The first time I played in a capoeira (1) roda (2) was after 6 months of training as a beginner. Even though I was scared to go in and play with the big boys, I felt pretty good about my performance. As soon as I jumped out however, I found Mestre Almiro (3) waiting for me. He brought me out of the circle completely and told me when I performed the negativa (4) I was staring at the ground instead of my opponent. “Do it correctly!” He shouted over the music. So I did it, watching him as if he was my opponent. Then he shouted “Do it on the other side!” So I performed the negativa going the other direction, never taking my eyes off him.. Then he said “Good! Don’t forget this.” And went back to the roda.
I can’t state how humbling this experience was. I had never seen him bring someone out of the roda before and correct them, and I haven’t seen him do it since. But from that point on I knew I had to work with him. I knew he was telling me this not to be mean but because he wanted me to be safe and stay focused. In capoeira, you never take your eyes off of your opponent. But it took me years to understand the spiritual truth at the heart of this lesson— total awareness of everything that is happening around you. When you are looking at the ground, you are unaware of what your opponent is doing. But more than that, a capoerista (5) must also be aware of the rhythms and music being played. He must be aware of the energetic flow in the roda, and how each person’s game affects that flow. He must be aware of his own obstacles, the obstacles within his opponent and the way each of us use those obstacles to gain an advantage— known as malandragem (6) . Above all, he must be aware of his own contribution to the dynamic flow— he must be aware that the spirit of the game demands his focus, attention and passion to create a jogo bonito (7).
I learned later that these same lessons can be applied to life, as how we play the game of capoeira reflects our interaction with the world. And the lessons I learned from capoeira taught me a lot about life.
My capoeira training started in 2002. At the time I wasn’t necessarily looking for spiritual guidance, but I was hypnotized by capoeira’s grace, beauty and power.
The first 6 months of capoeira under Mestre Almiro is all about learning and repeating the basics— the ginga (8), a few kicks, the cartwheel, negativa, and how to buy the game (9). Beginners practice these fundamentals over and over and at the end of class, we got to watch the advanced students in the roda. The roda is where the real action and beauty are. Musicians play their instruments, and everyone else is required to sing the songs and clap. Then, two participants play the game. When buying the game, one capoeirista jumps in and faces another capoeirista while the third capoeirista exits quickly, never taking his eyes of the action.
To do this requires a lot of discipline and dedication. Mestre Almiro’s uncompromising style came from a dedication and respect to the art of capoeira. When he corrected us, it came from a respectful place but some people took Almiro’s criticism personally. If you could work through taking his criticism personally, and you could really devote yourself to learning from him, then you were in luck! We really did learn how to play a beautiful game, and his training allowed us to play with anyone
A lot of modern capoeira looks like two people breakdancing next to each other. There’s a lot of cool moves and acrobatics but frequently the interaction between the participants is lacking. This is not the capoeira that Mestro Almiro mastered in his youth. In Almiro’s class, we learned to have a lively conversation in the roda. This conversation was only possible when the participants spent the time and energy learning the structures and practicing them over and over. The same concept exists in music; in order to play with others, you must first master the fundamentals of rhythm and melody. Without this formal knowledge, music devolves into a cacophony of individuals making noise rather than a concerted group of musicians influencing one another to create harmony. In this same way, the formal precision of every movement that Mestro Almiro insisted upon ultimately provided us the freedom to improvise with each other in the roda.
This improvisational game involves understanding your strengths and weaknesses and your habits and desires. You also have to understand those characteristics in the people you are playing with. The goal is to trap, trick and confuse your opponent, to get them out of their rhythm while maintaining your own joyous balance. This is a metaphor for life, where our “opponent” is the challenges and difficulties we face. When we understand how to respond to life’s challenges by staying in the flow of things, we can play our own beautiful game in this world.
The more I trained with him, the more I asked Mestre Almiro about his spiritual tradition of candomblé (10). I knew that candomblé was interwoven with capoeira in the rich tapestry of Afro-Brazilian culture. I wanted to learn more and experience it for myself, but Almiro maintained an unwavering refusal to discuss it with me. He kept a stone wall around candomblé, and would consistently shoot down my repeated attempts to learn more. Just as he anticipated and deflected the moves of his opponents with mastery in the jogo of capoeira, he never let his guard down when it came to candomblé. And as I had learned to appreciate the reasons behind his strict capoeira, I later came to understand the reasons behind his intensely protective stance toward candomblé.
In Brazil, the white Brazilian authorities spent hundreds of years, thousands of lives, and millions of real (11) trying to destroy candomblé. This fight is not over. The desecration of temples is a common occurrence that rarely makes headlines even today. We have seen this same pattern with many other indigenous spiritual practices across the globe. And when the spiritual practices survive these attempts at destruction, we arrive at the finality of colonialism: exploitation. We eventually co-opt and re-sell the practices to ourselves, frequently by stripping them of their native identity and bypassing the traditional roots. This has happened to a lot of yoga in America, and its currently happening in the ayahuasca community.
By 2015 I was rarely training with Almiro anymore, but I began talking to him about how capoeira had influenced me, and how his teaching had shaped my healing work. With these conversations, his wall began to crack. When I asked him again about candomblé, he finally opened the door for me and invited me to go to Brazil and meet with a candomblé priestess named Dona Val.
That very summer I flew to Salvador, the birthplace and spiritual home of both capoeira and candomblé. Much of what happened during that trip is not appropriate to discuss here, but I learned something about myself that turned out to be critical to the trip I just took in December of 2018. When I visited her, Dona Val told me that I had a negative entity attached to me called an egun (12) and she made it clear that this was a very serious matter, one that she wasn’t able to solve right then and there. Although I had a translator along to help overcome the language barrier, the vast cultural and spiritual differences prevented me from understanding exactly how and why this situation was so serious. But I felt the gravity of her words without question.
What I did not feel, however, was the presence of the egun itself. I had spent years cultivating a relationship with spirits as part of my healing practice - the concept and impact of spiritual forces was neither new nor lost on me. But I had no awareness of the malicious entity that Dona Val said was inside of me. Although I did not dismiss her assessment, I am not the type to accept the words of another without question. I have always needed to see and feel truth for myself, and this was no exception. When I discussed this issue with Almiro, he insisted with characteristic passion that I take care of this problem, and soon. He warned that the egun are spirits of violence that would bring harm to me and my family if left unhealed. And again, I listened with respectful skepticism, but could not personally feel feel this egun’s presence.
Just as I didn’t understand the presence of the egun, I couldn’t possibly understand Almiro’s experience as a black man in America. One thing that happened as we started preparing for this trip last summer was that he started to open up to me about some of his experiences being black in this country. There was one conversation in particular during which Almiro described a racist experience he had and concluded abruptly with the assertion “I’m telling you this, Justin, but you can’t understand it.” And I knew that this was true. As a white man, I could listen with respect but could not truly understand his experience as a black man in America.
Amidst preparations for this trip I participated in a separate healing retreat where I had a deeply troubling vision. As I sat in meditation, I found myself replaying the conversation with Almiro and his closing remark. Almiro’s last sentence about me not understanding his experience stabbed through my being like a dagger in my gut. With the dagger’s plunge came a vision, as clear as day, of a white man strangling and killing an African man on a slave ship. During the struggle their eyes met, and in that moment of intense violent connection, the spirit of the African man entered the white man. This was no metaphor. This was real, and I could feel it within me. My intuition told me that the murderer was my ancestor, and the victim was the egun that Dona Val had seen. This was the personal experience I had needed; I could now feel the egun for myself, within myself. I began to speak to the egun, and to listen to him. He told me that he wanted to end this generational curse, he wanted to be free of this cycle of violence. He told me that to do that I would have to go to Brazil and let his people do their work, that they knew how to remove him from my being. And in that moment I promised the egun and myself that I would do whatever I could to make the trip happen..
This experience had many levels-- one being personal and familial. I could now reflect back on how the egun had negatively affected my life at specific points, as well as my family’s. This sad realization opened my eyes and my heart to the effects of karma both within a family and over generations. And yet another level to this is societal. I began to see the egun that exist throughout our country. Our founding fathers spoke beautifully about freedom and human rights, while at the same time establishing our country upon the backs of African slaves and through the genocide of indigenous people. The egun are violent because they are borne of violence, and I now could see the reality of this spiritual vengeance. Even if you can’t see the egun themselves, anyone can see their effect on our society— I believe that much of the current random violence as well as many people’s self hatred are two current egun-related issues.
And more layers are revealed through modern science. The study of epigenetics has demonstrated that trauma persists across generations through alterations in the expression of our DNA. Geneticists are rediscovering what indigenous spiritual practitioners have known for thousands of years: we inevitably reap ancestral karma in our own lifetimes, both positive and negative.
I met the candomblé priest Pai Edvaldo in the trip this past December and he confirmed my vision. He saw the same egun that Dona Val had seen and was willing to perform the ceremony to remove the egun - for a price. This price revealed more layers to the karmic knot. Any action towards another— positive or negative— creates a karmic debt. My ancestor created a debt through his violence that I felt called to repay. By paying money to this priest of an African religion I started to help pay the debt. Through continuing the support of this spiritual practice I hope to continue the process. While the issue of cultural appropriation still concerns me, the topic of how to work with candomblé as an outsider is an ongoing discussion I have with Mestre Almiro and the priests and priestesses in Brazil.
My experience in Brazil represents a huge personal shift for me, and I feel a great deal of gratitude for the people in the terreiro (13) for opening their doors to me. Underlying my experience with the egun is an understanding that we are all connected to divine energies called orixás (14). The orixás are divine spirits that are here for everyone. Instead of wanting violence and suffering (like the egun) the orixás want us to live a live of health, happiness and prosperity. The priests all stressed one important point - that everyone has a relationship with the orixás, regardless of race or belief. They are divine aspects of the natural world that are here for everyone. Behind my tragedy with the egun is actually my divine connection to my orixás, and I believe the deeper purpose in all this is for me to be a bridge to help others in my culture connect to these spirits. Underneath and interwoven with our karmic knots is a beautiful connection to the divine.
I am forever thankful to the orixás for showing me this truth, and for connecting me with Almiro, Pai Edvaldo, and all others within the tradition of Candomblé.
These trips into the depths of Candomble will be ongoing. I invite anyone that resonates with these words to reach out, and I hope you will join me as I continue my journey.
1— Capoeira: the fighting method disguised as a dance created by enslaved Africans and their descendants to hide their martial training
2— Roda: literally “circle”. When playing capoeira, all the participants form a circle. Two participants play the game with each other in the roda. Every participant outside the roda must sing and clap.
3— Mestre: literally “master”. The highest rank in capoeira.
4— Negativa: a capoeira ground movement.
5— Capoeirista: someone who plays capoeira.
6— Malanadragem: trickery or deceit. Within Brazilian culture it has a negative connotation, referring to hustling or conning other people by playing on their weaknesses. Within capoeira, it refers to tricking or deceiving your opponent by understanding and capitalizing on their habits, personalities and how they play the game.
7— Jogo bonito: literally “beautiful game”.
8— Ginga: literally “to sway”. The fundamental movement of capoeira. It looks simple, but Mestre Almiro calls it the most difficult movement in capoeira.
9— Buy the game: entering the game of capoeira is called buying it.
10— Candomblé: the African based spiritual tradition with roots in Salvador, Bahia. It is a direct descendant of the West African Yoruba tradition, among others. It is related to the Cuban tradition of Santería and Haitian Vodou.
11— Real: Brazilian currency.
12— Egun: a malevolent entity. Egun frequently die from a violent act, and attach themselves to their karmic relations to encourage more violence.
13— Terreiro: temple
14— Orixás: Gods and Goddesses. Everyone has specific orixás that guide, protect and challenge them. An important part of life from the candomblé perspective is to get in the proper relationship with one’s orixás.