In 2003, Nick Cooper, a 38-year-old independent journalist and activist based in Houston, came across an intriguing T-shirt in Brazil. It featured the anarchy symbol and an image of a capoeirista -- a player of capoeira Angola, an Afro-Brazilian art form developed by slaves that combines music, dancing and fighting. The T-shirt vendors explained it is for a practice called Soma, a kind of therapy that embraces anarchist politics as a way to achieve mental and physical health.
For Cooper, who'd played capoeira in the United States and who'd long had an interest in the anarchist movement, Soma piqued his interest immediately. And when he found out that the founder of Soma, 79-year-old Roberto Freire, is still alive and perfecting his technique, Cooper decided to buy a camera and return to Brazil to make a documentary on Soma.
The resulting 50-minute film, "Soma: An Anarchist Therapy," is finished, and Cooper spent the summer touring across the United States, screening it wherever he found an interest, from Unitarian churches to makeshift theaters in activists' backyards. He's enjoyed strawberry almond juice in Eugene and vegan chili hotdogs in Athens, and crashed on the couches of "crusty punks" half his age -- and all the while making biodiesel refill stops.
Cooper describes himself as an "anti-fascist fighting against nationalism, hierarchy, brutality and unsustainable living," and the ideas behind Soma therapy obviously resonate with him.
Beginning in the mid-1960s during Brazil's military regime, dissidents were disappeared and tortured. Psychologist Roberto Freire -- blind in one eye after being tortured by the military -- found that in a climate of mistrust, violence and paranoia, his fellow comrades were unlikely to seek out therapeutic help. Freire responded by abandoning psychoanalysis and inventing Soma, a therapy for revolutionaries that he calls "fast, efficient and liberating."
Soma is a group therapy where people come together for about 18 months to do physical exercises and engage in personal and political discussion. It combines ideas from Austrian Jewish psychologist Wilhelm Reich, capoeira Angola, and anarchism. And unlike traditional psychotherapy, Soma rejects the authority of the therapist: during a session, a therapist is present, but he or she participates equally with the other members of the group and does not draw conclusions or make analysis. There is an emphasis on pleasure and physical release. The documentary shows Soma groups deep in physical play, doing theater and movement exercises. Participants call the work difficult but "delicious."
Now decades later, Soma has spread across the world and is still liberating modern-day revolutionaries -- young people, artists and students -- who are fighting against the bourgeois and seeking liberation.
Cooper says that even learning about Soma can be helpful for "gringo activists," who Cooper believer are more familiar and comfortable critiquing the authoritarianism in the government or the larger society than within themselves. As he wrote in an email:
As I was first reading about Soma, I remembered meetings where American activists were screaming in each other's faces. So my initial target audience was here -- I was hoping to have some small impact on the tone of activism in the states. Later, nonactivists and people in other countries started expressing interest, so I broadened my conception and did subtitles for five different languages.A great part of Soma's power comes from the collective nature of the experience, Cooper says. Rather than a miserable process of dredging up the horrors in your life, through group interaction, touch and play, Soma becomes a therapy that is a pleasure, something to enjoy that will keep you in the present.
Even though it was conceived during a time of brutality, Soma is for people experiencing varying levels of oppression, Cooper explains. "Most of us who have the tools and free time to question the system are also getting benefits from the system. This is a mechanism of co-optation -- an extraordinarily successful technique of oppression that often does what threats and violence can never achieve."
Cooper says that one of the most subtle aspects of this mechanism is that it turns each of us into oppressors, in as much as we buy clothes made by slaves in sweatshops in other countries, eat food from tortured animals or buy gas from countries we have constantly attacked, subverted and overthrown. And at the same time, he explains, we are also afflicted individually by our "constant state of fear, our impending sense of doom, and our growing hopelessness. Individually, we are insulted, threatened, silenced, ignored, and limited by families, boyfriends, bosses and so on."
Soma draws heavily on Wilhelm Reich, a psychologist who was once part of Sigmund Freud's inner circle but eventually broke away. Reich believed that everyone has a type of energetic body armor, built up over time as we react to threatening situations. This armor, which makes us physically rigid and pained, impacts our relationship with the world and limits our ability to express ourselves emotionally, sexually and socially.
Cooper explains that Freire developed Soma to free people from this armor, so that they can express themselves without restraint. Freire writes in Soma: An Anarchist Therapy Vol. III: Body to Body, (the entire book is available for download as a PDF), "We have no doubt that human brilliance occurs only when we are ourselves."
Reich found that people who can't advocate for their own pleasure and health also couldn't reject the system that oppresses them. "He did a study once about the German worker and discovered that the sex life of the German worker was absolutely miserable," Freire writes in his book. "So, he has no means to fight for socialism because he couldn't even fight for his own pleasure."
Capoeira Angola is used in Soma to bring a kind of physical pleasure that can break down armor. The tricky, friendly interactions of capoeira Angola and its use of the entire body with low, sweeping and sometimes acrobatic movements, Freire found, was one way to awaken the body. And the history of capoiera Angola is similar to Soma. Both were conceived as a way of liberating oppressed people.
When Cooper was filming, he found that the capoeiristas, anarchists and Soma practitioners in his generation in Brazil came of age in a world very different from their parents. In 1986 the military dictatorship ended, and in a moment all things became possible: punk, ska, straight edge, veganism, D.I.Y. But, he says, there is still a need for Soma, in Brazil and elsewhere.
"Many doing Soma are not anarchists, revolutionaries or activists," Cooper wrote in an email. "And Soma is just one of many therapies which consider state and institutional forces. There are many radical therapists who oppose the notion that one's problems are all in one's head."