Kate Riegle van West

This is your brain (and body) on poi

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Ten years ago, while recovering from a torn rotator cuff, I was introduced to a simple weight on the end of a cord call poi. What started out as passing the time not only healed my shoulder but led me on the journey of a lifetime...founding and teaching at a center for poi in Chicago, creating a poi musical instrument and giving a TED talk about it in Boston, and eventually pursuing PhD research on poi at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. In 2016 the journey continues, as I will conduct the first clinical trial on poi, measuring its effects on physical and cognitive ability in older adults. I believe this trial will not only pave the way for future poi and health research, but also have significant implications for the ever growing aging population worldwide.

Poi is a weight on the end of a cord, which you spin in circular patterns around your body. It is generally a form of dance, play, and artistic expression. There are two distinct poi styles: Māori poi, and International poi.

In order to practice Māori poi, one must understand many larger Māori concepts (such as te mauri and whanaungatanga (Huata, 2000, pg52-57)) along with understanding and being able to execute the poi actions, steps, and chanting. While I would love to conduct a trial involving Māori poi in the future, International poi is a better fit for the current trial for the following reasons:

- As this is the first trial on poi, I am interested in isolating the fundamental act of spinning a weight on the end of a flexible cord, in order to see if this act alone has an effect on physical and cognitive function in older adults. In Māori poi style, spinning a weight in isolation from larger concepts is not practicing poi, and is essentially meaningless. In International poi style, practicing this act in isolation does not violate the fundamental principles of poi

- The time allotted for this study is not sufficient to allow the trial participants to master all of the elements necessary to practice Māori poi

- International poi can more easily accommodate those with lower body limitations, as stepping is not part of International poi practice

- Māori short poi style is more aggressive (involves hitting the poi on the body) and faster paced. Māori long poi style is slower and less aggressive, but the length of the poi may be more challenging to wield. The medium length and medium pace of International poi may be more suitable for an older population

- My own expertise lies in International poi, and since I will be teaching poi during the trial, it makes the most sense to teach this style

After the trial is complete I will focus on placing the findings from the trial back into a Māori context, with the goal of sharing knowledge about the potential cognitive and physical benefits of poi with Maori so that they may use one of their own taonga to benefit themselves and others in new ways. In other words, I hope to share the possibility of looking at poi through a health lens, in addition to the emotional and spiritual lens through which Māori poi is already viewed and practiced.

It is projected that the worldwide population ages 65 and over will increase to 2.5 times that of the population aged 0-4 by 2050 (Haub, 2015). This is an exact reversal of the demographics in 1950 and a phenomenon which will not be reversed in the foreseeable future. I believe poi has the potential to improve physical and cognitive function in older adults for a number of reasons:

- 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 be invited to take part in 4 weeks of either 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, heart rate, manual dexterity, psychomotor speed, psychological well-being, upper limb range of motion, grip strength, lower body strength, and composite memory, will be measured a total of 4 times. An initial pre-test will be done one month before the trial begins. There will be a second pre-test shortly before the trial begins, and a post-test shortly after the trial ends. A second post-test will be conducted one month after the trial has ended, to determine if the effects from the trial are sustained 1 month after training. If you would like to know more about the trial, here are the nitty gritty details.

Your donation will help cover the cost of physical and cognitive tests, along with the salary of the trial staff:

Neurocognitive test battery: $2,250
In order to measure if poi has an effect on cognitive ability, I will be using the CNS Vital Signs neurocognitive test battery. With these tests I will measure five variables (complex attention, cognitive flexibility, psychomotor speed, reaction time, and composite memory), of which the average of their domain scores make up the Neurocognition Index, a global score of neurocognition. In other words, I will be able to test for five variables using a reliable and valid test battery, the results of which I can compare to an accepted global index. Each test costs $15, and participants in the study will be tested four times (a pre-test one month before the trial begins, a second pre-test immediately before the trial begins, a post-test immediately after the trial ends, and a post-test one month after the trial has ended). For 50 participants to each take four tests, it will cost $3,000. The Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland is generously donating 50 tests, which takes $750 off the total cost, bringing it to $2,250.

Grooved Pegboard for Manual Dexterity: $115
In order to measure manual dexterity, I will be using the grooved pegboard test. This test requires participants to rotate pegs until they fit into their holes, measuring performance speed in a fine motor task and requiring complex visual motor coordination. One grooved pegboard test is $95, plus $20 for shipping, which amounts to $115.00.

Tabletes for Bimanual Coordination: $300.00
In order to measure if poi has an effect on bimanual coordination, I will be using a circle tracing test. This test requires participants to trace circles with both of their hands simultaneously, with varying instructions regarding speed and direction of tracing, to measure the point of critical frequency (when the participant falls out of the circle tracing as instructed). In order to execute this test, I will need two tablets for the participants to trace circles on (one for each hand).

Trial Staff: $2,464
In order to measure participants progress in the pre- and post-tests, I will need to hire staff to take the measurements and record the data. As the trial is assesor-blind, and I am teaching the poi lessons, I will not be able to take the measurements myself. Each participants' balance, bimanual coordination, blood pressure, cognitive flexibility, complex attention, heart rate, manual dexterity, psychomotor speed, psychological well-being, upper limb range of motion, grip strength, lower body strength, and composite memory, will be measured a total of 4 times. Each test session will last approximately 1.5 hours. This means for 50 participants, there will be 300 hours of testing which needs to be executed and overseen by staff. At $8.00 an hour, this amounts to $2,400. I will also need to train staff on how to measure the variables, for which I have added in an extra 8 hours at $8.00 an hour, bringing the final total to $2,464.

That would be fantastic! If I receive donations beyond $4,000, I would love to use them to:

Increase sample size
One of the biggest factors limited by the budget is the trial sample size. The budget discussed in this campaign is for a 50 participant trial, but the study would be much more robust with a larger sample size. Adding just one more trial participant amounts to approximately $200 additional dollars (which covers things like the neurocognitive tests, poi equipment, and staff salary).

Raise staff pay
I have budgeted the staff salary at $8 NZD an hour, which is well below minimum wage. I would love to pay the trial staff more fairly. Also, I have not included a salary for myself in the budget, though I am part of the trial staff (recruiting participants, teaching poi lessons, analyzing data, and writing up results). If I surpass my goal and am able to increase the sample size and pay the rest of the staff more fairly, I would also like to pay myself a small salary to help make ends meet. 

Thanks to these generous donations, some of the trial costs have already been covered:

Equipment for measuring trial variables donated by the University of Auckland Centre for Brain Research (including goniometer, sphygmomanometer, hand grip dynamometer, and pinch grip dynamometer).

Salary for a Tai Chi instructor, to teach lessons during the trial, donated by the University of Auckland Dance Studies department.

PomGrips, a soft and easy to hold poi grip which will be used by participants during the trial, donated by LanternSmith.

For more information, please visit www.spinpoi.com. Thank you! 


*Just to clear up some questions that have come in about US currency...all donations are in NZ dollars.  Currently, 1 US dollar - 1.47 NZ dollars. So, for example, if you donate $100 NZ dollars it will show up as $68.19 US dollars on your credit card statement.  The donation is taken from the credit card at the time of the transaction. When the project is successful the donation is receipted. If the project is unsuccessful the donation is returned to your credit card in NZ dollars again. There may be some difference due to currency fluctuation, but there is no extra charge from Boosted to your card for donating in a currency other than NZ dollars.


Boyke J., Driemeyer J., Gaser C., Büchel C., & May A. (2008). Training-induced Brain Structure Changes in the Elderly. J. Neurosci. 28, 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

Haub, C. (2015). World Population Aging: Clocks Illustrate Growth in Population Under Age 5
and Over Age 65. Population Reference Bureau. Retreived from: http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2011/agingpopulationclocks.aspx

Huata, N. (2000). The Rhythm and Life of Poi. New Zealand: Harper Colllins Publishers.

"The Health Benefits of Tai Chi." Harvard Medical School. May 2009. 21 October 2014.


  • Let the research begin!


    Thank you all, so much, for helping me reach my crowdfunding goal and beyond! What happens next?

    Learn about my research progress
    Want to know how things are going? I will be posting details about the clinical trial to the health research page, plus stories and shenanigans related to my poi studies and life in New Zealand on the blog page of spinpoi.com.

    Share your poi story
    Throughout the crowdfunding campaign many people shared their personal poi and health stories with me, and I’ve decided to collect and share these beautiful and moving stories with the rest of the world. If you would like to share how poi has had a positive impact on your life, be it physically, mentally, or anything in between, visit: www.spinpoi.com/shareyourstory/

    Keep spreading the word!
    Breaking new ground is tough, and I can always use more support. Feel free to share my poi website, facebook page and instagram with friends and strangers!

    I am unbelievably excited for the research to come, and promise to conduct a thorough, credible, passionate, and (hopefully!) groundbreaking world changing bad ass study.

    With sincere gratitude,


  • WE DID IT! (but wait, there’s more!)


    I am ecstatic and relieved to write these words: WE HAVE REACHED THE GOAL! I still can’t quite comprehend the love and support that has surrounded this campaign so far. Thank you friends, family, strangers, and everyone in between; thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Gushy-ness aside...I have a confession to make. Shortly before the campaign launched, reeling with nerves about the whole thing being a miserable failure, I decided to lower the goal from $5,000 to $4,000. No, I am not making this up to try to squeeze more money out of the situation (though, technically, I suppose that’s what I am trying to do); this is the genuine truth. The things I am hoping to cover with your support, as listed in the campaign description (cognitive tests, grooved pegboard, tablets, and staff salary) actually add up to $5,129. But because I got nervous, and this is an all or nothing campaign, I decided to aim low and hopefully avoid falling short. Thankfully, I no longer have to worry about that. But, I do still need support, and can still use help spreading the word. Reaching $5,000 means I can fully cover the costs I am hoping to cover. And reaching more than $5,000 means the trial can become more robust (by increasing the sample size) and the people involved in the research (myself included) will get a fair salary. If you’ve got it in you, please keep doing what you can to support the campaign...and if you don’t, I don’t blame you and am still eternally grateful for your support thus far :)


    WE DID IT! (but wait, there’s more!)
  • Halfway there: gratitude and butterfly luck


    This afternoon, feeling happy and grateful for being halfway to my goal already, I went out to the garden to spin poi. After just a few spins a butterfly flew right into the poi ball! I stopped and asked the butterfly if she was ok, and she immediately flew back to me and landed on my hand. She stayed there for quite a while, and we both basked in the sun and each other's company. Maybe it was a sign, or just a coincidence, but either way I feel extremely lucky and cared for, and I am humbled by the support I have received so far. Thank you friends, I couldn't do this without you.

    Halfway there: gratitude and butterfly luck