My husband and I spent two magical weeks exploring the Hawaiian Islands over winter break. This was our first time traveling to Hawaii and from the moment I stepped off the plane in Kona on the Big Island I could feel that it was a very special place. A warm breeze was blowing in from the ocean, flowers were in bloom everywhere I looked, and everyone I saw seemed to be friendly and smiling. ‘Wow!’ I thought to myself, ‘These are the happiest people I have ever seen, anywhere on earth!’
It’s easy to understand why people living in Hawaii would be so happy-it is a truly beautiful place, blessed with many natural wonders and (mostly) gorgeous weather. After a few days of observing this underlying joy however, I began to realize there was something else at play. We chatted with locals as we explored different parts of the Big Island and they began sharing with us glimmers of the Hawaiian outlook on life. We got used to using the Hawaiian greeting of ‘Aloha’ upon meeting people and saying ‘Mahalo’ to thank those who offered us advice on beaches or local spots to check out. Along the way we started picking up on the deeper meaning of Aloha, realizing that the word encompasses much more than just ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’, as I had always thought. I started getting curious about what else Aloha meant when I saw bumper stickers and t-shirts with the words “Aloha Vibes Only”. At first I just thought it was a gimmicky way to use the one Hawaiian word tourists would recognize in order to sell more merch. Of course, this is partially true, but I had a feeling there was more to it than this. A couple days later, I had an epiphany when we were driving a gorgeous, winding road on the southeast side of the Big Island. Along this road there was a sign that read, “Please Drive With Aloha”. I got a big kick out of this because I had never seen anything like it before and it made me even more determined to find out more about the deeper meaning of this word and what it means to the people of Hawaii.
Throughout the rest of our trip, which took us to two other incredible Hawaiian Islands, Maui and Kaua’i, I looked for more information about the meaning of Aloha and ended up buying two books about Hawaiian philosophy. To my delight, the more I learned about the Hawaiian philosophy of Aloha, the more it reminded me of one of my favorite subjects, yoga philosophy! In a sense, the Hawaiian principle of ‘Aloha’ provides all-encompassing guidelines for living in harmony with the world around us, much like yoga philosophy’s Yamas and Niyamas (see my previous posts for more on the yamas and niyamas!).
In my research I have come across many different translations and definitions of Aloha and have also been cautioned that the Hawaiian language does not translate directly into English. Each syllable of a Hawaiian word can have multiple layers of meaning, making direct translation impossible. This makes sense because spending time on the Hawaiian Islands struck me in a lot of ways like how I imagine spending time on another planet might be. There are so many sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and experiences that I could not have fathomed before traveling there, so it follows that the language spoken in this magical place has nuances and layers that cannot be easily translated into a language that was developed elsewhere.
Despite all of this, what I have been able to glean from my research and personal experiences on the trip, the main objective of living the Way of Aloha or with the Spirit of Aloha is to live in harmony with oneself and the world all around. If I had to sum up yoga philosophy I would say its objective is pretty similar. When used as a greeting, the most direct translation of Aloha is “the breath of God is in our presence”. In other words, when I say Aloha to you I am acknowledging that the God that breathes life through me is the same as the God that breathes life through you. This reminds me a whole lot of the meaning of the word ‘namaste’ which is often translated as “the light in me bows to the light in you”. Both of these ideas are based on the premise that every living thing is connected by a oneness or unity and by remembering this connection we are able to more easily forget any differences that may come between us. During this time of extreme division in our world, I find myself being drawn to the idea of unity more and more and I feel called to spread its message. It seems to me that when you approach life from this feeling of oneness, you will not experience the kind of fear and suspicion of those that seem different from you that is, unfortunately, far too common. Recognizing that we have so much in common with every other living creature on the planet makes the world a much less scary and much more friendly-seeming place.
I came across a wonderful, deeper explanation of Aloha that breaks down the word into the letters that make it up, as if it were an acronym. For each letter, a Hawaiian word that is a part of the essence of Aloha is given and translated into English.
Akahai: Kindness, Careful offering, Modesty, Gentleness, Tenderness, Unpretentiousness, Unassuming, Unobtrusive
Lokahi: Oneness, Unity, Agreement, Harmony
Oluolu: Refreshing, Pleasant, Affable, Contentment, Happiness, Graciousness, Congeniality
Ha’ahaha: Humility, Humbleness, Self-effacing
Ahonui: Breath, Patience, Perseverance, Endurance, Tolerance
The principles outlined by this Aloha “acronym” are simple and straightforward-treat yourself and others with kindness, respect, tolerance, tenderness, and humility, and find contentment in remembering that we are all connected by the same breath and life force. The parallels to the Yamas and Niyamas of yoga are numerous!
I have one last Hawaiian idea to leave you with and that is the concept of “vertical time”. Hawaiian time is vertical, instead of linear. In vertical time there is no future, no past, only present. Linear time is the time your watch tells you, your schedule of events for each day, etc. This dichotomy is very similar to the ancient Greek concepts of Kairos, or timelessness, and Kronos, or chronological time. For Hawaiians, vertical time means freedom. It is the space we live in that is outside of the dictates of our schedule, where we can be in the now and feel the presence of things that are bigger than we are. The space where we can be free from the minutiae of our daily schedule and be present with what really matters. Their affinity for vertical time explains the relaxed, unhurried atmosphere that we experienced the entire two weeks we were in Hawaii. I have to admit it took some getting used to for me but once I surrendered to it, it was hard to come back! Hawaiians believe that it is in vertical time that we can find healing and connection. This all certainly rings true for me and I bet it does for you, too. I cherish the times that I am able to get away from the confines of the clock and enjoy the present moment by being in nature, spending time with friends, doing yoga, or going for a run with my dog. That time away from the clock always feels refreshing and replenishing. The good news is that we don’t need to be on a Hawaiian Island to experience vertical time (although it sure does help…!). The quickest shortcut to finding vertical time is our breath. Wherever we are if we slow down, close our eyes, and focus on our breath we can escape the bounds of linear time and find respite in vertical time, even for a moment.
I will leave you with perhaps my favorite translation of Aloha, which wonderfully incorporates the idea vertical time, “the joyful sharing of life energy in the present moment”. I love this concept so much and am trying to put it into use in my daily interactions with others by being present with everyone I come in contact with and recognizing the ways we are all connected.
PS Yes, we are scheming to find a way to move to Hawaii because we completely fell in love with it!
Wise Secrets of Aloha by Kahuna Harry Uhane Jim and Garnette Arledge
Hawaiian Shamanistic Healing: Medicine Ways to Cultivate the Aloha Spirit by Wayne Kealohi Powell and Patricia Lynn Miller