The soul of surfing and paddling: UH Hilo researcher explores the spiritual side of indigenous ocean sports

Harald Barkhoff, professor of kinesiology and exercise sciences, is researching how traditional ocean sports contribute to a general sense of being spiritual and feeling connected to indigenous environments.

By Susan Enright.

Harald Barkhoff
Harald Barkhoff

Eight years ago, Harald Barkhoff, professor of kinesiology and exercise sciences at the University of Hawai‘i 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.

“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,” Barkhoff explains. “Research, within sport science and in particular sport psychology, looking into those sports is more than sparse.”

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


Prof. Barkhoff in a one-man race in Keauhou.
Prof. Barkhoff is an avid paddler and surfer. Here he participates in a one-man outrigger race in Keauhou, Hawai‘i Island. Courtesy photo. Click to enlarge.

The exploration of paddling in Barkhoff’s research began with a case study of a singular sportsman crossing the infamous Ka‘iwi Channel between Moloka‘i and Oʻahu in a one-man outrigger canoe during a Ka‘iwi 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 Ka‘iwi Channel. When reflecting on the spiritual experience, including “reflective practice” with Hawaiian practitioners, it was found that crossing the Ka‘iwi Channel may have served as a profound rite of passage for the individual in the guise of a secularized sport event.

Additionally, says Barkhoff, it might also have served as wahi pana—a Hawaiian sacred portal or place toward acceptance into Hawaiian environments.

The single case study, “Crossing the Channel: Spirituality in Outrigger Canoe Paddling,” is in its final stages as Barkhoff works on a final version of an article.

He says that although he is principal investigator of the study, the project greatly benefited from invaluable input and feedback during the “reflection phase” by several colleagues: Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, interim vice chancellor for student affairs and director of Kīpuka, Manulani Aluli Meyer, scholar and practitioner of Hawaiian and indigenous epistemology at UH Hilo and UH West O‘ahu, and Taupōuri Tangarō, a cultural practitioner and professor of Hawaiian studies at Hawai‘i Community College.

Kerri Inglis, associate professor of history at UH Hilo, provided crucial information on the history of outrigger canoe paddling in Hawaiʻi.

“This is a truly interdisciplinary—throughout the UH System—study,” says Barkhoff.


Prof. Barkhoff at his home surf spot Pohoiki in Puna, stand up surfing.
Prof. Barkhoff at his home surf spot Pohoiki in Puna. “It was a small day so I switched to SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard),” he says. “Itʻs a great combination of the two: paddling and surfing.” Courtesy photo. Click to enlarge.

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.

To investigate, 100 surfers were recruited from the Hawaiian islands and the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Participants reported their surfing habits and levels of their surfing experience and their experienced spirituality. Results indicated that spiritual surfing experiences are related to a general sense of being spiritual.

However, says Barkhoff, the findings of both studies (the sole case study and the 100 surfers) have implications for the role of spirituality not only in Hawai‘i sports but general sport participation using an indigenous, holistic approach.

Barkhoff is currently collaborating with Amrhein, who serves as principal investigator, on another study aiming to examine the effects of a surfing course intervention on depression, anxiety, spirituality, and quality of life. Barkhoff initiated and developed the course, and it was taught by local surfer and certified ocean lifeguard Pulama O’Shaughnessy.

In this study, two classes that enrolled in the UH Hilo surfing course were asked to complete a baseline and follow-up assessment to see if learning to surf led to changes in an individual’s depression, anxiety, spirituality, and quality of life.

The study is in the data analysis phase at this time and should be completed in spring of 2016. The results could suggest that surfing leads to better mental health outcomes.


Barkhoff, Amrhein and Heiby will be presenting their findings at an upcoming conference, “Healing Our Spirit Worldwide—The Seventh Gathering,” Nov. 18 in New Zealand. It’s the only known conference to address spirituality within the context of indigenous potential.

The planned presentation is entitled, “Hoe wa‘a & he‘e nalu—Spirituality in outrigger canoe paddling & surfing in Hawai‘i.”

“Many of the most well-known and respected indigenous leaders and practitioners are scheduled to present at the conference, making this an exciting opportunity to present our research and further connect to our indigenous community,” says Barkhoff.

(Side note: Barkhoff was part of Amrhein’s master thesis committee—Heiby was chair—that resulted in a first paper just accepted for publication: Amrhein, M., Barkhoff, H., & Heiby, E.M. (in press). Spirituality, Depression, and Anxiety among Ocean Surfers. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology.)

Applied learning

Barkhoff is one of six faculty mentors for the innovative Living-Learning Communities in student housing at UH Hilo. The communities provide first-year students the opportunity to live with others who share the same interests. The students take a shared class together and have learning experiences together outside the classroom. Each community in the program—there are six—has a faculty mentor, who teaches one of their courses and engages with students in learning activities outside class.

Barkhoff is mentor for the Health and Wellness Community, and teaches a University 101 class for his group and facilitates applied learning activities. With support from housing staff, he chose canoe paddling as his community’s applied learning experience and invited other living-learning communities to participate in a paddling adventure a couple of weekends ago at Hilo Bay. For some of the students, it was the first time they were ever in a canoe.

Student taking selfie on canoe.
Students on an applied learning excursion, paddling in Hilo Bay, Nov. 1, 2015. Courtesy photo of UH Hilo Student Housing. Click to enlarge.
Group photo.
Students gather for photo during a paddling excursion to Hilo Bay, Nov. 1, 2015. Photo courtesy of UH Hilo Student Housing. Click to enlarge.

“The activity aimed to explore and connect with the spiritual and traditional aspects of our Hawaiian culture through the physical application of the ancient and contemporary sport of outrigger canoe paddling,” says Barkhoff. He says it’s a holistic way of learning in and through Hawaiʻi environments: Ma ka Hana ka ʻIke, ma ka ʻIke ke Ola or Applied Learning.

In addition to sharing information about paddling and its role in indigenous and Native Hawaiian environments, this type of applied learning activity also supports the UH Hilo and UH System strategic goals in regard to “Hawaiʻi Papa O Ke Ao,” a systemwide initiative supporting an indigenous and Hawaiian approach in teaching, research, and service.

“The hope is to support UH Hilo’s process for transforming the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo into a Hawaiian place of learning,” Barkhoff explains.

More photos of the paddling excursion to Hilo Bay, Nov. 1, 2015 (courtesy of UH Hilo Student Housing), click photos to enlarge:

Coach Nohili, Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, and Prof. Barkhoff.
(l-r) Jonah Nohili, UH Hilo Canoe Club Coach, who provided access to UH Hilo canoes and paddles and taught students the different techniques of Hawaiian canoe paddling; Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, interim vice chancellor for student affairs and director of Kīpuka, who has helped with cultural components of Barkhoff’s studies; and Prof. Barkhoff. Hilo Bay excursion, Nov. 1, 2015.


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.