Kava in Oceania

The plant properly classified as Piper methysticum is known by many names, but the most traditional is kava kava. Piper methysticum translates literally as "intoxicating pepper", but kava is certainly not intoxicating in the same sense as alcohol, which is what most of us in the Western world associate with the word. (It also bears little resemblance to the peppers that we're accustomed to!) Although kava is a member of the pepper family and distantly related to black pepper, its chemical profile is unique in the botanical world.

Indeed, it is difficult to compare kava kava to anything else in the world. The most common comparison made is to alcohol, but even that comparison is a bit forced. The effects feel quite different, and kava doesn't have any of the negative effects that alcohol has, such as dehydration, sleep disruption, or addictiveness. In fact, kava is sometimes used as a dietary supplement to encourage healthy sleep patterns*, as well as to promote calm and improve mental focus*.

Short of actually experiencing the effects of kava kava first-hand, the best way to obtain an understanding of its benefits is to examine the place it holds in the ancient societies of western Oceania. In many different ways across these various cultures, kava kava serves as an integral part of society.

In Hawaii, over thirty strains of kava kava have been used for thousands of years amongst all levels of society and all age groups. Kava is called 'awa in Hawaii, where it's considered a sacred beverage that can bring divine inspiration in ritual settings. Some varieties of kava, such as the kavain-rich mo'i and sacred 'awa hiwa, or black kava, were reserved for ritual use by kings and priests (kahuna).

The peoples of Vanuatu more or less confine their kava kava consumption to recreational use, but their concept of "recreational" is much different than ours. Indeed, kava kava serves a vital social function in Vanuatu, as people have been gathering in huts called nakamals ("place for peace") for thousands of years to share this sacred beverage. The definition of nakamal has even expanded to include urban kava bars where foreign visitors can get a taste of a traditional Vanuatu brew. Mostly, though, nakamals provide a place where native ni-Vanuatu people can relax and socialize in the evenings. This informal, social tradition is vitally important to the fabric of the society of Vanuatu.

In Tonga, kava kava accompanies all major societal events, including weddings, funerals, and even major governmental proceedings such as the coronation of a new king, called pongipongi. In fact, without kava kava present at this ceremony a king can't even technically be sworn in! In other words, kava kava is essential in making the coronation official. This rule also holds true for the naming of a chief in the country of Futuna. On Wallis Island, or Uvea, kava kava is served in an elaborate ceremony in which young boys are selected to prepare and serve it to adults as a sort of coming of age ritual.

Kava kava is an integral part of society in the islands of Fiji, shared amongst families and friends. Kava has been referred to as the "national drink" of Fiji, where it is called yaquona and commonly sipped throughout the day, like mate in Argentina or tea in England. It's traditional to make a gift of a bundle of kava (called a sevusevu) when visiting a village in Fiji. Interestingly, it's also sometimes used to help mediate disputes between rival factions. Kava is said to help relieve tension and hostility, which allows quarreling groups to more easily come to an agreement and understanding*.

Kava kava used to have a more formal place in Rotuman society as part of elaborate rituals. But as this culture has modernized, kava is now mainly used by people informally to relax or as an accompaniment to song and dance.

We in the West are still discovering what the peoples of Oceania have known for thousands of years -- that kava kava has many positive relaxing attributes*.This sacred plant that used to be available only in Oceania is now available to everyone, and the integration of kava into our own societies across the Western world is already well underway. Kava bars are springing up across the mainland U.S. from California to Florida, and online kava vendors are now shipping high-quality kava all over the world.

Although in many ways we've barely scratched the surface of what kava kava has to offer, the impact of this amazing plant on the world is already quite profound. Try some today to see exactly why this plant has been held in such high esteem in its indigenous regions for generations — the best kept secret of Oceania could be just what you need to bring peace and joy to your life!

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to cure, treat, diagnose, or prevent any disease.