Doing your own 'Haka' for health!

The Haka is a challenge issued by many tribes of the pacific islands.

It has a deeply held and very treasured history for many pacific nations such as Tonga Fiji Samoa and New Zealand. To outside observers it can appear as just a choreographed tribal dance, and there is no doubt a well performed Haka can be a wonderful spectacle. It's also used as a powerful emotive challenge by New Zealand athletes, challenging competitors from other nations "to bring it on!"

But it is far far more than that, particularly when it's used before competition. When you perform a Haka before competing or exercising, the Haka becomes a fabulous tool for improving athletic performance and reducing injury, plus it helps you to get "in the zone".

My name is Chris Toal and I have worked in remedial deep tissue therapy in New Zealand for nearly two decades, treating unresponsive and chronic injuries. When I began studying deep tissue injury treatment methods, Fascial Kinetics and Bowen Technique became an interest, this is mainly because they teach that the thin super tough soft tissue surrounding all your muscles called Myofascia, or (Fascia), is implicated in 85% of musculoskeletal pain.

Knowing something about 85% of the causes of a problem is good odds for success, so I began learning to work with Fascia and learned, you really can do a lot more to repair and avoid injuries if you work with Fascia, not against it!

Fascia is a gel, and as a gel it can be semi solid under static conditions yet it will flow easily when shaken, heated, or stressed. The scientific name for this is Thixotropy and our Fascia and ground substance are thixotropic. When you start warming up before exercising, you may find you are a bit stiff and hard to get going, then as you shake up your Fascia you find it easier and easier to move. It's not so much that you warmed up your muscles it's more that you shook up the sticky bags of gel your muscles sit in, and now the muscles can slide smoothly past each other. It's also why when you sit for long periods you get stiff, because your gel sets, just like jelly in the refrigerator. So, knowing this, every time I see a New Zealand team like the All Blacks do a Haka before a game, I smile, knowing they have an edge on the competition even before they start.

But what about stretching I hear you say! Stretching is not the same as a warming up and does not prepare your body for competition or intense exercise. Imagine going to a Yoga or stretch class just before competing, you might feel physically and mentally relaxed, but would your body be fizzing and ready to go, with all your senses sharp and focussed. Nah! Not really.

You would probably rather go home and have a snooze or take a time out. So why would you take your edge away just before competing? Stodgy old out dated bad advice is why and lots of studies demonstrate this. One published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine shows that stretching doesn't prepare your muscles for eccentric loading which is where most strains and injuries occur. Another in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that stretching before weight lifting may reduce muscle strength and coordination.

So let's get back to the Haka. Unlike stretching the Haka wakes up the muscles, connects the proprioceptors on the skins surface to the tissue underneath. The blue or black lines of Kinesiology tape you often see on athletes legs or shoulders are there in part for the same reason, to improve neurological muscle activation, making it easier for the all the soft tissues to work as a team.

The slapping and striking moves of the Haka stimulate the body and the mind into a full alert challenged state, while the verbal challenge itself opens up the airways and helps gets the heart ready for combat. Doing a Haka helps you to get "in the zone", here's how.

The Haka's crouched stance loads muscles called the Psoas which are a primary stimulator of the fight and flight response. This is because as they engage they compress and activate the adrenal gland. At the same time the amygdala, and the hypothalamus in the brain plus pituitary gland are all stimulated and the hormone ACTH is released as well as the neurotransmitter, epinephrine and cortisol. All of this increases blood pressure, blood sugar, suppresses the immune system creates a burst of energy as cortisol helps to turn fatty acids into energy.

So, what happens when you perform the Haka is the whole body has just been awakened and prepared for immediate, physical, and violent action or combat! It is are ready to go!

There are other effects that help you to stay "in the zone" and focussed, such as pupils dilating, the inhibition of the lacrimal gland causing a dry mouth and no tears, digestion slows down, you get Tunnel vision plus your heart accelerates. The body is also able to accesses more metabolic energy sources (such as fat and glycogen) and expands blood vessels within muscles, and one final thing. You will often hear athletes say they tune out and can't hear the roar of the crowd, that's because of Auditory exclusion or loss of hearing which comes from this cascade of chemical releases.

When used as part of a dynamic warm up the Haka is one of, if not the, most effective ways for any athlete to be at their peak right at moment of joining the battle of competition.

What if you don't want to do a Haka but want the benefits? Ok say you're a runner or play sports like Hockey, Lacrosse or Netball and Basketball where you run a lot, you can use softly closed fists or open hands to literally bang or slap down both sides of your legs, starting down on the shins at about 90o then working front and back and all the way up to the torso. Squash and tennis players do the same with lots of focus on your arms. Golfers focus on the side's front and back of your core, by now you probably get the idea, fire up the muscles you intend to use and combine this with some warm up exercises that mimic the activity or sport you are about to do, you will get moving faster safer and better than you ever have. Doing the Haka for health! It works for the world's best and it will work for you.

Want to learn some more about Myofascia? Try this article about how a hot shower or heat pack can actually reduce your athletic performance and leave you in more pain than ever: "Keeping out of hot water" by Chris Toal

Enjoy, stay well.

Chris Toal

Chris Toal
Managing Director Wellness at Work Ltd.

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