Laugh Yoga Session

Misha Busch by Forgotten People //

Laugh Yoga Session by Mike Newsome //

“In this high tension high pressure modern world, we don’t have many reasons that make us laugh. It’s better to disconnect laughter from reasons and conditions of life.”  
Dr. Madan Kataria

On March 13, 1995, in Mumbai, India a handful of people gathered in a park. Maybe some of them knew one another, maybe a few showed up late. But when they began their ‘exercises,’ along with the coordinator of this Laugh Club, Madan Kataria, an Indian physician, being late didn’t matter. I know this because 18 years later in a park in Salt Lake City, Utah, I showed up late; but only by a few minutes.

It was hard to find. The location on the website was only given as Murray Park. I didn’t think it would be too difficult to find; just look for the parking lot full of Subarus with ‘namaste’ bumper stickers and they should lead to a nice, secluded sea of pastel colored yoga mats and off-duty baristas. But after searching among the kite-flying, ball-throwing (and catching), dog-walking, duck-feeding, birthday-barbequeing park-goers, I stumbled upon a small, non-descript group gathered in a circle next to a small hand-written sign entitled ‘Free Laughter Yoga.’ At once I was warmly greeted and asked if I was here for Laughter Yoga, to which I replied ‘yes.’ I suspect the look on my face was one of amusement so I instantly fit in. The diversity in this small group was well balanced and I feel should be briefly noted: of about a dozen laughers two were African-American (a male and female), one was of Indian descent (male), another was Asian (female), and a little old lady from some Germanic country with a sweet accent who I believe always laughs whether in a park or not. Our ages I would estimate to be mid-twenties to early thirties (besides the pleasant old woman). Several of the group were new to Utah. I never confirmed if anyone was a barista; thankfully we didn’t do the annoyingly obligatory “what do you do?” which is customarily answered in regards to an occupation rather than a hobby or spiritual pursuit.

We began with an exercise to get to know one another. Say your name, laugh. Say what you like best about the park, laugh. Say your favorite color, laugh. “My name is Mike, hahahaha. I like the stream the most in this park, hahahaha. My favorite color is green, hahaha.” I noted that some laughed harder than others so Dave is funnier than Mike, trees are definitely funnier than swings and pink is hilarious. Next we did a series of laughs consisting of themes. Barnyard animal laugh is where, going around the circle, everyone chooses an animal and laughs like that animal. I chose a rooster; “ha! ha-ha ha haaaaaaa!” Genius. Other notable animal laughs were the chicken, which consisted of a younger guy laughing while running around and flapping his arms like wings; the sheep, “baa-hahaha;” and the pig, complete with snorts. The little old Germanic woman did a dog, and while nothing like a canine, I assure you it was the best performance of the day. Next came vampire laughter, which consisted of raising the inside of your elbow to your mouth, and letting out a ‘Muahahahaha!’  Moving on, we did rollercoaster laughter. We formed a train, each person with their hands on the person in fronts’ shoulders. Moving slowly at first but steadily picking up speed our laughs began as ‘ahhhs’ until the top of the ride, then ‘whoosh’; hahahahaha!, a string of fools careening around the park as a single laughing snake. Musical instruments, nerd, argument, compliment, phone call, mouse, lion, and face stretching; all of these (and a few forgotten) were laughing exercises which I will let you imagine and act out in the privacy you may now find yourself in.   

The session was being held right next to the main road through the park, giving every person coming or leaving the opportunity to witness grown men and women engaged in such goofy behavior, causing these spectators to laugh themselves. Laughter is contagious, and the experts tell us the human brain cannot distinguish between ‘real’ laughter and ‘fake’ laughter. It makes me think we are meant to laugh, on a basic physical level.

Everyone’s laugh was different and unique, their own happy signature of their soul. There is nothing offensive or out of place about someone’s laugh. Some have more of a giggle, while others have a deep belly laugh.  Some people laugh through their noses sometimes (I do), some through their teeth (I do this, too). We all laugh with our eyes.  

For our final exercise we all laid upon the ground, head to head, in a circular fan formation, looking at the sky. Our instructions were to laugh, and we did. As the minutes ticked by I found myself unable to stop. The multitudes of laughter rose and fell like waves, and just when you thought that we were done, someone would burst out again, sending the rest into more uncontrollable laughter.  

When we all sat up and looked at one another again we all gave one another a small knowing laugh and sat quietly. In this moment the world was again full of wonder and beauty, lost since childhood but regained in public silliness. We felt better, regardless of whatever life we had come from before.  

Dr. Kateria describes how the body follows the mind, and vice versa. It is a two-way connection; motion creates emotion. A person who is sad or depressed has visual cues, such as a slouched posture, they tend to look down, they move slowly or sit stationary. Conversely, a happy person is more active, their bodily motions more animated. By consciously engaging in positive body motions, one creates positive emotions.  He gives several examples: sexual thoughts lead to physical arousal, and physical arousal leads to sexual thoughts; athletes use positive body gestures and express positive and successful emotions in preparation for a big game; soldiers use a ‘war cry’ to lift their own courage as well as those around them and to intimidate the enemy. And maybe the most readily familiar example of this phenomena can be found in pop culture, in the relationship between the actor and the role.  Heath Ledger had stated difficulty in playing the Joker on account of the character being an evil psychopath; one can’t help but wonder if Marlon Brando ever returned from the jungles in Apocalypse Now, while Johnny Depp seems to have found bliss in the role of Capt. Jack Sparrow. There seems to be a tendency to get lost in our own lives in this same manner. Feeling good can be a conscious choice, just as feeling bad can be.     

While there are physical health benefits to laughter, such as relaxation, stress relief, improved blood flow, the boosting of one’s immune system and the release of endorphins, it was the spiritual side to laughter I had forgotten. We were connected to one another; strangers, yet sharing the intimate feelings of joy and innocence. Children play together so naturally, not even bothering to introduce themselves until it’s time to go. As I thought of those children we once were, I considered myself. For the first few exercises I admit, I was laughing at the others. Then I was laughing at myself. By the end, we were all laughing together.

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