Work Hard, Play Capoeira

Learn life lessons and get in shape with Brazil's creative martial art.
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Through the most stressful points of the last few years, when I felt like my cranium couldn't take the pressure or the "to do" lists from hell, lying on a mat and doing breathing exercises just didn't cut it.

I wanted something beyond the traditional feel-good remedies, and I found the perfect solution by chance when I stumbled upon Brazil's martial art, capoeira.

In a wood-floored studio with a handful of other students, I quickly learned that being a capoeirista (one who practices capoeira) means more than being able to walk on your hands or do a spin kick -- though you certainly do learn that.

Deceptive Dance

Capoeira's origin spawns a debate among some, but the most common explanation is that it was derived from African slaves who were brought to Brazil circa 1500. Since slave masters forbade any form of martial art, slaves would practice fighting techniques through what looked like an innocent dance.

After its inception, capoeira spread through the streets of Brazil until it was eradicated in the early 1930s through persecution by government authorities.

When the ban was lifted, however, Mestre Bimba created the first capoeira school in 1932 in Salvador, a city in northeastern Brazil.

The martial art started trickling into America in the 1970s and is known today all over the world.

"They tried to extinguish capoeira, but it was stronger than that because it wasn't a thing but part of ourselves," says

Edna Lima, the first female

mestre

(or

mestranda

) in the abada capoeira style, a title that takes nearly 20 years of training and testing to attain.

Now Lima travels worldwide conducting capoeira workshops; she just returned from a six-week stint in Israel, France, Belgium and Brazil. She also founded

Abada Capoeira in New York City over a decade ago and teaches classes there regularly.

"When growing up ... I wanted to see capoeira done

worldwide in the same way tai chi is done," she says. "It took 20 years for my dreams to come true."

Full Circle

When you play capoeira, you sign up for more than just martial arts. Over the past three years or so I have found myself at salsa parties and workshops for

berimbau

(a stringed instrument), and I have done

auos

(cartwheels) in a city square.

Though I have changed groups over the years, the spirit of the game everywhere remains the same.

The fundamental element of capoeira is the

ginga

, a movement of switching from leg to leg in a triangular step (and one that has removed the word "cellulite" from my vocabulary).

At the end of each class, there is a

roda

, or circle, in which students play each other to live music and singing.

When you join a class, expect to sing in Portuguese, clap to the rhythm and even take a turn on a drum or

berimbau

. Classes in the U.S. are usually taught in a group setting in a gym, studio or even a parking lot. Sneakers and other footwear are optional.

Moves for Life

More important than fighting strategy, capoeira teaches you life strategy, Lima says.

Lima started her capoeira training when she was 11 and living in Brasilia, Brazil. At 13, she was already subbing for her teachers, instructing groups of local kids.

While she also trained in karate and is now a fifth-degree black belt, capoeira has always stimulated Lima in ways other martial arts couldn't.

"Capoeira was challenging because it took me to a different world of complexity," she says. Not as rigid as other martial arts, capoeira symbolizes freedom, as it did for the slaves, she says.

"People stand in a circle while playing," Lima adds. "In a square, you know the limits. In a circle, you don't."

Edna credits her family with teaching her self-respect and a positive attitude, but for people who haven't had that advantage, she says capoeira provides a safe, healthy environment and a different way of thinking.

"There's one single phrase about capoeira in all languages: 'That's beautiful, but not for me,'" Lima says. "I destroy that phrase."

For her, fitness results are secondary to breaking that self-doubt barrier. "Everyone in class is forbidden to say, 'I can't,' and then suddenly your limits are behind you."

Lima has had challenges of her own, especially from earning such an advanced title in a male-dominated sport when she was only 20 years old.

Capoeiristas would come to see this female

mestre

and try to test her. "It took me a long time to find out what they were doing," she says, recounting how often her testers would become the tested.

After 33 years of practicing capoeira, Lima still sees a lot of chauvinists but has learned to focus on developing her skill instead of loosing her energy in competing against them.

"People have no less respect for me than I give myself," she says.

Rich Rewards

Though capoeira looks a lot like break dancing, Lima emphasizes that it "is not a dance. The music brings joy and energy, but even if we call it 'playing,' it's as serious as anything."

With a degree in physical education, Lima has taught capoeira at colleges through different departments, ranging from dance to sports science, and developed a trademarked capoeira workout, available at

New York Sports Clubs.

Lima is also serious about spreading Brazilian culture through capoeira, because "if you don't stay linked to your own culture, you'll forget where you came from. And if you don't know where you came from, you won't know where you are going," she points out.

Lima can bring in anywhere from nothing to $2,000 an hour, depending on where she's teaching, "but if I get one person to start thinking about what they are doing,

no payment is like a fortune for me," she says.

As for me, I look forward to my biweekly sessions of sweating and singing the way some anticipate happy hour.

"If you want easy things, don't do capoeira. It's a beautiful struggle," says Lima.

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