Experiences from Brazil, or – The Body as an Independent Learning System

By Gidon Zaghar


When you go down to the beach in Brazil, you can see, aside from the amazing view, many people playing volleyball of two types. One of the types is the known form of the game; the other is played without using the hands. The latter requires agility even for a single move. Interesting, it's not a small group of talented people who play the no hand volleyball, but rather many regular beach goers. I asked one of the players who had taught him to play, "the ball" he answered.

Passing the improvised volleyball court, near the waters’ edge, you can see a mass of people on surfboards waiting for the next wave. When it comes, it appears as they were all born on a surfboard. Their performance is of a very high standard, men and women alike.

I took a surfing lesson from Kauli, one of the veteran surfers (a 50 year old regular that has been surfing from a young age) and my friend. He told me this: "If a big wave crashes, dive under the water. When coming back up, protect the eyes from the board." This is all he had to say about surfing. Later he showed me, just one time, how to paddle, how to dive with the surfboard under a wave, how to sit on the board and finally how to surf a wave. "You saw?" he said, "Now it's your turn".

The rest of the day until sunset – I fell into the water. At the end of the day I managed to surf for a few seconds on the board. “You’re already surfing” he said. I asked him for another lesson the next day, but he refused, saying that the sea is the surfers’ teacher. “Tomorrow we will go as two surfers, not as a teacher and a student”. And so, in the weeks to come we surfed, with him shouting comments from time to time. “Loosen your shoulders”, “stand up now" and “breathe”.

As I watched him surf, the water often appeared more solid than he was. It seemed that he and the sea were one, the currents pulling him. It was as if the waves had carved into his consciousness through the years and his personality has been dissolved into the sea.

Time is an important commodity because one needs to make enough mistakes and learn from them. Mistakes are necessary, and in order to accumulate enough of them, you have to act. It is impossible to surf without falling, to play tennis without losing a ball, fight without getting hurt or dance without losing the beat. This is called experience. Time enables resistance to merge with reactions and brew in a sauce of mistakes and learning. A man with experience, like Kauli, who throws in a comment or suggestion once in a while, is in fact giving a taste of an already cooked stew. A strict remark is rare and would be made only at the very beginning, in case of too big a mistake or in cases of clear danger.

Brazilian music is always cheerful. But even in this cheer there is sadness.

The music goes into the body and comes back out again as dancing: Samba, Hesha, fegogi, Forró. Dances are carried out either solo or with a partner. The difference between the two is great. I don’t understand much about dancing, but I noticed an interesting phenomenon. There are fewer people in Brazil who can dance Samba than those who can dance Forró. In other words, most people dance couples dances rather than individual ones, which require fixed steps in accordance with the music. In couples dances, the man is in the lead and the woman is being led, two very different skills, and on the surface, it seems that leading is more difficult. A leading man will always lead the dance according to his particular style, whereas a woman would have to change every time to be in sync with her leading man. Leading and reacting to it are not separated by time, so the reaction must be void of thinking and desire. When you see a woman who is a good dancer, every partner she has would seem to both lead her and be led by her, and often she would add style and movement that do not threaten her partners lead.

She dances as one with her partner, he pushes her and she pulls him equally.

In Israel I have also seen surfers. As my brother told me once “there are no surfers in Israel, only disappointed surfers”, there aren’t many good waves. I also saw two people playing the official national game – Matkot. The speed and precision of the ball, along with the strength of the hits were amazing. I asked one of the players how he got to be so good at the game, how he learned, “Just play” he answered, “with time you will improve”. He also said: “the sky is the limit”.

The body learns on its own how to react and is the best teacher when the following terms are met: surrounding resistances, actions and time.

Surrounding resistances are the forces applied to us in a certain setting: the behavior of the ball, the waves and currents, the training partner or anything else. Surrounding resistance is the “sanding paper” for us or for our consciousness. There is no way of deceiving the surrounding, it points out our limitations: what we can do, what we can not and when. Surrounding resistance will knock me off my surfboard if I fail to find my balance, will make the ball fall on the sand if my kick wasn’t precise, will make the hammer pound my thumb if I didn’t hold the nail correctly and it will hit me with a fist in the face if I fail to evade in time.

In places where there is no resistance to a certain field, or if the resistance is being faked, the learning process becomes erroneous.

Action is the attempt to be integrated in the surrounding resistance. When a fighter has real resistance, such as a fighting adversary, he has to react without a time interval. He has to be like Kauli surfing a wave.

There are many ways of reacting to the surroundings; this is the place for self-expression. Actions should be taken from a place of courage not of fear or done automatically. Fear causes paralysis, since there’s always the question “maybe this is not the way to act?”, “perhaps there is another way?

Acting automatically is means of defending from the real confrontation; creativity, on the other hand, is a useful tool that stems from initiative and experience.

There's a sentence I like: “Ships docked at the harbor are safe, but that is not what they were built for”. Mistakes should not be feared.

In Portuguese there's an appropriate word “Jinga”. It is used in fighting, dancing and many other fields.
There is no translation for this word, and no-one I met could explain its literal meaning, but I think I understood it.