind and body young by presenting novel situations which foster cognitive innovation, adaptability, and flexibility; which in turn improves reflexes, memory, processing speeds, etc. (Brown, 2009).

-Poi is rhythmic, and active music therapy has a multitude of physical, mental, and emotional benefits (Drake, 2010). The rhythmic nature of poi can potentially tap into the same benefits as rhythmic, active, music therapy such as drumming.

– Activities such as juggling (Boyke, 2008) and Tai Chi (“The Health Benefits”, 2008), which share many characteristics with poi (e.g. ambidexterity, rhythm, and meditative movement) are proven to have a positive effect on maintaining both physical and cognitive ability in older adults.

Bottom line is, poi is customizable, cost-effective, activates both sides of the body and brain, and most importantly, it’s FUN!

Healthy older adults will take part in 4 weeks of either International Poi (treatment group) or Tai Chi (control group) lessons. They will attend two lessons per week at University of Auckland Tamaki Campus. Participants’ balance, bimanual coordination, blood pressure, cognitive flexibility, complex attention, composite memory, grip strength, heart rate, lower body strength, manual dexterity, psychomotor speed, psychological well-being, reaction time, and upper limb range of motion will be measured before and after the International Poi and Tai Chi lessons. For more details on the variables being measured, check out this blog post.

Check out this page about the trial, follow SpinPoi on facebook, or get in touch with Kate directly: krie192@aucklanduni.ac.nz.


Poi and physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Kate has worked with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to explore poi’s potential for improving physical health. Together with a physical therapist, Kate developed the following criteria which she explored with patients at the institute, all of whom had limited trunk and upper body mobility:

beachStrength: poi may strengthen the hand (grip strength), wrist, arm, shoulder, chest, and core. Poi can be any weight, and is a safe exercise that will not push a recovering injury beyond its point of stability.

Stability: in order to accurately spin poi you need to stabilize your muscles. The repetition of spinning poi and trying to achieve certain placement of the poi is comparable to, for example, the exercise of rolling a ball against the wall to stabilize your shoulder.

Symmetry: poi can be used to achieve body symmetry, for example, rehabilitating a torn rotator cuff by trying to spin a poi with your right hand and left hand at equal height. Poi will expand your range of motion.

Balance: basic poi spinning is a test of balance, and can be made more intense by adding trunk rotation and exploring difficult planes.

Coordination: spinning poi can be compared to patting your head and rubbing your tummy. A certain amount of limb independence can be involved, creating new nueropathways and exercising the brain.


Poi and the Gurdjieffian Mind / Body Connection

During her MFA, Kate studied poi as it relates to the mind-body connection, specifically as described by philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff. Through writing and physical experience (an intensive Gurdjieff movement workshop, taught by James Tomarelli) Kate uncovered skill toys deep connection to Gurdjieff’s ideas of finding inner focus and awareness.

According to G.I. Gurdjieff we exist amidst three worlds– “the outer world”, the impressions received outside of our bodies, visual and tangible, invisible and intangible; “the inner world”, the automatic flowing and functioning of the organism; and “the world”, the totality of the functioning and the connection between the outer and inner worlds, yet a world on its own dependent on neither. It is in the formation of these three worlds that the key to attaining “the world” lies, for the first two worlds are formed on their own, whilst the third is formed exclusively by the intentional connection of the functions of the first two. This intentional connection is created by stopping the flow of ones thoughts and achieving complete concentration of the mind, thinking only of what one wants to think of. By attaining the ability to not think, one can learn to think of exactly what they intend to without distraction, and to subordinate the unconscious psychic processes. This state is achieved by breaking the cycle of automatism through non-habitual movement, for it is through sacred movements that we can see the oscillation between the outer world and the inner world, and understand how to blend the two.

Our catalog of day-to-day movements contains three to four hundred habitual gestures. Not consciously chosen by us, our body cycles through these movements automatically, in the same way the movements of our emotions and mind have become mechanical. Poi spinning can be used as a tool to breaks these mechanical tendencies and alter the associative processes of thinking and feeling. It incorporates new postures, rhythms, transitions, and integrates the body, mind, and spirit, precisely as in Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dances. The process of embodying non-habitual polyrhythmic movements opens new neuropathways, bridging the two hemispheres of the brain and requiring attention free of distraction. It is in these movements of our own choice and attention that we can blend the outer and inner world and achieve the totality of their functions, “the world”.


Boyke J., Driemeyer J., Gaser C., Büchel C., and May A. (2008). Training-induced Brain Structure Changes in the Elderly. Journal of Neuroscience. 28. Doi: 7031-7035. 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0742-08.2008


Brown, S. (2009). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Penguin Group.


Daley, M. & Spinks, W. (2000). Exercise, Mobility and Ageing. Sports Medicine. 29, 1-12.


Drake, M. (2010). The Therapeutic Effects of Drumming. Retrieved from: http://shamanicdrumming.com/drumtherapy.html


“The Health Benefits of Tai Chi” (2014). Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/May/The-health-benefits-of-tai-chi>.