Practising Zen, Yoga & Capoeira, I am amazed by some of the similarities, crossovers and linkages – every day I seem to see something new. Yoga complements so many areas of life, so whilst I see more and more people practising Yoga and Capoeira together, or Zen and Yoga together, I think it is still only relatively few people who are doing both Zen and Capoeira, and this is what this blog will focus on in particular. We’ll start by trying to define Zen and Capoeira.
Zen is a mispronunciation of the Chinese word Chan, which is itself a mispronunciation of the Sanskrit Dhyana, which means meditation. The Zen school emphasises practice and direct experience above theory. There are many great books in Zen, but there is not one central text, instead direct transmission from master to student is emphasised. Many teachers can trace their lineage back to Bodhidharma, the man who brought Zen from India to China in the sixth century. Bodhidarma is also said to have a lineage back to the historical Buddha (which means ‘the person who woke up’).
Whilst having its origins in Buddhism, you don’t need to hold any particular beliefs to practice Zen – instead you are encouraged to practice and see what you find. Zen master Koun Yamada Roshi taught ‘This experience, is not adorned with any thought or philosophy. It is merely a fact, an experienced fact, in the same way that the taste of tea is a fact. A cup of tea has no thought, no idea, no philosophy. It tastes the same to Buddhists as it does to Christians. There is no difference at all.”
In a similar way, we can try to describe some of the different elements of Capoeira – calling it a mix of dance, fight, music and theatre with a rich Afro-Brazilian heritage – but to really know what Capoeira is, you have to dive in and have a go and find out for yourself. Capoeira is also passed on from master to student and teachers trace their lineages back to the old masters such as Mestre Pastinha & Mestre Bimba.
Bodhidharma, who we mentioned earlier, not only brought Zen from India to China, but he is also credited with initiating the physical training of the monks of the Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of Shaolin Kung Fu, so there is a strong link between Zen and martial arts in Asia.
Capoeira arose from different beginnings – it originated from West African tribal dances and developed in the context of slavery in Brazil. African slaves would train to fight for their freedom whilst disguising the movements as traditional dances.
Whilst not having the historical link with Zen that martial arts in Asia have, there are some elements of Capoeira that have striking similarities with Zen – even if these have come about purely by coincidence rather than by design.
In Zen, they talk about the difference between a dual perspective (me vs. the rest of the Universe) and a non-dual perspective (I am the entire Universe). Being able to perceive and cultivate a non-dual perspective is at the heart of Zen practice. Similarly, in Capoeira the objective is really to connect fully with the other player in the circle, the musicians, and the circle or roda itself. Essentially the ritual of Capoeira is a practice of non-separation, or non-duality with the rest of the roda, so in a very practical way capoeiristas are training themselves to embody the Zen philosophy of non-duality through their practice – even if many of them don’t know it!
The circle shape of the roda is also the key shape which features in Zen Calligraphy – the Enso – which is not intended to be a perfect geometrical circle, but instead is drawn spontaneously with flowing strokes of the brush.
Capoeira emphasises flowing movements as well, with most dodges moving in the same direction as the attack which they are avoiding, so instead of fighting force head on with more force, we learn to move out of the way of the attack, flowing with our partner in the game.
In terms of present moment awareness, it’s quite difficult to practice capoeira, with kicks and trips coming at you from all directions, and not be present – so you don’t really have a choice – you have to be alert at all times. Zen practitioners work at this constantly, drawing their awareness back to the present moment, over and over again.
Another similarity, which I personally find very interesting is the main instrument in Capoeira – the berimbau. It is balanced quite precariously on the little finger and held with the gourd or cabasa against the belly area. There is a general forward leaning of the biriba (or stick) needed to keep it upright and play.
In Zen, our meditation posture, again by pure coincidence, mimics the way the berimbau looks and balances. The meditator sits with the base of the spine on a meditation cushion, and a slight forward tilt to keep the spine upright. To my eyes the spine resembles the biriba of the berimbau, and the cabasa resembles the hara, or belly area, which is strongly emphasised in Zen.
The belly is seen in Zen as a store of energy, almost like the body’s battery pack, and it is associated with qualities of courage (or guts), grounding and personal presence. By dropping our attention to this area of our body, there is the idea what we can develop a strong hara, and be more grounded, which is a key feature of Zen practice – we do not just want to awaken to a non-dual reality, but we also want to be grounded in the World around us, where we have work to do.
Capoeira Angola, in particular, works with the players close to the floor, physically making contact with the ground with their hands, feet, and sometimes even the crown of the head (or other body parts when we trip and fall). We’re constantly negotiating our balance with gravity and the ground beneath us.
One final element connecting Capoeira and Zen is facing the partner. In Capoeira, 2 players meet and face each other in the centre of the circle. The movements of the capoeira game have been likened to a non-verbal dialogue, with one player asking a question with a kick, and another replying with a dodge, or another move. It is not only the kicks, and dodges which speak though – subtle glances, hand movements and other body language are all utilised by the capoeirista, who plays with mandinga (magic or witchcraft). Without saying a word, the game of capoeira can be a place of deep connection where so much is said. In my previous blog, ‘Tell me who you are’, we look at a historic face to face encounter in the Zen tradition and a modern day interpretation using dyads or partner work.
Having spent so much of this blog talking about the similarities between Zen and Capoeira, I would also like to remark on one key difference. In Zen we learn from the outset that we are trying to see through our ego – realizing and reconnecting with the non-dual or non-separated perspective. In capoeira, this aspect is not highlighted so much, if taught at all. In fact, when we start to practice capoeira, often the ego can strengthen as students try to learn more moves, play better, sing better, catch out, or otherwise outdo each other. Even though no winner is declared in capoeira, it is often played and sung competitively. With time, though, many capoeiristas see beyond this competitiveness as they come to realise that either there will always be someone else ‘better’ than them, or even if they do become the best capoeira player, musician and or singer, this will only be temporary, and soon, someone else will take their place. When they realise this, then the competitiveness naturally subsides, and often a love for the connection, celebration and union that can be found in the game of capoeira starts to grow instead.
The fact that no winner is declared in Capoeira is important. It asks us to question our conventional way of thinking and points to this beyond-competitiveness which can develop. I wrote a previous blog ‘Yoga is not competitive’ which also looks at where you can go when you drop the competitive aspect. A favourite short Zen story of mine, illustrates this point:
When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
‘Give me the best piece of meat you have,’ said the customer.
‘Everything in my shop is the best,’ replied the butcher. ‘You cannot find any piece of meat here that is not the best.’
At these words Banzan became enlightened.
The story is called “Everything is best” and it is one of the 101 Zen Stories in “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones” compiled by Paul Reps.
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You can read more about my work with Zen Yoga and Capoeira at www.soulmovement