The Hā Tool – a Māori-inspired stress and anxiety necklace – is a breathing tool that calms the body and mind, quickly relieving mental distress through the Hā (breath).

Founder Julia Wikeepa [Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi] says Hā Habit was inspired by Māori and Western philosophies and concepts and is a solution to help people better navigate stress and anxiety.  

“I know how hard it can be to stay stuck in our habitual patterns of reacting to your life circumstances instead of responding with pausing, breathing, and becoming more aware of thoughts, actions, and interactions with the world,” she says.

Hā Habit acts both as an intervention and a prevention, building resilience against poor mental wellbeing and supporting people to recovery and calm, Wikeepa says.

People use the Hā tool to assist in giving up smoking/vaping, developing breathing habits for asthmatics, substance abuse, insomnia, flying (fear of), and emotional eating. It’s a tool that helps bring about awareness, Wikeepa says.

She launched the Hā tool in January last year and just launched the children’s version this month (October), which comes with affirmations and Hā meditations to help children develop the ability to self-regulate when they have big emotions.

Wikeepa says the tool is helpful for parents to get their children into daily Hā habits and positive self-affirmation.

“We’ve already helped thousands of adults to navigate stress and anxiety, and now we want to help children develop these habits from a young age so it becomes natural.”

How to use the Hā tool:

Wikeepa has also been busy working on a research journal looking into breathwork within a Māori context.

“There’s nothing from a Te Ao Māori perspective that talks about breathing as a tool for resilience to help anxiety, to help calm.”

The business idea came about following Wikeepa’s own challenges with mental health and those of her son.

“He was dealing with self-destructive behaviours and thoughts. It was a really hard time for both of us. I was stressed out, reacting. So, part of that journey was to try to find ways to help calm both of us. [To know more about] nervous system regulation and breathing, understanding how to do that were some of the things I came across.”

Wikeepa spent one and a half years trying different breathing techniques and strategies around emotional intelligence to help both her and her son’s health. Julia was able to respond to her son in a more calm and compassionate way over time, which she says saw a massive 180-degree change, thanks to these interventions. 

What followed was even more exciting. The mother and son started a business together to help rangatahi struggling with mental health challenges, called Puhi and Toa – packaging gifts containing Māori-inspired plushies, and jewellery [this business began before Hā Habit was created].

Wikeepa tapped into her knowledge and expertise in Social Sciences, Psychology, and Human Resource Management to lead workshops on navigating stress and anxiety using both a Western and Māori perspective. She focused mainly on social organisations, schools, and businesses.

“We actually went into schools and started teaching breathing, hauora [a holistic view of health and wellbeing] and how to get through big, hard emotions.”

The Hā Tool.

Puhi and Toa was put on the back burner as Wikeepa decided to focus on developing a Māori-inspired version of a breathing tool. This business would later become  Hā Habit.

Puhi and Toa re-launched this month though under new leadership – Wikeepa’s son, Manaiah and his cousins Kya Arthur, Karewa Arthur, Moana-Lee Arthur, Leila Arthur, and Isla Wikeepa. A way to get young Māori into business, Wikeepa says.

Hā Habit is a first for New Zealand, says Wikeepa.

“We don’t have anything in New Zealand like it, we don’t have anything as far as a Māori-inspired one. I could tap into my culture. Obviously, we have the Taonga pūoro [the traditional musical instruments of the Māori].

“Same concept, when you play the flute, right, there’s that prolonged breathing that really helps to calm people, it shifts you into a parasympathetic state. So, I started looking a bit into different practitioners of pūoro. There’s a little bit of literature out around the calming effect and using it for well-being.

“In Te Ao Māori, we Whakapapa to the hā the breath with our  pūrākau (stories). So, there’s all these different influences I put into our New Zealand Ha Tool.”

Mental health issues impact a large percentage of New Zealanders, and the country has seen a significant increase in the proportion of people with poor mental wellbeing, up from 22% in 2018 to 28% in 2021.

Wikeepa collaborates with other businesses and organisations to expand her work and is on the lookout for new stockists for both her junior and adult Hā tools. At the moment, people can buy the Hā tool online and in a few boutique shops around New Zealand, including Hapa in Christchurch, Awhi Company in Tauranga, and Ahu Boutique in Rotorua and Wellington.

Within the first year of launching Hā Habit, Wikeepa’s business made around $225k. She says anyone can be an entrepreneur if they want to. But how differently would she do things if she had to do it all over again?

Father and daughter breathing together.

“I don’t know that I would do it any differently for the fact that every part of it teaches you. And those are crucial, those learning experiences when you make mistakes, when you just don’t know what to do,” Wikeepa says.

“A key part of an entrepreneur is to become a problem solver. Figuring out whatever problem you have in your business.”

Wikeepa had to figure out how to get the funding for her business and how to create a breathing tool.

“I received funding from WINZ [Work and Income New Zealand]. They have a business grant to get beneficiaries off the benefit and into business. However, it was quite hard to get. I applied once and got denied. They go through a rigorous process to make sure you’ve got a solid business plan.

“The rest I borrowed little bits from Whanau. I haven’t managed to get any other funding at this stage, but it’s something I’m exploring so I can expand.”

She says having that calmness and surrender with outcomes helped her grow as a person.

“To know that ‘you know what, It’s okay I’ll figure it out, we’ll get there.’ Rather than just chucking it in. Because that’s what a lot of people do, they’ll start something and because it gets so hard, a lot of that big emotion comes up it’s like ‘ahh’, and people just give up.

“I am very attuned to things of the spiritual nature. I believe I have God and my tupuna helping me, my ancestors. I really connect to nature and be still and get that guidance to figure it out. I think when you have a still mind, more comes to you, as far as answers and solutions.”

She says believing in yourself is key, something she had to work on for years, alongside changing her mindset.

Her advice for up-and-coming Māori entrepreneurs? Rejection is protection, to never give up and do what it takes to go to the next stage.

“There’s always a way. So many times I’ve been rejected in my life. It’s really about not taking no for an answer and finding a way to make what you want to happen, happen.”

Story by Mina Amso.

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