The multi-dimensionality of Capoeira

I remember Ahati Kilindi Iyi saying once that in traditional contexts martial artists derived their spiritual development and physical conditioning from their art. As a consequence of this, the martial arts became holistic tools of personal development.

I was inspired by this idea and years ago adapted it to how I taught in practiced Capoeira. I decided to eliminate the separation between stretching, conditioning, and Capoeira technique. Herein, we would use kicks like ponteira, meia lua de frente, and queixada to stretch the legs and hips, while using hand strikes like galopante and godeme for stretching the arms, shoulders, and waist. We would fall into negativa and from this position do push-ups. We would use cocorinha in place of squats. We would use lateral movements like esquiva and esquiva with au as a side bend, while using resistencia as a type of back bend.

Somehow I stopped using this in my classes in the 2010s. I think in the time that I was in Ghana, when I was not teaching Capoeira, and when I resumed teaching it regularly in the late Summer of 2017, I forgot about this approach. I have begun slowly reviving it in my personal practice over the last two years, and decided to revisit it today with greater intentionality. Hence I did this this morning. My practice is focused on three objectives:
1. To cultivate suppleness in the body
2. To strengthen the body
3. To help to restore areas where there is soreness or injury
A fourth outcome of this practice has been the cultivation of mind-body unity, that is a type of mindfulness wherein one has greater awareness and control over mind and body.

This is slow and methodical practice, a moving meditation if you will. At any rate, today went well, resulting in a feeling of physical and mental peace comparable in some ways to when I practice Yoga.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Da’Mon Stith and Khalil Maasi, who have also stimulated my thinking in this regard. Like Ahati has suggested, and as I am desirous of embodying, these arts are rich in layered potentials which can be directed towards our holistic development.

The myopia of absolutist pragmatism

Commitment to an absolutist pragmatism can impoverish our imaginations and diminish our determination to strive for and create another world. Zumbi, Dandara, Dessalines, Sanité Bélair, Denmark Vesey, Marcus Garvey, and Amy Jacques Garvey rejected the myopia of absolute pragmatism in their striving to create a new reality for our people. Similarly, we too are capable of such audacious thought and action.

Culture, socialization, and community

It should be noted that in the African worldview, though each individual has a their own destiny, such a path and its fulfillment becomes a communal obligation. This means that the community is charged with maximizing the development of its members. Since it is believed that one’s maximal development is best expressed by one’s discovery and fulfillment of their purpose, it is then the duty of the family and community to ensure this. This is why the Akan proverb states, “Woforo dua pa a na yepia wo,” that is, “It is when you climb a good tree that we push you.” Such wisdom is found throughout the African continent, including among the Kongo. As shown in the below excerpt.

“For the Bântu, in general, and the Kôngo, in particular, the coming of a child in the community is the rising of a new and unique ‘living sun’ into it. It is the responsibility of the community as a whole and of ndezi, in particular to help this ‘living sun’ to shine and grow in its earliest stage” (taken from K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau and A.M. Lukondo-Wamba’s Kindezi: The Kôngo Art of Babysitting).

Ndezi are those who facilitate the socialization of the child within the Kongo institution known as Kindezi, which is charged with the comprehensive development of the child into adulthood. Kindezi functions on the basis of the interdependency of the family and community. While one’s parents are critical to one’s development, the Kongo recognized that the rearing of children and their acquisition of the various domains of knowledge required of them to be effective adults within Kongo society required the support of everyone. Therein, all, at some point or another, serve as ndezi–a most sacred role. One who has been properly socialized is one who has fully learned their culture and who is then prepared to transmit it to future generations.
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I was harvesting peppers today. The peppers are green like the surrounding foliage. As a result it is very easy to overlook them when harvesting. Hence I have adopted the habit of scanning the row two more times to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

This reminds me that in life, sometimes the very thing that we are looking for is near us, but we cannot see it, not necessarily because it disappears into its surroundings, but because these things are often obscured by the other concerns of our lives. These matters, some big, others trivial, often distract us, preventing us from focusing on what matters most. But when we are intentional and focused, diligent and patient, everything comes together.

The peppers are wise teachers.

A frail foundation

The Yorùbá wisdom compels us to an eagerness to struggle. This is not an encouragement to behave belligerently, but rather a call to confront life’s difficulties with courage, determination, and dignity. They understood that life is replete with challenges, but what fear does is to compel us to flee not only from the challenges before us, but the very possibility of challenge. Fear seeks to reduce us to cowards, and one’s best character cannot gain expression on the frail foundation of cowardice.

Traversing “cultural worlds”

I just made my third visit to an Afro-Asian fusion class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison via Zoom. Today I participated on a panel of absolutely wonderful folks who were discussing a range of things including healing, movement, transformation, and so on. It was a very rich and empowering discussion.
For my part I discussed our family’s farm work, Vijay Prashad’s thesis of “polyculturalism”, the synergies of African and Asian philosophies and movement practices in my own life, and the implications of Afro-Asian knowledges in how we understand social transformation. To the latter point, I offered examples from the Tao Te Ching and the Odù Ifá which explicates the power of our personal striving for good character as a means to transform both society and the world.
One of the questions that was posed queried our relationship to the kind of Afro-Asian synergies which are a central topic in the course. I shared that in my youth there were two books that I read that had a transformative impact on my consciousness–The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The former gave me a framework to engage the world. The latter helped me to understand the state of our people and compelled me to think about my role in changing it. Such synergies continue to the present day, in ways that are conscious and unconscious.
Three final points. A day or so ago I wrote that “People will get lost in Asia on their way to Africa.” To be sure, I am troubled by the efforts of some to present many Asian knowledges as African. Resonance and affinity are not necessarily reliant upon heredity. This means that simply because we feel a connection to a particular cultural tradition does not mean that it necessarily derives from our own ancestral tradition. Furthermore, one can participate in the cultures of others without needing to lay claim to them and to justify such claims through fabricated tales of origins.
Secondly, while I am critical of the fact that many of us have a profound paucity of knowledge with regards to our history and culture as Africans, I also know that this is not due to our own actions. We live in a world where Africanness has been devalued and Africans dehumanized. I see such a finitude of knowledge and the racialization of African people as contributing to the aforementioned quandary. Clearly we enrich and empower ourselves when we more fully understand ourselves as Africans.
Thirdly, as Prashad has argued, we live in a polycultural milieu. Given this, we are increasingly impacted by seemingly disparate cultural traditions that reflect rich commonalities across “cultural worlds”, practices which may also appear to be our own due to our proximity to them. Such forms of entangled cultural practice are also at play in terms of what I have been observing and critiquing.