Polynesian Healing System: Origins and Practices


A healthy state is vital importance for every human being. When health challenges arise, people immediately forget about other problems, such as money or the environment. Individuals attempt to find assistance by visiting hospitals and administering medications. At the same time, people can enhance health or consciousness through non-traditional rituals. Hawaiian medicine, termed kanaka maoli lapau, is grounded in integral healing and union with the cosmos and the components. Native Hawaiians who immigrated from Polynesia religiously believed that mana’s spiritual forces were required for the medical discipline. Hawaiians believed in the value of harmony and consistency, and used local plants for treatment. Thus, it is essential to examine Polynesian healing systems and identify the origins of the system and the basic practices.

The Origin of the Healing System

It is significant to mention that Native Hawaiians are the primary representatives of this healing system. According to their legends, they are descendants of Papa, the earth mother, and Wakea, the sky father (Aluli & McGregor, n.d.). At the same time, they consider forests, oceans, winds, and other natural phenomena as their ancestors. Even modern inhabitants note that water and earth have healing properties (Aluli & McGregor, n.d.). Therefore, Polynesian healing systems derived their origins precisely from the culture of the Native Hawaiians. However, traditional healing was practiced in Hawai’i, which included the concept of nature and history. The ancestors of modern Hawaiians believed that religion and healing were connected, and thus they shaped their understanding of illness, health, and death. The origin of Polynesian healing systems is explained by the fact that Hawaiians, like other Polynesians, assumed that there was a close relationship between humans and nature. They endowed every object, plant, animal, and body with spiritual properties and content (Aluli & McGregor, n.d.). Consequently, the Polynesians asserted that all living beings had a soul and embodied the forces of nature.

Humans believed that there was no supreme God and that the different gods were the souls of dead people. Therefore, they prayed to their ancestors in times of illness or other problems that befell them. The Polynesians claimed that even a word could affect a person’s health. Accordingly, they had many medical practices ranging from herbs to witchcraft to terms. The Hawaiians believed that certain plants were endowed with psychological healing powers, whether or not they had therapeutic value (Stanford Medicine, n.d.). Thus, for a long time, Polynesians practiced folk healing. It is significant to observe that today there is a renewed interest in practices that existed in the past.

The Most Important Causes of Disease and Death

The reasons for ill health and death explain the worldview of Native Hawaiians. Since ancient times, Hawaiians have maintained the conviction that there is no life without health. It is essential to remark that they believe that the body, mind, and spirit function as one and that disturbance affects a person’s general state. Accordingly, one of the causes of death is that the body cannot be healed without healing the soul (Hilgenkamp & Pescaia, 2003). However, the Polynesians considered the primary cause of disease in humans to be a violation of the laws of nature. If a human being fell sick, that person was punished for having committed a certain unworthy deed or offended spirit (Hilgenkamp & Pescaia, 2003). Therefore, the primary condition for improving health is harmony with one’s environment and a positive attitude toward nature.

It should be emphasized that preserving the earth has a healing effect on health while neglecting it causes disease. Polynesians consider that if a person does not permit the wind, earth, trees, or ocean to affect his body and spirit, the individual does not receive healing energy. Consequently, one has a high risk of becoming ill and dying. Traditional healing can only be obtained by maintaining harmony between the gods, the earth, and the ancestors, according to Native Hawaiian philosophy (Hilgenkamp & Pescaia, 2003). Thus, if there is no sense of wholeness, illness and death occur.

The Healers

At the beginning of the healing in Hawaii, an order of priests named kahuna; they practiced restoring balance to the cosmos to help people. Their mission was to develop and pass on knowledge to help people in the future. The higher ranks of the priests treated the chiefs and had comprehensive knowledge (Judd, 1994). Their apprentices included kahuna and physicians to assist ordinary human beings and prepare successors to transmit knowledge. The apprenticeship of the kahuna began in childhood, first selecting children who showed an interest in learning (Judd, 1994). Then they spent all day teaching the boys; they devoted all their time to studying herbs and religious enlightenment.

The celestials even had their code, according to which they could perform only those practices that were beneficial to the patients. Thus, in Hawaii, healers were licensed, and in 1886 an act was passed creating the Hawaii Board of Health, which checked the quality of kahuna healing.

Later, after the state of the United States challenged Hawaii, this law was repealed, but healers continued to practice medicine (Judd, 1994). Notably, the healers decided to band together to form a common knowledge base to ensure that essential practices were not lost so that the next generations could use them. At the same time, the passage of new laws requires healers to be licensed and thus to have their expertise validated (Judd, 1994). This provides extra reassurance for the patient’s health and forces healers to develop their abilities constantly.

One Method of Healing

It is imperative to underline that healing the body also requires spiritual enlightenment. Hence the traditional la’au lapa’au introduces a holistic treatment affecting the body, mind, and spirit. The method of using the low-lying ‘awa has been practiced for centuries because this plant mainly grows on the Hawaiian Islands. Healers recommend combining it with various other substances to achieve the healing goals more rapidly (Timboy, n.d.). It is generally accepted that awa began to be used for healing by the first people who lived in Hawaii. The plant is used to treat illnesses in several forms: fresh, dried roots and an awa drink that functions as a pain reliever (Timboy, n.d.). In Lā’au Lapa’au or Hawaiian natural medicine, awa was consumed to assist with various health issues.

The root of the herb is commonly used to produce beverages that have a sedative influence to a slight to medium level. Generally, decoction from this plant is used to treat insomnia, kidney disorders, chills, childhood illnesses, headaches and fatigue. It is important to mention that the ash from the burnt leaves of awa healers is recommended for the treatment of newborn children (Timboy, n.d.). Hawaiians traditionally use awa with brief, thick, dark violet-colored interspaces to manage diseases of the urinary system. Awa is useful for the treatment of fungal illness, menstrual irregularities and respiratory obstruction. Thus, the low-lying ‘awa has several uses and is supposed to help with many ailments. The healing effects of this plant are attributed to the fact that, according to Hawaiian beliefs, ava provides a connection between humans and their gods.

The System in the United States

Although people in the United States tend to manage disease using traditional medicine, some physicians have begun to study the principles of treatment that the ancient Indians used. They are now investigating the Hawaiian system and its effects on a person’s mental devotions and immune system. For example, the discipline of psychoneuroimmunology has started to examine the impact of Polynesian healing systems. At the same time, internationally, the World Health Organization promotes the research of local medicine and studies its effectiveness in treating the most severe illnesses (Judd, 1994). Native Hawaiian healing practices have recently gained popularity in the United States, but they are not yet on the registry of officially recognized therapies.


Hence, Native Hawaiians had a system for treating illnesses in which they used plants and the power of nature. They believed that plants could cure a wide range of diseases and that maintaining a balance between the human body and nature would help humans reduce the risk of death. Unique human teachings were held to provide a cure and ensure that knowledge was preserved for generations to come. The practice is not actively used by patients in the U.S. now, but it has recently been popularized in the community.


Aluli, N. E., & McGregor, D. P. (n.d.). Aina: Ke Ola O Na Kanaka’Oiwi.

Hilgenkamp, K., & Pescaia, C. (2003). Traditional Hawaiian healing and Western influence. Californian Journal of Health Promotion, 1(SI), 34-39.

Judd, N. L. (1994). Native Hawaiian traditional healing. Hawaii Medical Journal, 53(12).

Stanford Medicine. (n.d.). Traditional health beliefs: Native Hawaiian values

Timboy, M. (n.d.). La‘au Lapa‘au: Medicinal plants and their healing properties. Ke Ola Magazine.

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