Exercise the laughing gear

By Kirsten MacFarlane

Lycra-clad legs splayed, I'm having no problem imitating a Bond girl in full action mode.

But firing "laughter rays" from my make-believe gun at the diminutive grey-haired pensioner opposite me - that's role-play I have issues with.

It's only after she chortles with laughter at my faux guerrilla stance, that I unleash my full barrel of laughs directly at her cornflower-blue cardigan.

It's all a bit of harmless fun, a bit of a lark on a Saturday morning - and the latest way to enjoy yoga.

Leave your snarls at the door and rediscover your inner smiles for a session of Laughter Yoga. It seems modish exercise gear is not mandatory for these weekend sessions, even in Ponsonby.

When my friend Beth and I cautiously take our place among a crowd of 30 in the local community hall, our snappy gear looks positively lurid among a roomful of woolly jumpers, daggy shorts and denims.

Beth is immediately alarmed, "but aren't we wearing happy colours?"

There's no time to fret, we're about to unleash a week's (possibly months) of stress.

We're straight into the "ho, ho, ha, ha" warm-up mantra, and if this group is genuinely amused by our fashion sense, there's no way of telling.

They're a mixed bunch, in a good way. There's the 80-year-old seeking a bit of morning cheer and 20-something Ben getting some light relief from his intense IT job.

To find a similar community gathering you'd have to attend Sunday church. And there's no doubt our fine-looking instructor, Malcolm Robertson, exudes an evangelical air as he leads us through a series of exercises to generate some laughter.

A clinical psychologist, he clearly knows what makes people unhappy, although his scientific brain took some convincing. A five-day session with the guru of giggles, Dr Madan Kataria, was a "life-changing" experience.

Robertson says there's plenty of evidence to show laughter benefits health and wellbeing; relaxing the muscles, easing stress, invigorating the heart rate and improving the immune system. And laughter, he says, increases altruism towards strangers.

"Grab a partner and start a laughter argument," instructs Robertson, "and remember to make eye contact".

This "laughter argument" means eyeballing a stranger, wagging your finger in a teacherly fashion and laughing.

A normally respectful lass, I'm having difficulty scolding complete strangers for no good reason. A sari-clad Indian woman swirls past me, and I stare directly at her bindi before quickly averting my eyes to the floor. She has a hearty laugh for her tiny frame. My forced giggle sounds bogus by comparison.

"It doesn't matter if you genuinely laugh or fake it," Robertson says, suddenly deadly serious on the topic of health. "Even if you're forcing the laughter, you're still using the same muscles for breathing and physical exertion."

My face contorted with mirth, my arms flaying in an ungainly fashion. Never mind, our ebullient tutor consoles me; let it bubble up from within.

Beth, fixed smile firmly plastered on her face, sidles up to me during the "laughing whisper" exercise.

"I can't get to grips with forcing myself to laugh," she confides, "the others look like they're getting something out of it - they're practically hysterical."

I barely get time to reply before she's swept away in the writhing throng.

The 45-minute session combines yogic breathing exercises, plenty of hilarity, and a few yoga poses.

Between us, Beth and I have experimented with every yoga discipline from astanga to hatha. Laughter yoga, we agree, is completely different.

Adults don't get a lot of laughs in their daily routines, except perhaps an occasional smirk at the office clown.

And let's not forget, laughs are free.

"When we laugh, we allow joy and exuberance to take hold in our lives," suggests Robertson beatifically.

But Beth is adamant she prefers the lotus pose over laughter exercises. Although she concedes it could benefit those who don't get much laughter in their lives "maybe it's just the release they need".

After the session, our affable instructor is at the door to warmly farewell his followers.

My reply doesn't make any sense. "Oh that will be the endorphins," explains Robertson, with a firm handshake and plenty of eye contact.

I feel light-hearted, with an urge to skip down the path.

Ho ho, ha ha.

For more information go to www.laughteryoga.org.nz

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