Haka for health

German fitness instructor Bernhard Jakszt (centre) demonstrates an Aroha haka fitness exercise....
German fitness instructor Bernhard Jakszt (centre) demonstrates an Aroha haka fitness exercise. Photo by Bernhard Jakszt.
German fitness instructor Bernhard Jakszt (centre) demonstrates an Aroha haka fitness exercise....
German fitness instructor Bernhard Jakszt (centre) demonstrates an Aroha haka fitness exercise. Photo by Bernhard Jakszt.

Was it the haka that gave the All Blacks the edge last weekend? Certainly a German fitness instructor thinks it can make a difference, Jeff Kavanagh reports.

Most of us have practised at least a few of the movements, whether at school cultural or sports events, or in front of the TV as kids and excited adults, slapping our legs in time with the All Blacks as they lay down a prematch challenge to their opponents.

What few of us would have ever imagined, however, is performing parts of a haka in order to tone our buttocks, thighs and abdomen.

But that's exactly what's required of those that practise "Aroha", a workout programme developed by Bernhard Jakszt, a German fitness instructor based in Berlin.

A self-professed lover of New Zealand, the 45-year-old first visited here in 1991, returning to live and build a house in Auckland in the late '90s, during which time, he says, the Maori people and their traditions made a strong impression on him.

Now living back in his home town, he explains that it was this contact with Maori culture, and particularly the haka, that inspired his fitness programme.

Speaking from Berlin, Jakszt is keen to emphasise that the Aroha programme, which takes its name from the word for "love" in Maori, is not in itself a "haka workout", but rather uses elements of the traditional Maori dance form and "its expression of the strength within".

It's this expression, combined with the body control of soft kung fu and the flowing movements of tai chi, he claims, that produces an "effective and easy whole-body workout", which in turn is "an ideal fat and calorie killer".

Other benefits include a general feeling of wellbeing, the release of hidden energy, and setting the mind at ease.

Watching the promotional video of the workout on his Aroha Academy website, it's difficult to discern too much in the way of an actual haka beyond a few rudimentary movements; and the programme's music, which Jakszt says was specially composed for the workout using a three-quarters beat and a mix of Polynesian sounds, drums and the didgeridoo, actually sounds more Riverdance than Maori dance.

That hasn't prevented the workout gaining popularity in his home country, and the former national rowing champ and Les Mills trainer has been running Aroha classes for the past six years, with more than 1500 people in Germany and Switzerland regularly practising his routine.

Its low-impact movements, he says, are ideal for people over 30, who exercise not only in order to lose weight.

Judging by the large proportion of middle-aged women dressed in Aroha-branded tank-tops participating in the promotional video, it is a programme that seems to appeal to an even more specific demographic.

Furthermore, given some of the comments that Aroha Academy videos have garnered on YouTube, it would be fair to say that the workout is certainly not everyone's cup of tea.

Accused of stealing Maori symbols and terms - the Aroha Academy and its clothing range feature a stylised Maori fishhook design as a logo - by posters on the popular video website, and told that he should use elements of his own culture instead, Jakszt says he did not take the comments too seriously.

"When I was in New Zealand all the people, Maori and Pakeha, who got in contact with me and the programme were absolutely positive about it," he says.

"I did the workout with Kelston Girls' [College] in Auckland, and they loved it. It's important to me that I did it with people from New Zealand to show them that I don't want to steal their culture from them, but just that I'm inspired by the haka."

He says the reaction from the school was positive.

"The girls asked me: 'Can we please do this every week, now?"'

Not that he has plans to offer classes in New Zealand any time soon, reckoning the market's too small and Les Mills too dominant in the fitness industry here to gain a decent foothold.

"If I did decide to offer it in New Zealand, I'd probably have to change the name," he said, admitting that he'd also have to deal with certain people who did not like the idea of a German doing a haka-inspired workout.

However, those people may have to get used to the idea of a whole host of nationalities performing variations of the haka if the man behind Zumba, Beto Perez, gets his way. On a recent trip to New Zealand, the inventor of the global fitness craze, which incorporates hip-hop, samba and belly-dancing into its moves, said he was interested in including the Maori dance in his next routine.

Given that 10 million people in 110 countries worldwide currently practise Zumba, that could mean a lot more people performing parts of the haka in the future, and not just when the All Blacks are playing.

- www.aroha-academy.de



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