My Weekend Review: A Yoga Full of Laughter

A funny kind of yoga is currently taking root.

Based on a frenzy of laughter, it claims additional health benefits and has become the latest fad among its devotees.

‘Melanie Bloch laughs. A deep full-throated laugh, it is the laugh of someone enjoying a joke among good friends,’ so Tom Whittle writes in The Times. ‘Slowly, however, it rises in pitch and volume to a different sort of laugh, a more manic laugh. It is now the laugh of someone appreciating a joke on their own while rootling through the bins at a bus station. Then as rapidly as it started, it stops and Ms Bloch, our Laughter Yoga instructor, indicates it is our turn to copy.’

Tom Whittle, who witnessed it all and participated, sees the funny side of the exercise. As an inductee to one of the fastest growing forms of yoga he says, ‘We are here for an hour to laugh whether or not anything is funny. Although, to any observers at least there’s probably a lot about the situation that is.’

He continues: ‘So it is that in a suburban community centre our polite titter rises to an awkward chuckle. If Ms Bloch’s was a manic laugh, ours is a laugh best described as constricted. It is the laugh, say, of a room full of people whose boss has just told a racist joke. It’s also a laugh that we are assured will make us happier, healthier and more relaxed. Because for Laughter Yoga aficionados, this is nothing less than a medical panacea. Just remember even if it feels strange, this is getting your endorphins going.’

Says Ms Bloch, ‘The body does not know the difference between fake laughter and real laughter. Medical research shows this boosts our immune system and gives all sorts of benefits. This is doing you good: laughter is really the best medicine.’

A member of the UK Laughter Network, Ms Bloch came to laughter yoga from more conventional therapy.

And while Tom Whittle may not have been overly impressed by the group’s laughter so far, she clearly disagrees. So much so that she gave the group a new exercise to perform, in which they clap twice then put their arms in the air saying ‘very good, very good, yah!’ – not for the first time Tom was grateful that the windows are frosted.

Laughter Yoga began in India in the mid 1990s, started by Madan Kataria, a doctor. From a few people in a park in Mumbai, it has spread to groups around the world.

On this particular evening, Ms Bloch is continuing Laughter Yoga’s spread by introducing it to Leading Light, a group that tries to boost the self-esteem of people suffering from social awkwardness. Thus far the session has given Tom a strong empathy into their condition. Especially as he says ‘we have to perform again the “very good, very good, yah!” exercise’.

‘By the halfway stage we have laughed in a circle, laughed in pairs, laughed with our eyes closed and laughed at a faster, higher pitch because in homoeopathy tiny things are really more important. Now we are being asked to offer up negative thoughts to the energy all around us. At this point, I feel I need to risk introducing some negative energy. Is there really scientific evidence for the benefits of laughter?’

‘There is an element of truth to it,’ says Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL. ‘The important thing to remember about laughter is we don’t laugh only when things are funny; most of the time we laugh we are talking to friends – it’s social behaviour.’

There is work showing that people get increased uptake of endorphins after laughing. It’s like exercise. ‘Your ribcage is physically working – we know that laughter means good, positive things. It’s a hallmark of the health of an interaction. What the Laughter Yoga people are getting is some of that niceness.’

As the session comes to an end the laughter is coming more easily. Several members of the group have said they appreciate the way it forces them socially out of their comfort zone.

And lying on the ground, instructed to make whatever sounds come into his head, Tom, at last, laughs properly; ‘a genuine laugh at the glorious silliness of it all’. He concludes his experience by laughing at Laughter Yoga and admits he has no idea if that’s subversive or not.

My own view is not dissimilar to Tom’s, having given thought to every point he raised. I am sceptical as to whether enforced laughter has the benefits they claim.

However, natural laughter is certainly a health-booster which has also the uncanny effect of relaxing every muscle in our body and unwinding the stress we accumulate during our intense working day. Laughter is a tonic without which we fare badly, both in our professional and private spheres, and which robs us of the joys of well-being.

It reminds me of John Masefield, poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, whose poem goes as follows:

Laugh and be merry, remember, better

the world with a song,

Better the world with a blow in the teeth

of a wrong.

Laugh for the time is brief, a thread

the length of a span,

Laugh and be proud to belong to

the old proud pageant of man.

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2 responses to “My Weekend Review: A Yoga Full of Laughter

  1. Melanie Bloch

    Hi Naim – I am disappointed that you were unable to access your natural laughter in the session you refer to – happily usually this does arise when participants engage with willingness in the playful exercises and eye contact with sound and breath . The inhibiting factor of a journalist at the last minute turning up did not help the group dynamics at all. If he had not been there I feel it would have been very different experience.. It has been scientifically proven that the body doesnt know the difference between real laughter and fake if done with a willing heart to engage – the endorphin effects and benefits to the immune system still take place. Sometimes other emotions do need to be released to get to that natural joy inside. The journalist texted me later to say he had enjoyed the session but was writing for a more skeptical readership. I hope you will do another session and see that when the going gets tough and there is not a lot to laugh about – finding a way to get to a place of laughter is invaluable. There are thousands of testimonials from people all over the world who have found commiting to laughter yoga as an exercise on a regular basis
    has helped them with their health , become more resiliant and generally deal with the challenges of life with a lighter perspective.

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