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Rongoā māori

Māori medicine

"Rongoā māori is a taonga (gift). It is something that is highly valued, to be treasured, treated with the upmost care and respect." (Quote from Pa Ropata).

Rongoā māori is traditional Māori healing. It encompasses herbal remedies, physical therapies and spiritual healing.

Rongoā māori was taught within Māori whānau and hapū through verbal communication and observation alongside a tohunga (an expert with the knowledge). Although few people have had a chance to learn in this way, the growing interest in rongoā māori has allowed for the development of workshops and more formal qualifications.

Rongoā māori is seen in two main forms – rongoā rākau (plant remedies) and Te Oo Mai Reia (spiritual healing).

Rongoā rākau

Rongoā rākau are plant- or tree-based medicinal remedies. For examples of plants used in rongoā māori, see Demystifying Rongoā Māori: Traditional Māori healing.

Te Oo Mai Reia

Te Oo Mai Reia uses physical techniques alongside spiritual ones. Te Oo Mei Reia can be seen as Māori healing through prayer, cleansing work and bodywork, known as mirimiri (massage) and kōmiri (deep massage). The name of this type of healing and the variations may change from iwi to iwi but the principles remain the same.

Traditional teachings

The most fundamental part of rongoā māori is the traditional spiritual teachings, which can be seen as the basis of all traditional medicine. For Māori, rongoā is a part of the Māori culture from Tāne (God of the forest) who retrieved the three baskets of knowledge from Io (God) with the knowledge and teachings to guide us in this world.

As Māori, we believe we are part of the children of Tāne, along with the creatures of the forest such as the birds, trees and plants. So, we have a strong connection to rongoā rākau. To learn rongoā, people must become a part of the world of Tāne. They become connected and immersed in the forest, learning about a relationship far beyond the physical elements of the trees and plants. To use Te Oo Mai Reia, the healer must become immersed in ancient spiritual teachings while becoming a vessel to achieve the healing through Io alongside the use of physical touch to create balance and shift energies.

Using rongoā

The journey to becoming a rongoā practitioner varies from person to person and in more recent times is becoming more formalised. In the past and even in more recent days, kaumātua from many iwi have feared the consequences of passing on their knowledge to those who may use it for the wrong reasons or skip the important lessons, becoming liabilities to whānau and their patients due to mistakes.

Over the years rongoā practices have been seen as a scarcity that has encouraged those with the knowledge to come forth and educate. Rongoā is often used by kaumātua (elders) due to their knowledge and upbringing. We must not forget that people have been using rongoā for thousands of years as a holistic system of healing. They may want to use it with or as an alternative to Western medicine. It is often used by those who are aware of healers in their area that provide rongoā, with clear instructions on how to use it correctly and safely.

The role of rongoā in pain management

With guidance from a healer, Rongoā māori can help manage your pain by changing the balance and negative energies within your body. Māori traditional medicine is more widely known for the medicinal properties from the native trees and plants, which are often used to address acute pain. But the most fundamental part of all rongoā is the spiritual component. The spiritual healing focuses more on the cause of pain, using techniques such as massage and prayers to help release negative energies.

Whānau may use rongoā rākau as a first line before seeking Western medicine for a variety of conditions. Some examples are:

Someone with acute or chronic pain may seek rongoā rākau to treat the illness or area causing pain. They may then seek Te Oo Mei Reia to help understand the root cause of the pain, to allow for the process of healing through a combination of practices as discussed above.

Safely collecting and using rongoā

For rongoā rākau to be used, the rongoā practitioner will have knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plants and trees and the safe practices. Their awareness of how to care for themselves when healing their patient is also important.

For rongoā rākau to be used safely, the practitioner must be open to the Māori world, in particular karakia. Rongoā can be harvested differently by different iwi and healers will generally have their own special place they will harvest from. Most principles will align with the following:

It's important that the practice around rongoā is upheld and maintained. The process not only ensures the practitioner is safe in choosing the right tree or plant but also in ensuring the best healing.

Safety concerns

Some people may be unwilling to admit to their doctor that they're using traditional rongoā. It's best to tell them so they're aware of any conflict that may occur. We do not have evidence around any significant interactions with Western and rongoā rākau. But some plants have toxic properties. So, it's important that people who collect rongoā have the correct knowledge. As people gain more knowledge, we must remember that it's a lifetime journey with ancient traditions that must be followed to create optimal health.

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Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Health Navigator NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub collaborative. Page created February 2021.

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