Growing up in Hawaii I didn’t know it was a unique place to live. So far away from every other place in the world, I didn’t know it was special because it was all I knew.
To me it was just where I was born and raised. I took in the beauty and life that shone vibrantly all around me—the scent of pikake and plumeria drifting through the trade winds, the stunning vistas uniting earth and sky, so many living things unseen and growing beneath the surface of the sea. I would hike up to waterfalls and breathe deeply, the moist air filling up my lungs as if I could hold all of that beauty inside of me.
When I was little, we would go to Long’s in Manoa Marketplace and I would see all the tourists, often pale and sunburnt from too many hours at the beach, talking in relaxed vacation voices about which postcard to buy. I remember wondering why they wanted a picture of Diamond Head or Hanauma Bay. It was just the beach to me.
And then when we moved to the mainland, I realized. I got it. Not everywhere had the same relaxed vibe, easygoing friendliness, and sense of community I grew up with in Hawaii. Not everywhere was quite as beautiful.
Community and beauty, these things exist elsewhere, but if you’ve ever been to Hawaii and explored off the beaten track, away from the tourist traps and cheesy shows, then you know there’s something unique in the people who live here, in their lifestyle and way of being.
Keeping the Culture Alive
There is a difference between native Hawaiian culture and the culture of Hawaiii. As a University of Hawaii grad, I can tell you the grace with which the Hawai’inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge works to keep the Hawaiian culture alive. Preserved through generations of oral storytelling, Hawaiian culture once thrived, but with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 and the passing from British to American influence, including the missionaries, the Hawaiian language and culture were almost decimated.
One of the ways the Hawaiian culture was kept alive is hula, a graceful dance accompanied by oli (chant) and mele (song) honoring and remembering Hawaii’s stories, deities, and land. Hula uses hand gestures that are symbolic of different elements or emotions—there’s one hand gesture for land and another for sea, for example. If you know what they mean, the stories come alive through movement and chanting.
It’s not all that different from the way mudras and yoga poses are symbolic and have kept the stories of Hanuman and the idea of the lotus flower alive for thousands of years. The practice of yoga, like Hawaiian history, was passed and preserved orally through teachers and students communing together.
A Shared History
Hawaiian culture and pride saw a resurgence in the 1970s, leading to what we see today in the fight for Hawaiian rights and the work being done to perpetuate Hawaiian culture.
The Hawaii of today is a shared history. It is the story of the native Hawaiians who are still looking for restitution of what was once their land and now belongs to the United States. It is also the story of people who came from incredibly different cultures from around the world to settle in this little archipelago in the middle of the Pacific ocean—2,400 miles away from the nearest continent.
My great-grandfather was one of those people. He emigrated from Japan to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations. Families came from all over the world to work in whaling, the sandalwood trade, and in the sugar cane and pineapple fields. They came from everywhere—Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, Portugal (how the ukelele was born), Spain, Scotland, the UK, and beyond.
The Hawaii of Today
The Hawaii of today is a multi-layered tapestry of different cultures and beliefs. Some people say the aloha spirit you find in Hawaii comes from a core Hawaiian value that has always existed in Hawaii. Yet there are others in the Hawaiian community who say that the idea of aloha spirit was created years ago for tourism and to perpetuate the idea that Hawai’i is somehow this perfect paradise, where everyone is happy and sips Mai Tais each night at sunset.
Whether the discourse around the origins of the aloha spirit are ever reconciled, I can say this: After having traveled around the world, from Paris to Istanbul to Singapore, there is no place quite like Hawaii. Perhaps the aloha spirit is born out of the culture of Hawaii itself, a place where myriad people from such vast and varied backgrounds still find a way to live and work together. To share meals and influence each other. To take what’s beautiful, funny, or odd from each other’s cultures and create the Hawaii we know and love today.
It’s what you feel when you visit. It’s the guy who lets you go ahead of him at the four-way intersection, the neighbor who gives you free mango from his backyard, the feeling of community that is still surviving despite the growing population. Like the spirit we have when we practice yoga and meet at festivals with like-minded spirits, it’s this special energy of respect and understanding that we are all a part of something bigger—a community, a people, a way of life. Something valued and shared and kept alive.
As yogis, when we travel anywhere that’s not home, we can arrive at our destination carrying our mindfulness with us, open and aware of the people who live there, seeing beyond the surface to what is thriving and alive among the land and the sea.
Photos by Keith Fujita.
Kara Fujita Jovic believes in the power of the breath to center the soul, that love is a super power—for it always speaks the loudest—and that dancing in the kitchen while singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” may just infuse a meal with magical powers. When she’s not getting caffeinated on fresh air, sunshine, or the sea, you can find her creating, exploring, writing, and helping people find their own personal om.1