Haka and Gestalt Experimentation

Tanis Taylor reflects on performing the Haka at the 2019 UKAGP Conference.

Fists balled I plant them on my hips, feet apart, knees bent. My chin juts forward, my jaw is set. From deep in my diaphragm I build to a big voice before slapping hands on thighs, feet stamped, eyes locked. ‘Hiiiiiiiiii!’.

I know these moves. My three year old throws them all the time. Usually I’m the one shushing lest we disrupt the status quo. Today I invoke my inner toddler, adding her voice to sixty-five other gestalt therapists and actively disrupting the quo of a very English conference centre in High Wycombe.

We are doing haka. Haka is a dance genre best known for its infamous warrior dances. In Māori culture it has numerous other ceremonial uses – there are wedding hakas, hakas for transition rites, to welcome, to defend, to grieve. Often framed around creation stories haka serves crucial, communal functions for Māori and is a way of showing one’s full-bodied commitment or intent through movement: in war this intent is for domination; in rugby it will be to win; at a wedding it will be for love and union. 

Historically haka was regarded with suspicion – so incendiary that missionaries in the 19th Century banned it proposing a set of rousing hymnals instead. Intimidating in battle, in grief it has the power to collectively articulate in a way that the mannered English funeral rarely does. When a white supremacist fatally shot 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, hundreds of their fellow students performed a haka; as their shaking intensified and momentum built in their voices and bodies these students viscerally and communally showed their loss, their solidarity and their rage. During this UKAGP conference we are played some personal footage of a funerary haka, for a native New Zealander in a British church. To me the video is unsettling. In a field where our respect is usually solitary and reserved Karl Burrows leads a Manawa Wera haka over the church organ, forcibly escorting the casket from the premises and exhorting death – in song – to ‘tear at’, ‘lacerate’ and ‘smash the head in of this monster’ and take the deceased to ‘join his ancestors’. Loud and un-retroflected it is defiant in its lament. One delegate reflected afterwards that the haka while hard to watch, ‘seemed to express and relieve the pain that you might be feeling inside of you.’ ‘I feel like grief took its rightful place here’. 

For the performer of haka there are some very real psychological and physiological commendations – a crouched stance loads the psoas muscles and activates the adrenal gland, increasing blood flow and stimulating the amygdala, hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Burrows, who runs Haka Works, talks about haka as a ‘structure to contain energy’before it is directed onwards. Since the All Blacks introduced it as a pre-match ritual in 1905 they have enjoyed a 77% win rate. What would it do to a room full of therapists? 

Early indicators are promising. The invitation is to see whether haka might support a different level of working with our clients and to that end we are learning the famous haka Ka Mate, first performed by Te Rauparaha. Invoking aspects of the war god Tumatauenga – a god, not of annihilation, but of destruction, creation, industriousness and aggression – May Lee Allen stands on a chair and engagingly, with humour and a surprisingly big voice schools us through the four phrases and fortunes of Te Rauparaha who hid in a pit while his enemies fruitlessly searched and a local lady obligingly sat on him. Allen instructs us how to enunciate the Māori words and she and Burrows demonstrate how to affect the infamous facial guerning – women scowling, eyes wild; men with tongues stuck out. 

Allen talks about the ‘helpful disinhibition’ of haka and, as a woman, this is certainly its draw for me. My belly is slack so I can breathe into my diaphragm and my posture is what my mother would call ‘gauche’. I begin to enjoy the power and the swagger of my pose and the release of introjects around attraction and femininity. Over the hour, as we become more familiar with the glottal sounds and abrupt moves, I close my eyes and notice how strong my body feels, I feel the muscles of my upper arms, thighs, fists, eyes and how connected to and reassured I am by my wall of fellow, guerning colleagues. I feel both alive to my own phenomenology and almost inconsequential, a field event. I realise how few places in my life I get to feel like this. Also how glad I am no one is recording it.

Burrows grew up with haka, as a native New Zealander it has always been in his field, his body and the lineage of his ancestors. Initially he trained as a performer (he wasn’t very good he says) and today he’s less interested in a haka aesthetic (‘you guys aren’t very good either!’ he shouts with affection) rather than what it might unlock as a methodology; an ‘unconscious way to process’. Delegates at his workshops from Vodafone to Apple have experienced profound shifts at Haka Works management team-building events. Burrows is interested in the ‘why’ of these shifts and hopes that we, as psychotherapists, might help him add to his understanding by articulating some of ours. ‘We have a saying in Māori. ‘You can see the corners of the house, but not the corners of the heart. That’s your job. That’s what you guys [psychotherapists] see.’ 

I can only speak personally. I used my haka as a welcome mandate to drop any people pleasing and play with my power – licensing a safe exploration of aggression, which, as a woman, a therapist and a mother, I don’t typically allow. The subsequent dance helped me notice how desensitised I had become to some of these aspects. And how thoroughly I enjoyed reintegrating them. The last time I can remember using such sanctioned, healthy aggression was during childbirth three years ago and my haka gave me a profound gratitude for its creative, animal potentials. 

I imagine if, as therapists, we are required to draw from the greatest palette of emotions in the beneficence of our clients it makes sense for me to taste the pheromones and phenomenology of my own aggression in the safe container of a haka the better to understand my clients’ aggression and to be able to reach for my own, choicefully as and when required. (I am thinking about civil disobedience here. Increasingly.) Making contact with my aggression – like making contact with my white privilege or heteronormativity – threw up interesting questions for me about ownership, accountability and choice. Keeping these aggressions removed and remote feels like a convenient creative adjustment to a societal norm which would have us keep our greatest aggressions invisible and constitutional. 

Other delegates had markedly different experiences to mine. Haka in itself is a creatively indifferent vehicle; it is the intention you plug into the co-ordinates that dictates the experiment. For some haka became an experiment about contact or masculinity/femininity or virility. For others it was simply about the abandon of the dance – a lively event at the contact boundary. Some feedback afterwards was that the exercise could have been more gender-fluid (women would have liked to try on the men’s posture and vice versa); more relational (it would have been interesting to perform to one another and see what changed); less directed (there was an appetite to take a small section of the haka and to run and run and run it and see how it built). Ultimately though – from my unscientific straw poll based on talking to people in the lunch queue – it was a welcomed methodology. Welcomed as an awareness experiment to consciously capture, contain and magnify energy in awareness and before mobilisation. Or just welcomed as a tantrum touchstone for those of us who – like me – long ago lost our wildish permissions to ‘Hiiiiiiii!’

If you would like to give Karl and May Lee any feedback about your experience of haka at the UKAGP conference please email on [email protected] For details of Haka Works or to contact Karl about corporate workshops visit www.hakaworks.com.