All posts by simon

A random update (January 2013)

Well, it’s been a while.

Some housekeeping: I’ve just moved back to Canberra! Two years well spent in Melbourne, big years of learning, practice, teaching, meeting great people. Lots of love, Melbourne is full of amazing people going all-out doing amazing things. So glad to have left.

So I was officially studying anatomy and physiology (including a gruesome but amazing year of weekly cadaver studies), chemistry, psychology, nutrition, musculoskeletal and systemic pathology, exercise rehabilitation and soft tissue therapies, all within the context of “Myotherapy” – a treatment modality which doesn’t seem to exist outside of Victoria. Basically it’s continuing education for massage therapists which let’s you do more or less everything a physiotherapist or osteopath does (except cracking backs) without forcing you to go back to first year and pay exorbitant university fees. Lots of jargon: “Myofascial” everything, “Dry Needling”, etc.

What I was unofficially studying was what has now become my staple combination: neuroscience, evolution/ecology, complexity/systems theory, anthropology, movement. Putting everything I know and learn through those filters: medicine, religion and transformative practices generally (Yoga, Daoism, Buddhism, Tantra, shamanism, martial arts, qigong, capoeira, wrestling, strength training, gymnastics, barefoot running, parkour, Feldenkrais, Pilates, Butoh, Continuum Movement, Bodymind Centering….)

What are humans? Why do we do what we do? What are the relationships between our minds, brains, bodies, our genes, families, cultures, environment, and our ecology?

Neuroplasticity, “psychoneuroimmunology”, systems physiology, human ecology, cultural and physical anthropology and evolutionary biology all provide some answers to those questions. Different cultures have different practices with different stories, a lot of people seem to get hung up on the stories and love to dismiss things as being “superstitious” or “woo”, I prefer to watch, listen, try them for myself, learn their language as well as I can, translate what I experience into my own language, and try to talk about it with my friends.

I finally put up some videos about this “ancestral movement” stuff, so people can see some of what I’m talking about here, and hopefully try stuff out and experiment. After all, the whole point is that these kinds of movements are innate! Certainly not my creation.

So that’s about where we’re at. Next month I’m starting some training in rehabilitative Pilates, to hone the old “directing awareness through movement, strength and relaxation into specific parts of the body” skills, and to learn another system. I love systems! Also, Pilates is so hot right now.

I’ll be teaching Yoga classes and outdoor Natural Movement classes, doing bodywork sessions, training hard, meditating, and walking in the bush as often as possible. Should be a great year.


A Thought Experiment

Try this: attempt to conceive, as well as you can, everything that you know about the size and structure of the universe. Start if you like with your own body, and work inwards: approximately 10 trillion “human” cells making up the different tissues of the body. Hair, skin, subcutaneous tissues, fat, muscle, fascia, tendons and ligaments, the muscular walls of blood vessels, blood with its red cells carrying oxygen and the white cells of the immune system, lymph and lymphatic vessels, bones and bone marrow where the blood is made, neurons and neuroglia, heart, lungs, spleen, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, liver, all of the different glands…and every cell in the body communicating electrically, mechanically and chemically with its immediate neighbours and also with distant cells in the body and the external environment via the multitude of substances, hormones and peptides being secreted through its semi-permeable membrane. Understand and hold the picture in your mind, or even better the feeling in your body, that none of these are static “things” – they are all processes, in constant movement, every cell is constantly creating itself out of its environment and also shaping its environment in turn. Every instant, everywhere, in our bodies and throughout the biosphere, every cell is breathing – taking in gases and fluids and excreting them through its own semi-permeable membrane, its insides buzzing with activity, like a tiny city or society the size of a pinhead.

Think now of the approximately 100 trillion “non-human” microbial cells present inside your body: similar in design, descended from the same single-celled ancestors that inhabited the ancient oceans of the earth for 3 billion years before they started to combine into multicellular communities, eventually becoming the animals and plants which created a breathable atmosphere and allowed them (us) to colonise the land. These trillions of microbes inhabit our guts, our mouths, our hair, they thrive on every exposed surface of our bodies, and no one has any idea which or how many of them are necessary for our health and survival. These cells also secrete chemical messengers and are in constant communication with each other and with “our” cells. The entire cellular world is united in an unbroken web of cell-to-cell communication, a common language, a shared genetic heritage. The mini-organs that the cells use to create and maintain themselves are essentially the same for both plants and animals, bacteria and humans. All of them are full of a saline solution, living water wrapped in semi-permeable membranes of it’s own creation, a planet-wide network of evolving life.

Continue this thought experiment now by taking the perspective of one of the cells that make up your own body: a tiny microbe living on the surface of your eye, perhaps, 100 trillion times smaller than you are. Simply imagine the world from this perspective, for as long as it is interesting, realizing that to such an organism most of the various things which are meaningful to you are completely without meaning – concepts like a human year, your job, family, society, etc, have meaning only in that they are likely to subtly or markedly alter the climactic and chemical environment on the surface of your body. Such an organism does not have the sensory systems required to perceive and derive meaning from the things which make up your world, thus, to such an organism those things do not exist, and the universe is an entirely different place.

There are universes within universes. Perspective is relative.

So, our thought experiment has by now hopefully induced the felt understanding that you are truly a giant, your friends and family are all giants, even your cat…so now, again, change your perspective and experience your body as the truly enormous universe that it is, from the perspective of a single cell, and, as well as you can, expand this perspective outwards to include the environment which you inhabit: from the depths of your body inside your organs and tissues to the surface of your body crawling with microscopic organisms (who, from our current perspective, appear to be “normal sized”), out into the air which is also full of tiny microbes too small to be visible to human eyes, which of course cover the surfaces in the house, all of the carpets, clothes, the tiny cracks and crevices, out into the garden where the ground is crawling with an infinite number of bugs and worms, insects, down into the soil, full of life, tiny microbes and fungi, constantly moving, reproducing, secreting substances which digest the world around them, being digested by each other, absorbed by plants which are the other giant organisms of this world, growing up to cover the entire surface of the planet, turning sunlight and gases into matter, consumed by the animals, consumed by us, and all of this rotting and being digested, reborn and recycled by the ancient and omnipresent, pulsating communities of tiny single-celled organisms that fill the air, the soil, the rivers lakes and oceans, and the bodies of all living beings.

All of life is symbiosis.

Practice this thought experiment often, develop it, extrapolate on it. We can reduce the mental habits of viewing the world as being made up of static “things” and of ourselves as being somehow separate from the rest of the living earth and the evolving universe. Albert Einstein came up with his general and special theories of relativity not by practicing mathematical equations, but by constantly engaging in what he called “thought experiments”. By doing such things repeatedly, the brain changes, and we become more able to conceive these things in greater depth and detail, expanding our understanding beyond its current limits. Einsteins thought experiments took his consciousness and concept of the universe far beyond that of the average person – each of us has the power to do the same thing, but it will not happen if we continue to think in our habitual ways and see the world from our habitual perspective. By actively engaging our minds in this process we can create new patterns of thought, new visions and feelings of the world as being made of infinitely complex interconnected processes, weaving within and through these miraculous, temporary physical structures and mental phenomena that we call “ourselves”.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”

-Albert Eistein

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“The Body Politic” – are we organisms or living ecosystems?
“Our Microbial Selves” – longer journal article looking at the ecology of the human microbiome.

Capoeira Angola

Old drawing based on travellers' tales.

Capoeira is an art that has evolved in Brazil over the last four hundred years, since the first slaves were brought from west Africa to build the new colony for the Portuguese empire. The Africans brought with them a culture of nature-based ritual magic, ancestor worship, and plant-spirit medicine. Their traditional practices changed to adapt to their new environments, incorporating the practices and beliefs of the Portuguese Catholics with their worship of saints, and also those of the indigenous natives who knew the local plants and animals, the weather, and the local spirits.

Out of this mix came the Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomble, equivalent in many ways to the Haitian Voudou and other Caribbean spiritualist traditions, and the arts of Capoeira – a strange (to us) ritualized mixture of dance-fight-game. In the mostly African state of Bahia, Capoeira retained much of the ritual magic and ancestor worship of the old African spiritual traditions, while in the urban slums of Rio de Janeiro it became associated with the gangs of the criminal underworld – mostly poor mulatto or mixed-heritage descendants of slaves who flocked to the cities after abolition to try to make a living. So Capoeira, forbidden like all African traditional practices during the slavery days, was forbidden again post-slavery because of its association with criminal gangs.

Capoeira is an art rooted in history, the music follows the African and slave traditions of repetitive hypnotic rhythms and call-and-response singing. The lead instrument is the berimbau, a one-stringed harp, one of the most ancient instruments in the world. The songs are about the history of the world and the struggles and joys of daily life. The movements mimic animals and field-work. The martial aspects are all hidden, the art’s history is one of struggle against brutality and oppression, trickery and deception are more valuable in this context than open displays of strength and power. Because of this historical context true Capoeira is inherently revolutionary! In Bahia where it is from the descendants of Africans are still mostly destitute, no money, few jobs, no welfare or health care or education, living in slums in one of the richest countries in the world. African nations are poverty-stricken, their resources plundered by colonialists and corrupt politicians and warlords. The Empires of four hundred years ago remain, along with their legacies of oppression, slavery and genocide. These realities are too easy to forget living in countries like Australia, they are hidden away in the far north and the central desert, in Aboriginal communities and refugee detention centers. Most of us would prefer to think about other things.

(Capoeira Angola, a short video trailer for a Brazilian movie featuring many of the old Masters of Capoeira, including two of my teachers Mestres Ciro Lima and Lua Rasta.)

The greater purpose of Capoeira though is the development of mandinga, “sorcery” or wisdom: understanding of the ways of nature. Human nature, the tendencies for people to take power and abuse it, to dominate or to nurture, to love and to destroy, to fear and rejoice. Understanding the current state of the world through understanding the greater context of history – the corruption of the current world system, and the preservation of the ancient knowledge of where we came from, who we are, our ancestors, and the earth. Being able to read the signs in people’s faces and bodies, their voices and the voices and movements of animals, the weather, the plants, the soil, and live life accordingly.

(O que e Mandinga? – a beautiful little video in which various old masters answer the question: “What is Mandinga?”)

And despite all of this dark history, Capoeira is a game! A truly fun, zany theatrical game, a seemingly carefree and joyous expression of being alive and dancing, playing with friends. Leaping and cartwheeling and bouncing like a cat, a frog…understanding context and history, oppression and suffering does not mean that we should give up hope or define ourselves only by that which we struggle against – it is an art of paradoxes and contrasts, difficult to define, it has to be felt to be understood.

CAPOEIRA ANGOLA CLASSES in Melbourne: Starting in 2012, Capoeira Angola from the traditions of Mestre Pastinha and Mestre Joao Pequeno, and Mestre Lua Rasta of the Angoleiros do Mar. For more information contact or 0431 166 737

There are two other groups training Capoeira Angola in Melbourne:

Capoeira Angola ECAMAR, under Mestre Roxinho
Flor da Gente, with trainel Gingaginha