Capoeira as a philosophy for life

After touching on some ideas from capoeira in the recent articles, let’s zoom out and try to view capoeira as a philosophy, and check if it’s applicable for daily life. Even if you are not a capoeira practitioner, try to scan this essay quickly to find out why some people are so hooked on capoeira.

Very important disclaimer. I’m not a capoeira master, and still consider myself a student. I’m not a psychologist, nor a coach, or a philosopher with a diploma. But I’ve been learning capoeira for nearly half of my life, and here is what she1 taught me.

A little bit of context

Capoeira is a relatively young martial art with roots dating back to the 1700s. However, its more systematic development began in the 1930s. It continues to undergo significant changes and evolution, drawing influences from Eastern martial arts, street and contemporary dance, as well as various religions and spiritual practices.

Someone might say because of its Afro-Brazilian origin and stereotypical “inability to self-organize”. Or perhaps because capoeira’s roots in resistance and its rebel nature. However, even now, capoeira is not a monolithic tradition; there is no fixed set of movements, no unified graduation ranks, nor a clear definition of the philosophy of capoeira.

The roda

“Capoeira que é bom não cai. E se um dia ele cai, cai bem!”

Good Capoeira never falls. And if one day it falls, it falls gracefully!

Vinicius de Moraes (also my first tattoo)

I’ve been asking myself many times, what is it about capoeira that I like so much and can’t find in other aspects of life? I think it is that capoeira is almost a perfect analogy for life, a life simulator.

  • The roda (the circle where capoeira is played) is presenting life itself, mirroring its fluidity and impermanence.
  • In capoeira you can fail and fall, but you learn to fall with a smile. Then you get up and continue.
  • In capoeira, you see results of your actions very quickly. You train and you get better. If you make a mistake, you get immediate feedback.
  • In capoeira, you learn to be a malandro — not as a street-smart trickster or swindler from the colonial era, but in the contemporary sense of the word. It’s about outsmarting the system and avoiding the imposition of a lifestyle by large corporations and governments.

“Hoje saúde é malandragem”

Today, health is cunning2

Mestre Leopoldinha

What else does capoeira teach us?

While capoeira is primarily a physical activity, it is deeply rooted in cultural and philosophical aspects that contribute to its unique identity. Until recently, much of its wisdom was transmitted from master to disciple through an oral tradition. Here are some key elements of the philosophy of capoeira:

1. Fluidity and Adaptability: Capoeira is characterized by its fluid and dynamic movements. Practitioners learn to adapt to the unpredictable nature of the roda. This adaptability extends beyond physical movements to include flexibility in thinking and problem-solving.

2. Creativity and Expression: Capoeira encourages individual expression and creativity. Participants are free to develop their own style and movements within the framework of the art. This emphasis on self-expression contributes to the diversity of capoeira styles and techniques.

3. Music and Rhythm: Music plays a central role in capoeira. The songs, rhythms, and instruments contribute to the atmosphere of the roda and influence the style of play. The music is not just a background accompaniment but an integral part of the practice, reflecting cultural narratives, history, and emotion.

4. Integration of Mind, Body, and Spirit: capoeira emphasizes the holistic development of individuals, integrating physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. Playing in the roda is almost forcing you to be present in the moment.

5. Respect and Equality: Respect is a fundamental principle in capoeira. Participants, regardless of skill level, are encouraged to treat each other with respect and equality. The roda is a space where individuals can express themselves freely, fostering a sense of community and mutual understanding.

It’s essential to note that the philosophy of Capoeira may vary among different schools and groups, and individual practitioners may interpret and embody these principles in their unique ways.

“In the East there is Zen, Europe developed psychoanalysis, in Brazil we have the Capoeira Game”

Nestor Capoeira

Further reading

1. The word “capoeira” is feminine in Portuguese, and many other European languages.
2. Another way to put it, “Today, being healthy is a crafty endeavor”. In the contemporary context, maintaining one’s health requires a certain level of cleverness or strategic thinking.