The laughter echoed down the hall, from the auditorium to the elevators. “Ho-ho-ho-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Inside the auditorium Wednesday morning, 16 people clapped their hands from side to side, mirroring the instructor on stage.
They were practicing a special type of yoga called Laughter Yoga. Started by a physician in Mumbai, India, Laughter Yoga is an exercise routine that has spread to more than 60 countries. It combines playful laughter with Yogic breathing under the concept that laughter is contagious.
“Laughter really alleviates a lot of stress and anxiety and isn’t harmful or judgmental in any way,” said Laurel George, the instructor. “You can laugh anywhere anytime. I laugh when I wash my hair in the shower. That motion makes me laugh, and it starts the day off making me happy.”
In bright blue Converse tennis shoes and a straw hat with a flower bouncing from the top of it, George told the class early on that it was time to make a mid-morning snack: milkshakes.
She held an invisible cup in her left hand. “Yoop!” she said, arching her right arm sideways over her head and then letting it fall back to her side. “Yoop!” she said again, repeating the motion with her left arm, as if she were mixing together the ingredients of a milkshake. Then leaning back, she laughed as she poured the concoction into her mouth.
The students—a mix of seniors from the community and employees—followed her lead. Their laughter grew as they watched each other, and the room quickly filled with hearty “yoops” and laughs.
Certified in 2008 by the American School of Laughter Yoga, George held her first session at Weiss during the WISE Senior Center’s annual Springfest in April. She ran this most recent session for anyone interested—community members who had heard about it through the Senior Center, patients and their families who had seen fliers in the hallways, or employees who had read about it in the weekly e-newsletter.
Beverly Defries joined the session after her physical therapy appointment. She had heard about it in the WISE Senior Center but was wary at first. “I thought it was the yoga where you had to sit in different positions,” she said.
However, a friend who had attended the Springfest explained the concept. “I enjoyed it a great deal,” Defries said after the session. “I felt the movement and felt I was relaxing. It just took my mind completely away from everything for awhile.”
And that was George’s goal. “It’s good for you, good for your mind. There’s so much ickiness in the world, you need some laughing.”
Science backs up George’s assertions. In one study, researchers had children stick their hands in ice—a generally shocking and somewhat painful experience. They showed half of the children funny television shows beforehand, while the control group watched nothing.
When the time came to stick their hands in ice, one of the groups had a noticeably lesser reaction: the children who had watched comedy first. “It doesn’t deaden the pain, but those kids had been laughing and experiencing joy,” George said.
As the class went on, the students dangled imaginary floss through one ear, pulled it out the other and flossed their brains. They held their “paws” in the air, stuck out their tongues and roared like lions. And they fluffed each other’s auras, laughing for nearly 30 minutes straight.
“I think we should breathe just a little bit now,” George said. She lifted her arms, reached skyward, took a deep breath in and then exhaled, bending forward. “Get all that nasty, stale air out of there,” she coached the students.
Afterward, they went into a visual meditation, and then George encouraged people to shout out whatever they were thankful for.
“I’m thankful that I don’t have to take any pills,” one woman yelled. “I’m 90, and I don’t take any pills!”
“Yeah!” the others cheered.
“I’m thankful that I’m not at my desk,” an employee called out.
George’s appreciation takes form in the people right in front of her, smiling and laughing. “People are going to take this with them today wherever they go. I think that’s why it’s important.”