Why Play Poi?

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flags_nick.jpgHave you ever felt called to improve your coordination, balance, and over-all physical ability? If you have, poi might be just the tool for you. It certainly was for me.

I developed a strong desire to explore physical movement when I was a teenager. It could have been the Bruce Lee movies, the myths about Shaolin Temple monks, or the Buddhist books about peaceful warriors, or maybe it was intuition (I'm not sure how these things work).

On a hunch I took up Tai-Chi, which proved to be a perfect place to start. My teacher, Master Tong, had studied under the great masters in China. He taught his students traditional Tai-Chi movement theory, which included the use of circular and spiral motion, the body's five bows, the stacking of body structure, the raising of spirit and focus, and many other concepts and techniques.

I became a believer in the intelligence and practicality of Tai-Chi theory, and although I practiced intensively and progressed steadily, I eventually longed for something more... upbeat. I trained in Arnis, dance, Wushu, and Capoeira. Applying Tai-Chi theory always helped me progress quickly, and each art taught me something fundamental about movement, but none of them were quite what I was looking for.

I finally found "it" outside a dance party in British Columbia, where I witnessed a group of fire dancers playing with fire poi. Watching, I realized that my entire history of movement practice, plus that of several past lives, had been leading me to poi. I don't know how I knew. I just knew. It was like the sky opened and a booming voice said, "Take up poi. You'll understand later." I was soon practicing with a pair of rolled up socks on shoelaces. To my delight, I discovered that poi are amazing movement exploration tools. They are guides. They are teachers. They are like Yoda, only smaller and on strings.

Essentially, poi are simply weights on the ends of tethers. By attaching one to each hand, they become extensions of your body. They literally magnify our movements, helping us to observe the accuracy of direction, timing, rhythm, and force. Once observed, the repetitive nature of poi proves ideal for developing motor skills, and the circular nature of poi encourages developing those skills through a full range of motion on any plane. By manipulating the planes on which the poi spin, and by exploring the positioning of our hands and body, particularly into areas where we usually don't have a lot of skill (like behind our backs), we are able to explore and develop a very thorough range of skill.

Tai-Chi technique takes the benefits of poi even further. In Tai-Chi, all movement comes from the Dan-Tien (your movement-center: two inches below the belly button). The Dan-Tien is the fulcrum point of your body; a force forward from the right hand is executed with an equal force from the left leg. All Tai-Chi movements follow this principle. In many poi exercises, for proper timing, one hand must move in perfect symmetry or opposing symmetry with the other. We can apply Tai-Chi technique by relaxing the arms and initiating the movement from the Dan-Tien. As we play, all of our movements become increasingly fluid, natural, and precise, resulting in greater overall balance and whole body coordination. In other words, you start looking really good on the dance floor.

For me, the whole process is like carving a rough piece of wood into a sphere. Bumps and corners make movement awkward and limited. As the block becomes spherical, movement becomes smooth and centered. The rhythmical, circular motion of poi proves ideal for sanding away bumps. Fire provides additional improvement by raising focus and spirit (Tai-Chi prerequisites to good practice). With enough practice you develop a tangible sense for movement and space that seems to exist beyond your body. You begin to literally feel the space within your movement sphere. Getting even more metaphysical, the motion of poi is like that of a solar system or atom. The more spherical you become, the more you tune into patterns that lie at the center of all matter and energy. This is where things get Jedi-ish.

At any level, the results of practicing poi extend well beyond spinning them. I'm enjoying improvement of physical ability across the board, as well as a revived sense of play, and an increase in discipline and self-esteem. Poi have opened new dimensions for me. I highly recommend exploring them.