Spiritual side of indigenous ocean sports explored

Eight years ago, Harald Barkhoff, professor of kinesiology and exercise sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, started a lifelong commitment to participate in Uluākea, a program managed by the Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center designed to help develop the university into more of a “Hawaiian place of learning.”

Cultural practitioners at Uluākea teach faculty in various academic disciplines across campus an authentic and practical understanding of indigenous ways of knowing the world. Faculty can then apply these ways of understanding to their classes through modifying courses they already teach or developing new courses in which these concepts become the foundation of learning.

For Barkhoff, though, his experience in the program has also shifted his research activity, and he has started to focus on indigenous—mostly Native Hawaiian—concepts within sport psychology.

“Over the last couple of years spirituality became the main focus within this line of my research,” he says. “Spirituality—although more commonly researched within the general area of psychology over the last years—has been a rather new trend within sport psychology.” It is now incorporated into basic concepts as the main “purpose, sense, motivation” for sport participation and overall health.

Barkhoff is an avid paddler and surfer. Here he participates in a one-man outrigger race in Keauhou, Hawaiʻi Island. Courtesy photo.
Barkhoff is an avid paddler and surfer. Here he participates in a one-man outrigger race in Keauhou, Hawaiʻi Island. Courtesy photo.

The research

Barkhoff currently is focusing his research on outrigger canoe paddling and surfing. He and research colleagues Michael Amrhein, who is working on his dissertation at UH Mānoa, and Elaine Heiby, professor emerita of psychology at UH Mānoa, would like to know how the ocean sports contribute to a general sense of being spiritual and feeling connected to indigenous environments, and further, how the sports foster indigenous identity and a sense of place in indigenous environments.

The exploration of paddling in Barkhoff’s research began with a case study of a singular sportsman crossing the infamous Kaʻiwi Channel between Molokaʻi and Oʻahu in a one-man outrigger canoe during a Kaʻiwi Channel Solo World Championship race. That paddler was found to be connected to the history of Hawaiian culture and beliefs as well as to the role of the Kaʻiwi Channel. When reflecting on the spiritual experience, including “reflective practice” with Hawaiian practitioners, it was found that crossing the Kaʻiwi Channel may have served as a profound rite of passage for the individual in the guise of a secularized sport event.

As work on the case study progressed, Barkhoff expanded his inquiry, this time into surfing. The research illuminated that many surfers have described surfing as a spiritual experience, indicating a potential connection between surfing and spirituality.

The exploration into these previously uncharted waters address indigenous potential that is particularly relevant to students and communities in Hawaiʻi.

“Research, within sport science and in particular sport psychology, looking into those sports is more than sparse.” Barkhoff explains. “As spirituality has always been a key component in all indigenous cultures, its role for us in Hawaiʻi is of special interest in how it relates to physical activities that are specific to our environment such as surfing and outrigger canoe paddling,”

For the full story, read the UH Hilo Stories article.