Archive for the ‘capoeira’ Category

I’ve been a runner for probably 7 or 8 years now, but it wasn’t until this past January that I finally started ‘barefoot running‘. The funny thing is that I still wear shoes when I run, but I’ll get into that later…. The story starts about a year ago with the purchase of a new pair of same-shoe-new-model Nikes that trashed my knees and ankles and spiraled me into not being able to run, gaining a few pounds, struggling to keep up my capoeira game, and dealing with the thought that I’m just going to have to face the fact that I’m getting old.

Luckily my mid-term memory is better than my short-term memory, and I kept thinking about the book I’d read over Christmas break in 2009: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall.

Hype generally turns me off (and there is certainly a lot of hype right now around barefoot running), but this book touched all the right nerves: anthropology, natural fitness, shifting paradigms, sticking it to the man, history and culture, a great story, good writing, running, and being barefoot. It finally hit me, after 6 months of joint pain, that I could blame everything on those damn Nike shoes and start over.

Meanwhile, 2 of my brothers had also read Born to Run. My youngest brother has always been a slender, healthy runner. My middle brother is tall, super muscular and has perpetually complained that his bad joints prevent him from running. Without even knowing it, the three of us were on the same barefoot running track.

My middle brother and I spent last Fall obsessively sharing information about barefoot running on Facebook, dropping articles and videos and instructions back and forth. My youngest brother would chime in now and then, though he was already easily doing double-digit mile runs in the San Francisco hills.

Finally while I was visiting my middle brother in New York in December, he and I decided we’d both get serious, invest in some official barefoot running shoes, and (re)train ourselves to run.

‘Barefoot running shoes’ (oxymoron much?)

This is where I explain that most people who ‘run barefoot’ actually wear some kind of ‘barefoot running shoe’. Normally this means Vibram Five Fingers, which look like a wet suit glove for your feet; huarache sandals (apparently the ‘next big thing in barefoot running’); or some kind of minimalist shoe, as in the photo below.

All this footwear is designed to be as minimal as possible while still protecting your feet from concrete or glass or whatever you might find on the ground while running. Part of the logic behind barefoot running is that the overdone structure in most running shoes weakens the muscles in your feet and calves (kind of like putting your foot into a plaster cast). Regular running shoes also encourage you to land hard on your heel rather than gently on your forefoot, causing all kinds of knee, ankle, back and hip stress and injury. Running with proper form (see graphic below) reduces shock to the joints and allows you to put less stress on your body. It is one of the main reasons that people learn to ‘barefoot run‘.

A Wired Science article (To Run Better, Start by Ditching your Nikes) by Dylan Tweeny notes “strong evidence shows that thickly cushioned running shoes have done nothing to prevent injury in the 30-odd years since Nike founder Bill Bowerman invented them, researchers say. Some smaller, earlier studies suggest that running in shoes may increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other injuries. Runners who wear cheap running shoes have fewer injuries than those wearing expensive trainers. Meanwhile, injuries plague 20 to 80 percent of regular runners every year.” (Unfortunately, now the shoe industry is going to make a killing out of making those cheap shoes really expensive…)

(Ditching the Nikes – The new model of Nikes that I mention in the first paragraph were Nike Frees. I had been wearing Nike Frees for a long time, but the new model had a slightly different design and more spongy cushioning than the old model, and this turned out to be a bad thing for my ankles and knees.)

According to a 1997 study in Sports Medicine (Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear), “Athletic footwear are associated with frequent injury that are thought to result from repetitive impact. No scientific data suggest they protect well. Expensive athletic shoes are deceptively advertised to safeguard well through “cushioning impact”, yet account for 123% greater injury frequency than the cheapest ones.”

A team at Harvard is dedicated to “comparing habitually barefoot runners with runners who normally run in modern running shoes with built-up heels, stiff soles and arch support”. Their research notes that “barefoot runners experience a shock of only 0.5 to 0.7 times their body weight, whereas shod heel strikers experience 1.5 to two times their body weight–a threefold to fourfold difference.” (Unfortunately much of the ‘barefoot running’ research is funded by shoe companies like SOLE and Vibram, so I like reading around and finding testimonies by real people who aren’t trying to sell me shoes, too.)

Social fitness and apps

So anyway, my brother got the funny looking Vibram shoes and I went for the less obnoxious-looking ones (in the photo above). As of January 1, we started re-training ourselves to run with a proper ‘barefoot stride’ for short distances on the treadmill. We’d regularly text, message and email each other about our progress. By March it was warmer and we both got to running outside. Whenever I am in NYC, we plan our days around long runs together over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

My eldest brother who lives in Los Angeles had also started running (though we’ve yet to evangelize him to go barefoot). He and my middle brother started using the Nike+GPS app to track their routes, distance and pace. I started seeing all kinds of comments on their pages from friends and fellow runners, barefoot and not.

I resisted the Nike app for a number of reasons but eventually caved. Once I started using it, I joined the group of motivators and found myself motivated too. I was more aware of my pace because the app was notifying me each half mile how fast I was running. I’d always run a slow and easy pace of 10 minutes per mile over a maximum of 5 miles and had no real interest in picking it up or pushing myself. I still can’t totally keep up with my brothers and their friends in terms of pace, but I’m now running more hills and I’ve shaved 48 seconds off my mile average in the past month since I installed the app.

On top of running better and longer and faster, I wanted to ditch those few extra pounds that had accumulated from my months of not running. So in early January, I downloaded a free app called “Lose It,” which allows you to research and track everything you eat and to plug in calories burned through exercise. It helped me pay better attention to what I was eating, make healthier and more natural food choices, and ensure that I was not eating more than I was burning off through exercise. My daughter downloaded it too, and it’s been a helpful neutral tracking tool for us to motivate each other. Being lighter is helping me to run more gently, and it’s also meant my speed and agility in capoeira have picked up. Not to mention, my knees and ankles feel great (knock on wood).

The barefoot running obsession is not only mine and my brother’s. My son was with us at the shoe store in December and hinted around that he needed a new pair of running shoes. My brother told him that if he read Born to Run, he’d give him $50 towards a pair of Vibrams. Deal complete, my son got his shoes in March, worked on his barefoot stride a bit, and is off and ‘running barefoot’ as well. Via Facebook I discovered a few other friends are into it, including a college roommate I hadn’t seen in 4 years and a fellow development worker, Weh Yeoh, who does barefoot running training in Phnom Penh and has even done a “Nerd Night” talk on it. (Check out Weh’s awesome other project here). Below is his video on how to run with proper ‘barefoot’ stride.

I’ve never been someone who needs to have the latest shoes or apps or gadgets.  But since January, this perfect storm of  information, communication and technology (books, videos, articles, blog posts, social networking, improved shoes and a couple of mobile apps) along with self-motivation and the encouragement of family and friends, has allowed me hit my sweet spot and reach my health, fitness, running and capoeira goals.

For some really interesting research, reasoning and background on barefoot running, check out this 2009 post by fellow anthropologist and capoeirista (check out his book) Greg Downey – Neuroanthropology: Lose your Shoes: Is barefoot running better?

And by the way – new research is showing that running (and other exercise) makes you smarter too :-).

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When my son was 15 or 16 we used to have go-arounds about selfishness and self-centered behavior. He was at the height of both.

One time he was explaining what he wanted to do with his life. ‘I want to do something like science or research, but I don’t want to have to help people with it. I just want to do it for me, because I want to learn it, but not to help anyone. Are there jobs like that? Like, where you don’t have to help people?’

‘One day you’ll mature,’ I remember saying sarcastically. ‘One day your brain will grow a little and you’ll develop some empathy, and then you won’t be so selfish with your brilliance.’

I wasn’t too worried that he’d stay selfish forever. I figured it would run its course.

He and I both play a Brazilian martial art called capoeira.  (Read this old post for more about this beautiful game and life philosophy). Once a year we have a big event called a batizado where people get tested and they can advance a level. It’s a lot of work, the testing is nerve-wracking, and the celebrations afterwards are huge. Our capoeira group is a tightly knit social group, so it’s always a big deal and one of the best times of the year for us.

About 6 months after my son and I had our conversation about selfishness, it was batizado time. We saw one after the other of our friends go in for testing and get their cords. There was cheering, hugging, back slapping and congratulations galore.

Towards the end of the event, my son came over to me, his face all lit up in a huge smile. ‘Mom! Mom! Oh my god I’m so happy for everyone! And Mom, Mom, I got that thing! That thing you said I’d get.’

‘Huh?’ (confused look).

‘You know, that thing… Come on, Mom, that thing you said I’d get. That thing where you care about other people and you put yourself in their place and you feel what they feel? That thing… what’s it called? Because I have it now!’


Nice. I love being right. 🙂

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A piece of capoeira in Cameroon

18 years

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Capoeira is ‘the Brazilian martial art of dance fighting’ if you believe Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Meet the Parents. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. But the old masters of capoeira describe it a bit differently…

Capoeira is everything the mouth eats.  ~Mestre Pastinha

Capoeira is a game, it is dance, it is fight, it is of war and it is of peace, it is of culture, of music, it is a piece of things. ~Mestre Suassuna

The impossibility of one person completely capturing capoeira, yet its potential to be touched by anyone are part of the balance of power and beauty of this magical art. ~Mestre Acordeon

Capoeira has always been rich and beautiful. We find everything in capoeira: life philosophy, self-defense, art and culture. We find part of religion in capoeira if we seek it. The word religion means ‘to re-link oneself,’ so everything to which we link ourselves would be a religion. We shouldn’t learn capoeira in order to cause trouble with it, but instead use it in the hour of defense when necessary. After all, in its life philosophy capoeira is love, celebration, and also joy. ~Joao Pequeno

For about 5 years now, I’ve been playing capoeira. I even have a capoeira name: Jaguatirica, which means ocelot. I’m not great at it, but I keep training faithfully and improve little by little. Training is about the only time that everything leaves my head and I live right in the moment. It’s my meditation, my yoga. So in spite of capoeira being challenging and demanding, it’s also the one thing that frees my mind.

I train 3 times a week when I’m not traveling. We train as a class, and training involves a combination of exercises to improve strength, balance, flexibility, playfulness, precision and control. It also involves playing the pandeiro (tambourine), the berimbau (a bow-like instrument) and the atabaque (drum) and singing in Portuguese. Capoeira music is one of the main things that drew me in.


What I love about capoeira is its mix of music, history, strategy, gaming, balance, strength, flexibility, creativity, daring, control, spirituality and community. Playing capoeira you learn to better understand where you begin and end. You learn how to interact with people in a physical and mental conversation that happens inside the roda (the circle) while the rest of your capoeira community claps and sings beautiful songs, building a ring of energy around you. There are different games within capoeira – some slow and beautiful, some fast and aggressive, and some devious and tricky. Each capoeira group has its own look and style within the different games of capoeira.

my son Daniel (aka 'Moska' meaning 'fly') is a quick and graceful capoeirista

My  18 year old son plays capoeira too. He started a couple years after I did, and plays a million times better than I do. It is one of the things that binds us, something that we do together, and a place where we share experiences and friends. So capoeira has become a part of our family and community life as well.

The history of capoeira is a bit fuzzy.  Some say that it was how the chained slaves taken to Brazil from Africa fought their masters.  Other say it was how slaves trained in secret to overthrow their masters – they disguised their fighting as a dance. Yet others say that the game came from Africa to Brazil and morphed there as a result of the many cultures and traditions that were mixing and mingling, including the native populations of the area.

Capoeira was an underground thing until the 1920s. It was outlawed and people were imprisoned, whipped or beaten for practicing it. Now things are quite a bit different. Capoeira is Brazil’s national sport and people of every social class and color play, in about every country of the world.

There’s a beautifully thorough and interesting book (if you’re into history) called Capoeira: the Jogo de Angola from Luanda to Cyberspace by Gerard Taylor. It traces the roots of capoeira from various countries in Africa through the slave trade to Brazil and onward. Not enough is yet known and proven about where capoeira actually comes from and how it changed over time to the game it is today.

There is some thought that the game comes from Angola. There is a traditional dance there called N’golo that has some of the same characteristics. There are words used in capoeira such as mandinga that can be traced back to northern Africa, and which were originally used to describe magic and magicians. In capoeira mandinga is the magic and craftiness that a player brings to the game. There are similar yet distinct games found in Cuba and Cape Verde. There are still questions about where the instruments used for capoeira come from and at what point each instrument became part of the capoeira orchestra that we use today.

I do quite a lot of traveling in different parts of Africa, and I’m always on the look-out for pieces of capoeira. In Togo, I saw Evala, where young men wrestle and women sing and egg them on. I wondered if there was any connection. In Togo and Benin I heard about voudoun, the basis for condomble, the religion that many of the early (and some current) capoeiristas practice(d) in Brazil.

kashishis in Ndop...

Last week I was out in Ndop, Cameroon, with a group of local kids who are working on an arts and media project. They were filming a local pottery business. I was wandering in the craft shop, and what do I see but a bunch of little hand rattles. I recognized this hand rattle as a caxixi from capoeira. There was tag on a group of them saying ‘hand rattle kashishi’. These kashishis are made in exactly the same style as the caxixis that we use in capoeira when playing the berimbau, and we always get them in Brazil, and I don’t remember ever hearing about any strong connection between Cameroon and capoeira.

I see drums all the time when traveling, and I’ve seen different musical bows, but to now I hadn’t seen a caxixi.

So now I’m wondering. How did the kashishi get to Cameroon and when?  And who took it to Brazil? Was it people living in what’s now Cameroon or Nigeria during the days of the transatlantic slave trade? Or was it the Portuguese moving back and forth in African countries who passed the kashishi around in Africa and then in Brazil?

I suppose I’ll have to do a little research now, and maybe I’ll never know, but it felt like a little piece of home, seeing those caxixis there on the shelf of the craft store, all the way out along a back road in Cameroon. It made the world seem a little smaller and connected. It made me homesick for capoeira.

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That thing you said I’d get

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