Meet Marawa the Amazing
HOOLA HOOP MASTER, AUTHOR, TEACHER
When you meet hula-hooping acrobat, author, and teacher Marawa Ibrahim (aka “Marawa the Amazing”), it’s no surprise to learn she holds 12 world records, including one for spinning 200 hoops at once. Ibrahim’s ebullience, drive, and discipline have taken her to the top of her profession with an impressive list of feats, from the London Olympics opening ceremony to starring as Josephine Baker on a New York stage to leading a group of fearless female hoopers known as The Majorettes.
Raised in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and the Middle East, Ibrahim decided to run away with the circus after high school...well, close: She toured circus schools in China before earning a Bachelor of Circus Arts in Australia. She specialized in swing trapeze and hula hoops, but ultimately, the hoop trumped the high top. “Once I started traveling with the hoops, the thing that blew my mind was that universally, no one hates a hula hoop,” says Ibrahim with a smile. She’s proven that theory by performing in nearly every corner of the globe, often in high-heeled roller skates and colorful corsets.
Breezing through her Instagram or marveling at the glittery array of stilettos with wheels and fantastical costumes in her closet, it’s easy to pass off her art as a lark but the preparation and performances demand serious physical and mental rigor. “My way of portraying femininity, it requires a lot of strength,” says Ibrahim. “But I still really love to do it with some nice false eyelashes and a pair of high heels.”
Equal to her passion for hooping is her dedication to cultivating body confidence, especially in young girls. Her book, The Girl Guide: 50 Lessons In Learning To Love Your Changing Body is a fun, honest, and inspired manual for navigating the confusing and confounding journey that is puberty. No topic is taboo, from vaginal discharge to big butts to a poop quandary. For the record, it’s a fun, enlightening read no matter your age.
Her warm, wise advice is evident outside the realm of adolescence. We spent an afternoon at her sunny L.A. home to talk about why calories are meaningless, the case against exercise, and finding the freedom to speak the truth without fear.
How did your upbringing and culture inform your feelings on nutrition/wellness?
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and our house was two doors down from our grandma’s. Both my mom and my grandma kept really comprehensive vegetable gardens. We had everything we needed to eat from them. You didn't need to go to the shops. We even had a milk delivery guy. My mom was a vegetarian for a very long time and influenced me a lot as well. We would eat meat, but only a few times a week and it was well thought through. What I mean is that we looked at it as this is the protein/iron we need for the week. I was really shielded from sugar and junk food for a very long time. Looking back on it, I am grateful to have been brought up this way.
We composted, so we saw the whole cycle of growing, eating and replenishing the Earth. I understood the concept of vegetables and nutrients. We would run around and do a lot of sport, and then we'd eat a lot, potatoes and bread and things like that were fuel for exercise. When I got to high school, there were girls whose moms had them on diets, which I thought was so odd. It was the first time I heard "carbs were bad," I thought, "What are you talking about? How are you going to exercise if you don't eat a potato?" A lot of the girls on “diets” looked and felt tired. Yes, you are tired because you are not eating. You need to eat to have energy. It didn't make sense to me at all.
When I grew up, I began living in lots of places and traveling a lot so it was tricky to be mindful of food. I mean, you can’t have a vegetable garden on the road. I and a of other performers had strategies for eating whole. Some friends have a spice kit they travel with so they have the essentials for cooking in a neat little packet they can stow in their suitcase. Some friends even travel with good knives or a favorite frying pan so they can cook for themselves wherever. As acrobats, we have to look after our bodies and eat well. So if you are stuck somewhere and realize, they don’t have this or that, it’s nice to know you have some essentials on you.
Now that I'm sort of settled in L.A., even though I still travel a lot, I wanted to make sure I had a garden. I love to cook. On Sundays, I basically spend the whole day at home cooking. I pick from my garden and go to the farmer’s market for vegetables and I prep for the week. Then I can kind of eat throughout the week with the stuff I make on the weekend. One of the farmers I met told me about a hydro tower, and it’s the best thing in the world for someone like me. The base is like a big pot like you would use for a plant and has a tube that runs up through the middle of it. You can then attach brackets to grow whatever you like. Because it uses only a minimal amount of soil, you just plant the seeds, put on a timer and leave it alone. When I come back from a trip, I can’t believe how much there is. With it, I grow kale, microgreens, mustard greens, spinach. All the light vegetables. I also have coriander, basil, sorrel, and other herbs.
In my garden beds, I have onions, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, peppers, lots of jalapenos, celery, Brussels sprouts. I also have a strawberry tower, which is really cute.
The woman who owned this house before us was a wonderful gardener so there are lots of things I am always discovering. Recently, I found a blooming blueberry bush I never knew was there. Being in Southern California, we are lucky to also have lots of citrus trees in our yard including orange, lemon, lime. I also have a small garden with basil, cilantro, parsley and stuff like that. And a loquat tree. I love to make loquat jam and barbecue sauce from all of the fruit.
Any other things you are excited to grow?
Mushrooms. I am obsessed with mushrooms. I was listening to a podcast with author Michael Pollan and he called mushrooms the “internet of the forest” and I thought, “What does that mean?” I started looking into it and soon went down a rabbit hole. I started learning about how mushrooms communicate with the trees, and how they help to keep a forest survive. Just search “zombie ants” and you will learn the whole story. I realized how important mushrooms are and the nutrients they provide. I recently started growing my own mushrooms indoors including pearl oyster mushroom, pioppino mushrooms, and regular oyster mushrooms.
How big a role does nutrition play in your practice and performance schedule?
So important. My mom always explained like this: If you eat bread, you get the carbohydrates which give you the energy. The whole low-fat, calorie-centric world that America lives is strange to me. I still don’t understand what calories are and don’t measure my nutrition by them. To me, it doesn't make any sense at all. But eat some carbs, get the energy. That makes sense. And with that energy, you move your body, whether it’s going for a run, or jumping up and down or just getting through a busy day. So that’s why you eat the carbs early in the day. If you don’t have that fuel, you don’t have the energy. The other danger is this obsession some people have with fat-free. It seems like a cheat. Eat more and more and then eat only fat-free and you can cheat your body into thinking it ate less. There’s a real disconnect there to me. You can’t cheat your body. Also, real food tastes amazing. I have been a vegetarian in the past and try to eat mostly plant-based. If I do have meat, I make sure it is coming from a responsible butcher and they buy it from an organic, thoughtful farm source. I don't eat it every day. I eat it a few times a week. The rest of my diet is full of nuts and lentils. It balances it out. As a performer, I have to keep my energy up with whole foods.
Any supplements, herbs, plant medicine that you take and use to nourish?
I take several things at the moment. I get really sore boobs on my period, which is annoying. It's getting really bad so the doctor said to take vitamin E. So I've been taking vitamin E supplements. She also told me to give up coffee, which was so hard. So I just took the Vitamin E and it seems to have done the trick. I also take a multivitamin, which is pure. Many people just buy vitamins without looking at the label. Just like what you eat, you have to be informed about what is in [your supplements]. For example, you can have all the iron in the world, but if you're not getting vitamin C, then you can't absorb the iron, and if you're not getting zinc, you're not getting the vitamin C. It's a chain reaction. You have to have everything working together. The really exciting thing I've been taking, which is blowing my mind, is MycoBotanicals Brain Mushrooms and Herb Capsules with lion’s mane, ginkgo, and bacopa. Today was my last day and it was 30 days. Sixty capsules, two capsules a day. I now can remember everything. It is definitely working for me.
What inspired you to write your book, The Girl Guide?
It's the exact book I wanted when I young. It's the exact information that I was searching for when I was growing up. My mom was a nurse. So, she had an insane textbook from the 60s or 70s, but it was more of a medical textbook. I could work out what this or that was in a medical kind of a way, but it wasn’t explaining everything. I needed the gritty detail, so I just wrote what I wanted. For every single chapter, I sat down in front of my laptop and pretended I was ten years old again. "Okay, this has just happened. I've just felt this. What would I type into Google to try and get an answer?" And oh the stuff I ended up with—so scary. I knew I had to have a source of truth and honesty for girls. The information you get is either, “You’re dying.” Scary. Or “It’s normal, don’t worry.” This is just as scary. There are things you can fix and feel better. I wrote one chapter, called Shooting Bum Pain. It came from when I first got my period and had weird shooting bum pain. My friend’s daughter, who is ten, read it and told her mom, “I get the same pain and was too scared to say anything.”
You also talk about picking a form of movement that is not boring to you. Is this your overall fitness ethos?
Yes. There's a really amazing essay called “Against Exercise” written by Mark Greif. When I read that essay, I thought, this is everything I've been trying to explain to everyone, because he basically has an epiphany while he's going to the gym and he's standing on a treadmill among a sea of treadmills. He's plugged into the treadmill and he's watching television and suddenly says, "What the fuck are we doing?" It's so ridiculous.
Does it feel like it's more about finding something you're doing already? How do you help people find what that movement is for them?
I think it's really difficult if you're caught up in “why?” Why are you exercising or moving? What is the goal? If the answer is because I want to have a certain type of figure or be a specific weight, you're screwed from the start because it's a job. It’s all about how you feel! I think a lot of people don't necessarily feel it, but when you have a healthy lifestyle and when you feel good on the inside, meaning how you carry your body, you will feel it everywhere. You shouldn't feel like you're carrying your body around. And I definitely go through periods where I feel like that. And as I get older, the thing I've really worked out is that it's not that I need to go to yoga or that I need to exercise or work out. It's that I actually need a massage or that I need to sleep for 15 hours. It’s not always about intense physical activity but listening to your body and giving it what it needs.
Often we run and run and think, Oh, I need to go work out and I need to do this and I need to do that. I'm one of those people, because of my background. But if I am in a gym environment or a yoga class environment and I see people going through the motions, stressing their bodies out, I want to say, Can't you see you're hurting it? This is not what your body needs right now. Basically, you need to take a whole-body approach, not just biceps. You need to go right back to basics and just make it easy on your body and yourself.
Is there something you’ve learned about your body from this approach?
The example I think of for me is that I really succumbed to sleep. I can’t cheat sleep. With my travel schedule, I used to always take a red-eye flight then go right into work. I’d stay awake all day then sleep that night thinking I could catch up for two days in one night. I just can’t do that. I don’t think anyone can. Your body, your muscles, your mind hold on to every hour that you deny it rest. The same with nutrition. Every meal you skip and hope that you can catch up the next day, the next week. You have to be honest and pay it back or your body will take it out on you. You can whack a bit of lipstick on and spritz your hair and put some caffeine-infused eye cream and think, I’m fine. Everything is fine. You’re not.
What fun movement are you enjoying right now?
I’ll take hot yoga or go for a run if that’s what I need. I also love water aerobics. You listen to music and you just float. Well, you don't float. You stay afloat. And one of the advantages of living in L.A. is having a house with a swimming pool. I am lucky that I can be in the water at home anytime. Water is great because it takes the pressure off your joints. I have a constant neck thing that I'm always trying to treat and it seems I can never quite get on top of it. But when you get in the water and you have the gravity-less feeling, all your muscles open up and you can just float around. I also love roller skating. Lastly, I have to get my hang time. I specialized in trapeze in circus school. And I remember someone told that once you’ve done trapeze for a long time, you will never feel as stretched out as when you hang on something which is totally true. So, sometimes I just need to hang, literally.
How do you approach body confidence in your teaching with the Majorettes?
The thing I find really interesting is that I work with and deal with a lot of young women who are different online then they are in real life. On their social channels, they have this airy “I’m a feminist” and project female empowerment by showing their bum or nipple. Somewhere along the line being a feminist meant that you had to be naked on Instagram. Then offline, they tell me, "Oh, I hate myself. I'm so uncomfortable." Well, which one is it? You don’t have to do this to feel confident and comfortable in your body. If you do and want to flaunt it, that’s brilliant. Go for it. But that is often not the case. It’s a front that is making some serious issues. I think it’s hard for this current generation to be able to strip away the projection online and just be comfortable saying, “I'm actually feeling this way." With the girls I instruct through the Majorettes, I challenge them and ask them the really hard questions. It doesn’t always make me their favorite person but in the long run, I hope it will help them be a better version of themselves and see themselves as perfect just the way they are.
Do you think that utter honesty comes with age?
I would say it’s only something I've been comfortable within the last seven years. In my thirties. I realize you do not have to be everyone’s best friend. I had the realization that as much as you want to, not everyone's going to like you and the freeing aspect of that realization is that you can say what you want to say without fear of consequences. The idea of What are you going to think of me? is less important than the fact that I point out what I am seeing in you and there is an honest dialogue. And the Majorettes know they have a support network.
What music/podcasts/books/art/exhibits/IG accounts are inspiring you?
These two podcasts are by the same woman. Her name's Phoebe Judge. I could listen to her voice forever.
I'm reading Michael Pollan’s book about psychedelics.
I've been listening to Sylvester a lot because I run monthly roller disco here in L.A. I've always known about Sylvester, but I didn't know his life story, and it is truly incredible. And if you listen to the live version of “You are my Friend,” I challenge you to listen without crying. It is the most beautiful song, and he's just incredible.
What’s your morning routine?
I make coffee. Decaf now. Then I go outside and do a lap of the house and check all my vegetables and water them. I'm not even lying, I have actually been really into playing music for plants. I play this one album called Plantasia. It's a really good album for the morning just in general. Then I will do a really bizarre array of stretches with my yoga wheel and stretch bands. This all happens early because I am half on London time and usually have to respond to emails. I have to shower in the morning because my hair is crazy otherwise. I will then use Kiehl’s Oil-Free Face Cleanser and moisturizer and sunscreen, always.
With such a busy schedule, what are some ways that you decompress?
The garden is really good for that. We also have Griffith Park really close by for hiking. I just bought a hammock in Mexico, and I'm very confused as to how I've never had it in my life before. I think I missed the whole of a recent Sunday. I was just lying in there. Other than going to the farmer’s market in the morning, I don't remember anything else that day. I said to my husband, "I have a feeling we're actually gonna have to get rid of it" because since we've hung it, it's like, "Where did my week go?”
But my absolute favorite thing to do if I'm completely losing it is going to Bottega Louie in downtown L.A. I park in the annoying carpark that costs $10. I go in and have a long chat with the guy at the counter. He knows me. I get a decaf or regular coffee depending on how annoyed I am. And then, I get at least two of their amazing pastries or cakes like a strawberry or blueberry tart or a chocolate-and-coffee eclair. It is the greatest cake shop of all time. I eat cake and think, Okay, everything's all right. It's great.
If I am in London, the single best de-stressor is Chroma Yoga. It is the best thing in the world: A yoga class that combines light and color therapy techniques that is a totally immersive and multi-sensory experience. You are in full-color saturation as you move through the poses. I would recommend visiting to do it.