Even when there’s nothing funny going on, and especially when she’s a little blue, Cheryl Oliver forces herself to laugh, subscribing to the notion that not only is laughter — even simulated laughter — an immediate mood-lifter. It is the best medicine there is. “Just smiling can change your chemistry and make you healthier,” Oliver says, “so imagine what laughter does for you.” A serious-minded civil/environmental engineer for 22 years, today Oliver is a certified Laughter Yoga leader and life coach, determined to spread the gospel of just how good an old-fashioned belly laugh makes one feel.
“For my job, I had to be very prim and proper,” she says. “It was almost a sin to laugh at work.”
As someone who seriously believes in the body-mind-spirit connection, Oliver started to think living without much laughter was hazardous to her health. A wealth of scientific research backs her up. Laughter, even as little as five minutes a day, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves breathing and releases a flood of endorphins similar to “a runner’s high.”
“You know that feeling you get when you dance and sing? It’s impossible to be down … you feel better? That’s what this does,” Oliver says.
So every day, she laughs her head off. She dances like the whole world’s watching, and she doesn’t care. If she messes up, she just laughs some more — and at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, she invites a class she’s leading for AgeWell Services at Tanglewood Park in Norton Shores to join in.
As an introduction, Oliver is quick to say what Laughter Yoga is not. It is not joke-telling. It is not a comedy routine. Participants do not have to have a sense of humor or even be sincerely happy to get some good out of Laughter Yoga. The idea is that if even if someone has to simulate laughter — in other words, fake it — the physical benefits still occur.
“All I ask is that we get out of the ‘sit still and be good’ mode,” she tells people. “Let’s play.”
To get things started, Oliver leads the group in warmup exercises, breathing, stretching, centering people’s thoughts. Then the fun begins. She pretends to be a lion sticking out its tongue. She “high fives” whoever is near. She pretends to throw pies. She sings at the top of her lungs. She whistles. She walks like a chicken. She clucks like a chicken.
“Forget those inhibitions,” she says, remembering a time when she had to convince herself it was OK to act like a child even though she is 47, and a grownup.
She smiles until her face hurts and laughs until her stomach muscles ache, clapping her hands to boost oxygen levels and taking time to breathe deeply, smiling as she inhales, relaxing as she exhales.
The “yoga” in Laughter Yoga comes from the breathing exercises, she says. Make no mistake, this is about exercising mind, body and spirit.
“Ho ho, ha ha, ha,” she chants throughout the 45-minute class.
Joan Dietrich, 67, of Norton Shores (MI) signed up for Laughter Yoga, hoping to lower her high blood pressure. After just one night of class, her blood pressure dropped into the normal range. “The next day, I had a happy, wholesome feeling,” she says.
Hers wasn’t the only testimonial. Mary Beth Kennedy, 63, of Manistee was attracted to Laughter Yoga to help relieve some of the stress that comes from caring for her elderly father in Muskegon. “It makes things a little bit easier,” she says. “It reminds me there’s a lighter side to life.”
For Debby Schubert, 53, of Spring Lake, there was another side, a serious side to Laughter Yoga, gained because participants are asked to make eye contact with one another as they go through the motions. “It’s a very social exercise. There’s a personal connection there,” Schubert says.
That’s the point, Oliver says. Since she’s been doing Laughter Yoga, she handles stress better — whether someone cuts her off in traffic or she’s facing a big job as an environmental engineering consultant. Always athletic, she’s discovered she is more flexible. Her neck and shoulders don’t hurt, and for some reason, she doesn’t crave sweets as much as she did before she indulged in laughter therapy.
The best part is that the benefits seem to last long after class ends, or she’s done laughing on her own.
“Here’s how I think of it,” she says. “If you tell a joke and laugh, it’s like a runner running sprints but with Laughter Yoga, it’s a marathon. It endures.”
Where Is Norton Shores, Michigan?