Capoeira to Cultivate the Body, Mind, and Spirit

I taught Capoeira this morning. I gave each student a homework assignment based on things that they did during class. The homework assignments related to movement skills, coordination, or motor control.

I maintain that many of the things that we do within Capoeira actually impacts our lives outside of Capoeira. That is, the comportment (i.e., the embodiment) of the Capoeirista occasions changes in how our minds and bodies relate to movement. Capoeira teaches proprioception (i.e., bodily awareness) laying a basis for improving our coordination and control. The skills that Capoeira teaches are transferable to things both mental and physical. The assignments that I gave, while on the surface pertain to the use of the body, also, necessarily relate to the cultivation of the mind and spirit. I feel that such holistic cultivation is a uniquely powerful aspect of this art.

Capoeira and the distant horizon

I set a rule for myself some years back that I should be training in a martial art for about twice the amount of time that I teach it. This is not easy to maintain, especially given all of the things that have been happening of late. However, tonight I set myself up about 30 minutes before teaching my Capoeira class to practice and decided to start with the music. I became fixated on perfecting the timing of a variation of one particular toque (rhythm) and spent the whole time working on it.

Recently, another malandro reminded me of a quote from our teacher (Mestre Preto Velho) that essentially says that Capoeira is a jealous companion. I believe it. I have realized that I could spend all of my time working on some movement or another, or on the music, or on studying the philosophy, and so on. Capoeira is a world unto itself. It isn’t a vacuum, but rather is vast sea whose waters are fed by the ancient tributaries of our people’s history and culture.

I was once content to play on the beach and to stick close to the shore. But now I find myself drawn to the distant horizon. Of course, that horizon is only a reminder of the unattainability of that totality of knowledge. It is like the Swahili proverb which states, “Elimu ni kama bahari haina sahili” (Knowledge is like an ocean that has no shore).

The game, the fight: Thoughts on the teaching and practice of Capoeira

I have been thinking about the dichotomization of Capoeira into the luta (fight) and the jogo (game) and the implications of this to the teaching of Capoeira. While this dichotomy is does capture broad contours of the art, there are nuances, dimensions within these that I fear are not fully explicated therein.

As stated, the jogo is the game of Capoeira, however there are different types of games. I am reminded of games that I saw in my early days in Capoeira with groups that played at high speeds, employed many acrobatic floreiros, but also played so far apart that neither person’s attack necessarily required a defensive response from the other player, that is they were too far from each other for their strikes to connect, thus reducing the game to a very animated but inert visual spectacle.

This was quite different from other games that I saw where everything was close and low to the ground. Strategy was valued over floreiro, and one had to maintain awareness over one’s position in time and space relative to one’s adversary. I also saw and participated in games that defied these supposed binaries.

These encounters taught me that the game is not one-dimensional and can be played with different types of intentionality, such as dazzling onlookers, cultivating a mindfulness of the body, employing strategy, et cetera.

The luta or the fight is another matter, one that I argue is closely related to the game depending on how one enters into it. In my first 12 years in Capoeira I was constantly searching for the martial approaches to the art. What attracted me to it was that it was African in origin, but I was continually frustrated by what I felt was an inattention to how one would apply it in self-defense, such as how one would defend against a knife attack, how one would fend off a grappler, how one would beat back a horde of flesh-eating Zombies in a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland, et cetera (of course that last one is offered in jest). At any rate, I felt that there was a chasm in the lore of Capoeira’s potency as a combat art (which is attested to in the historical record) and how it is taught today. In fact, my conversations with Dr. Edward Powe, who studied in Bahia under Mestre Pastinha in the 1960s, have affirmed that even in the mid-20th Century, the art was still taught as a martial discipline, rather than strictly as a cunning game. This is not to suggest that such deficits are universal in the present context. My first teacher, Tebogo Schultz, gave me a solid foundation in the art reflective of his confidence in Capoeira as a comprehensive tool. Nor is this to suggest that the game itself is fundamentally divorced from the self-defense aspect of the art, rather that explicit discussion of the latter is often absent.

One of the things that I have gained from my studies with Mestre Preto Velho, is an understanding that such knowledge has not been abandoned, as he has been keen to note the importance of the Capoeira of Rio de Janeiro (including his teacher Mestre Touro) in preserving such combative traditions. He has also emphasized something that I have seen eschewed by many exponents of Capoeira as a combat art. Whereas their “combat” Capoeira has taken the form of a kickboxing-grappling art—something that resembles Capoeira perhaps only nominally, Mestre Preto Velho has proposed an approach that reflects Mestre Pastinha’s assertion from decades before that “Capoeira is perfect in itself and has no need for additions or modifications.” Suggesting that what has been missing has been an understanding of the art’s fundamentals and their applications. And while some selective adaptation of the art may be necessary as one applies the art to various combative situations, its underlying principles remain constant. In fact, Mestre Preto Velho has stated,“The tradition has been adaptability.”

It is in this vein that the jogo and luta converge, as the game becomes a means to refine certain technical and philosophical principles, principles that are indelible to the fight.

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 warrior’s path

Shaha Mfundishi Maasi emphasizes the implications of the fighting arts as tools of transformation. He states, “When one attempts to understand martial culture strictly from the confining standpoint of technical practice, they will one day learn and find themselves in a blind alley. Principle is the mother of technique.” Here he argues that understanding the underlying principles of the combat arts enables one to see these as wholistic tools or methods focused on the refinement of not only the shujaa’s (warrior’s) skills, but also his/her character. He also states that “The purpose of warriorship is to develop and enlightened being who is a human vortex of positive energy.” These insights have weighty implications for the conceptualization of practice, as many fail to employ their teaching to such critical ends.

Here I’ll offer two such examples. Mestre Preto Velho argues that Capoeira is not merely a means of self-defense, but also a vehicle for cultural transformation. He states “We can use things from our own culture to heal ourselves.” This includes Capoeira as a tool of empowerment, of cultural reorientation and revitalization. He adds, “We’ve been damaged. We have assimilated other people’s cultural norms. Gangsters are not part of African culture. There were no pimps and prostitutes on the slave ships. Culture defines the parameters of a people’s behavior.” Thus Capoeira (and other African fighting traditions) is not just a means of self-preservation, but also one of cultural transformation, that is social transformation.

Further, in his work to build the Federacao Autónoma da Capoeira Africana, Dr. Edward Powe has articulated the potential role of Capoeira as a tool of political education for Black people. He has noted his use of Umlabalaba (or “Zulu Chess”) as a means of mental training and Capoeira as one of politicization. This is a compelling end, one that seeks to elevate one’s concept of the art beyond its superficial aspects (that is it’s movements and the game), to the transformation of consciousness. And while some scholars (such as Downey) elaborate on the role of the art in re-patterning the practitioner kinesthetically, considerably more is at play–such as a burgeoning identification with Africa as the cradle for all Black culture, an appreciation for the resistance traditions of African peoples–that is our fight for self-determination, and the cultivation of a community of practitioners who represent the nucleus for the regeneration of the Black community–people who see and understand their practice as informing our transformation.

Again, as Shaha Mfundishi states, kicking and punching are necessary, but not sufficient. The shujaa must be emblematic of the type of personal transformation necessary for the reorientation of the community as a whole. S/he must be a model of the “new” African man or woman in whose image we seek to refashion the world.


Being on the path: Meditations on Living and Re-Africanization

I am convinced that when we are on the path, when we are doing the things that we are supposed to be doing, we are consistently presented with reminders of the correctness of the direction in which we are moving. I received three such reminders in the last two days.

Reminder one: Today while working at my wife’s community training farm, a six year old boy asked me, “How do Africans fight?” I found his question intriguing, not only that he asked it of me, but that he posed this question at all. I am not entirely sure why he posed this question to me. Maybe he overheard me talking to his mother about teaching Capoeira at his school years ago, and understood what I was talking about. Maybe he presumed that as an African man I should know something about this. I did start to build on his existing knowledge base of Kiswahili, so maybe he figured that I might know something about fighting too. In any event, I deeply appreciated his question, a question that I did not think to pose until I was a young adult.

I told him that there are different ways that Africans have approached fighting and that I could show him some. I asked him if he wanted to know something related to kicking, punching, or stick-fighting. He said punching, so I showed him something. If he’s serious, I may teach him some basic elements of the arts whenever we see one another in-between farm work.

Reminder two: Similarly, a brother who attends my Capoeira class with his daughter told me that he intends for her to be a fighting arts practitioner, and wants for her focus to be specifically on Capoeira, given that it is an African art. I was intrigued by this. He has studied multiple arts, and sees Capoeira as not merely a matter of technical application, that is the process of fending off violent attackers, but also as a matter of affirming one’s cultural identity. In this way, Capoeira can be understood as a combat art that also embodies the kinesthetic dynamics of several African cultures, thus it is the embodiment of a distinctly African philosophy of movement. It also represents the sprit and tactics of African resistance in the Americas.

Reminder three: A brother who attended the mdw nTr conference in October told me that he had been so inspired, that he intended to teach his then unborn daughter mdw nTr. Today I saw him and his young daughter. He told me, consistent with his earlier statement, that he speaks to her in mdw nTr and proceeded to speak do so. I also spoke to her in mdw nTr. My wife claims that she perked up when she heard the mdw nTr, but I can’t confirm this.

That this would happen the day after African Languages Day was most inspiring for me. While I do study African languages regularly, I have struggled to find time to study of late. However, yesterday my studies were inspired. While riding the train I read about and practiced (silently) two African languages. African Languages Day gave me the opportunity to affirm something that I know I am capable of, using our languages on a regular basis to communicate complex ideas. To my understanding, the greatest challenge that we face is one of transmission, that is of creating new speakers of these languages in our communities in the African Diaspora. Solving this problem is one to which I will continue to devote my time and energy, as we cannot truly communicate about an African worldview if such a discourse is mediated in an alien language and from a culture characterized by fundamental alienation.

Our people once they know that they are an African people, they subsequently want and desire to ground themselves in African things, to understand their reality from the paradigms of their ancestors, to reclaim our languages, to practice our fighting arts, and to—in all areas of life—be African. This is more than just a matter of identity, but is one of solving the paradigmatic problem implicit in liberatory struggles—that is one of decolonzing the minds of the people as a means of enabling them to win the physical struggle which is for land, their lives, and the future.

Capoeira and mdw nTr (Medew Netcher)

My first Capoeira teacher, Tebogo Schultz,​ once said to me that when practicing and seeking to understand Capoeira, that “You have do Capoeira for its own sake.” I think about this from time to time as learning Capoeira is a lot like learning a language, particularly one that has its own indigenous script. You must learn the script, you must learn vocabulary, you must learn grammar, you must find contexts to apply this knowledge, and you must understand the ontological dynamics of this linguistic system.

This is a lot like Capoiera which consists of a technical repertoire of physical movements, a kinesthetic philosophy which underlie all of this, various contexts of application, songs and instrumentation, a historical narrative, in addition to a rich body of epistemic and ontological knowledge which seek to explicate the “magic” of the art. The art conveys all of this knowledge, in many instances multiple things concurrently. These layers become fuller once decoupled, unpacked, reflected upon, or revisited much in the same way that learning mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt illuminates deeper insights upon further reflection and with deeper study.

I first began learning mdw nTr thirteen years ago and continue to study this language. My continued study has been rewarded in kind with richer insights and a deeper appreciation for this language and the cultural and historical contexts out of which it emerges. Much like my study of Capoeira, it has made everything richer via its contribution to my intellectual growth. Admittedly my focus has vacillated between the general and the specific. Some times I have focused on personal pronouns (mdw nTr has three classes of pronouns). At other times I have sought to memorize the many bi-literals (these are symbols that represent two consonant sounds). On other occasions I have worked on transliterating and translating texts, rich exercise whose frustration inevitably enables growth. One of the most exciting realms of study has been my efforts to integrate the language into my life. The point is that mdw nTr is, in its totality, too vast to approach for the sake of achieving narrow ends. One must simply plunge into its depths, buoyed by the intellectual rewards that it promises.

My Capoeira journey began a decade ago with the goal of learning Capoeria as a combat art. This was and remans necessary, but Capoeria is many things at once. Like Xing Yi Capoeira can serve as a gateway to a more fully integrated self. Like Muay Thai, Capoeira is a tool for physical conditioning. Like Choy Lay Fut Capoeira can be a highly effective fighting art. Like Yoga, Capoeira can build the suppleness of the body. Capoeira is not one thing. It is many things. And like studying mdw nTr, one must plunge fully into its depths, swimming through the waters of renewal, becoming water oneself.

When my daughters go to bed and wake up in the morning we speak mdw nTr to each other. These acts, though short in duration are complex in their layers. When my children and I train Capoeria together, or when I teach a class, these occasions are also multilayered. These knowledges become a part of an integrative toolset, a collection of resources firmly embedded in one’s being. They augment you. I say the mdw nTr and see the words in my mind. I stumble, but never fall because Capoeria teaches you to find balance in the midst of adversity. I find myself translating my thoughts into Kiswahili and mdw nTr as an exercise in multilingualism. I juxtapose defensive tactics for specific attacks between Wing Chun, Choy Lay Fut, and Capoeira. I find innovative ways to use the languages that I study. Capoeira has become central to the curriculum of a rites-of-passage program that I help coordinate, and thus a tool that we are using to build men.

Again these tools, once fully integrated, augment one’s humanity, enabling us to become, day-by-day, a greater expression of our highest selves. This is what it means to “…do Capoeira for its own sake.”

Legitimacy, authenticity, and the African martial arts

I suspect that the debates regarding authenticity & African martial arts stem from the maafa and its assault on African culture in the U.S. The idea that only traditional African combat arts are authentic suggests that African American cultural production is somehow less African. To suggest that Africans in the U.S. lack this form of cultural agency is a specious notion to say the least.

Tradition expresses itself in two forms. First, it is expressed in cultural traditions that are contiguous through time. For now we’ll call these “contiguous traditions”, that is, traditions whose intergenerational transferral have been seamless. However there are also traditions that are reconstituted in a different time and place from their initial formulation. These “reclaimed traditions” are often characterized by broken lines of transmission. Yet while they may appear to die off, “reclaimed traditions” are informed by contexts, collective wills, and various forms of cultural memory that enables their reformulation.

The whm msw in ancient kmt, the founding of the Ashanti Federation, and Palmares could all be argued as examples of “reclaimed traditions”. The whm msw sought to restore kmt to its magnificence from the Old Kingdom. The founding of Ashanti initiated a period of expansion that echoes the glories of the great Ghana Empire. Palmares represents an effort to reconstitute African state formations in the midst of the Maafa. In each of these contexts people looked to their past for some indicator of what their future should be. Having identified an instructive historical paradigm, they sought to institutionalize that model in their present.

Despite the passage of time and the pain of spatial dislocations, traditions can be reclaimed. Africans in the U.S. in the 1950s-1970s created martial systems which were, in effect, attempts to reclaim a martial tradition thought long-suppressed by the Maafa. Once these “reclaimed traditions” were juxtaposed with “contiguous traditions” these claims of inauthenticity gained expression. However I argue that to cede the question of legitimacy only to “contiguous traditions” is to deny the Africanness of Africans in the U.S. It is to deny our own cultural agency, and suggests that U.S. born Africans have been both dispossessed of authentic cultural knowledge, and further, have been dispossessed of the capacity to reconstruct and reclaim that knowledge. Much of the work of many U.S. born Africans, from the 1950s to the present has involved an on-going effort best expressed by the Akan concept SankOfa–that is an attempt to reclaim that which has been lost. This process has produced many emergent traditions, both contiguous and reclaimed that convey what the African-Centered psychologists have called the African personality, and what others have called the African Worldview. This suggests that these two parallel traditional forms are not oppositional, in fact they may be complimentary, for in any society, contiguous and reclaimed traditions can coexist and contribute to the forward flow history.

With regards to African martial arts, I suspect that there is room for both these notable traditions. To respect the “reclaimed traditions” is to affirm the legitimacy and dignity of our struggle for self-determination and those Africans who sought to craft dynamic solutions to this problem. Furthermore, to respect the “contiguous traditions” is to honor our esteemed ancestors and their struggle for self-determination, as they to sought to apply their martial knowledge in the service of African liberation. In both instances an African warrior tradition was invoked as a necessary element in our liberation struggle. The African maroons of Jamaica, the denizens of the dismal swamp, and the cultural nationalists of the Black Power Era were all drawn to a similar call, what the Akoto’s refer to as “an ancestral summons”, to recognize “the reality of war” and to steel their bodies and minds for struggle that lay ahead.