Weekend leisure: The best medicine

By Danielle Wright

There are more than 6000 Laughter Yoga clubs in 60 countries. Danielle Wright finds out why the joke is travelling so fast.

A good guffaw has both physical and mental health benefits. Photo / Supplied
A good guffaw has both physical and mental health benefits. Photo / Supplied

I laughed when I read about laughter yoga. I'm not laughing now, sitting in a room with a group of strangers about to pull "funny" faces at each other.

Comedian John Cleese famously took a class in a Mumbai prison and described it as "wonderfully ridiculous". Here in New Zealand, around 20 clubs exist and it has been practised for around six years.

The concept was developed by Indian guru Jiten Kohi but made popular as an exercise routine by Indian physician Dr Madan Kataria after he read about laughter being the best medicine.

With a yoga instructor for a wife, Kataria started telling jokes to her classes, but the older women didn't like his jokes, so instead he tried laughter for no reason, and it worked.

A few weeks ago, Kataria held an international World Laughter Day and around 70 people turned up to Western Springs on a Sunday evening for a combined club laughter yoga session - some in a competition to outdo each other in the hilarity stakes.

Today, I'm taking a session with Louise Stevens, laughter yoga leader and owner of Laughter Empowers, which also offers businesses the chance to bond and de-stress their staff over laughter yoga.

It's a mix of pranayama, the ancient science of yogic breathing, laughter exercises and mime. The yoga part is the deep breathing and the laughter element facilitates the exhaling of stale air out of your lungs, as well as lifting your spirits, because the body can't tell between real and fake laughter.

Many of the people in the class are here because they have simply lost the ability to laugh - one is a widower, another couple are new to the country and one is recovering from illness.

They are given different types of laughter to try, including lion laughter, clown laughter, and even clam laughter. With a different exercise every minute for a 45-minute lesson, there's a chance to try them all.

"Laughter is exhaling," explains Louise. "When we're stressed we shallow-breathe so we inhale but don't exhale. The more stale air you expel, the more oxygen can come in."

Health benefits include reduced stress, a boost to the immune system and, because it's a kind of facial aerobics, it's supposedly anti-ageing as well. It can also help move "blocked emotions" and burn more calories, too.

Not everyone gets the joke though and the neighbours of this club have complained to the council about the Saturday morning chuckles filtering from the community centre to their coffee tables. Luckily for them, silent laughter is also being taught.

"You don't need a sense of humour," says Louise and even the worst joke is met with hearty guffaws from the group.

It's a stand-up comic's dream audience and there are a couple of people in the class who take slapstick to a whole new level.

"While it's okay to be sad, it's not okay getting stuck there through overwork, heartbreak, or whatever reason," says Louise, who came to laughter yoga while looking after an elderly parent, weighed down by responsibility and with no time for fun.

"Now I laugh at all sorts of things," says Louise, who is so cheerful it's hard to imagine her ever feeling sad. "It has definitely improved my ability to laugh and a lot of people say that, too. A child laughs around 200-300 times a day, but an adult just 10-15 times so we could all use some help as adults."

There are moments, especially while pretending to pick flowers and offering them to each other to smell while being greeted by hysterical laughter, that I'm left wondering whether I have stumbled across an audition for a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remake. And the effect, at times, is like staying too long at a work function where forced laughter is making you feel a bit jaded.

But, looking into the eyes of the 20 or so other people in the room, they are glistening and dancing, and it's true what they say - everyone really is beautiful when they laugh - whether they're pulling a funny face, or not.

* Laughter teacher training begins in the first week of July. Go online for more information about clubs in your area. Louise Stevens can be contacted on (09) 444 7247.

- NZ Herald

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