Sydney, Australia: I walked into my first laughter yoga class expecting to see a hippie in a tie dyed shirt and leggings. I did not expect my yoga teacher to be a lawyer. And I certainly didn’t expect to be rolling around on the floor laughing with a bunch of people I’d never met before. But that’s exactly what happened.
Unlike more traditional forms of yoga, laughter yoga doesn’t require you to tie yourself up in knots, hang upside down or even perform the downward facing dog.
However it can involve yogic elements like meditation, stretching and breathing exercises.
Laughter yoga can be the start of a journey towards a happier life, says instructor Jackie Curran, who took the class at an inner western healing center on this Monday evening.
After noticing the benefits of laughter on her own life, Curran decided she needed to share the joy with others.
“As I started to feel happier, healthier, joyful, peaceful, fun, creative, all the amazing things that happened just because I was laughing everyday … I thought `this is crazy, I must share this with people’,” she says.
She says over 60 laughter clubs have sprung up around the country since laughter yoga founder and guru Dr Madan Kataria first visited Australia in 2000.
Merv Neal, the Melbourne based CEO of Laughter Yoga International, says he discovered laughter yoga when he was sick. He is convinced it literally saved his life.
“I got very sick … which I thought was rather amusing, so what happens when you hear something amusing is you laugh,” he says.
“And the more I laughed the better I felt, the better I got until I finally was totally cured.”
Today, he says, the practice, rather than something to be sneered at, has gained acceptance and popularity.
“If I had talked to anyone about laughter yoga even as little as three years ago they would have thrown me out,” says Neal, who holds seminars and workshops on laughter yoga.
“Now I mention laughter yoga and they say `really, lets sit down and talk about this’ because business and life in general is suffering a lot of stress.
Our class started with introductions – nothing unusual there, except we had to laugh after saying our name, and again after telling the class where we live and what we do.
For the newbies, like me, the mirthful introductions were an ice breaker. But for old hands who have been doing laughter yoga for years the merriment is bubbling before they even get through the door.
One laughter veteran attending Jackie’s class is Maja Meschitschek, whose contagious outbursts are not limited to laughter yoga classes.
“Recently I went to a meeting, I told them about laughter yoga and I started laughing and then couldn’t stop laughing and they all actually commented that it was the best meeting ever,” Meschitschek says.
Meschitschek started laughter yoga classes out of curiosity and was laughing from the moment she met Curran.
“In the beginning I was just curious … I had done it before with someone else in Sydney and it wasn’t enjoyable but you just look at Jackie and you have to start laughing,” Meschitschek says with a laugh.
It wasn’t quite so easy for me.
I started out self-consciously, trading looks with other members of the class who apparently shared my belief that genuine laughter isn’t as simple as “fake it till you make it.” But laughter is contagious and I was surprised how quickly the chuckling spread.
Before an hour was out I was lying on the floor, in a scene that would have been absurd to an outsider, laughing with people I had only just met, yet felt strangely connected to.
While I wouldn’t want to go so far as to attribute life-saving qualities to it, I do know that after my class I felt lighter and happier. I even felt like my abs had had a workout.
There is science behind the improvement in mood, Curran says.
“When you laugh you release endorphins, which not only make you feel good but they are a pain reliever for your muscles,” she says.
Tests that compared the blood of people who had just been laughing to that of those who hadn’t showed a huge difference in the amount of oxygen in the blood, Curran says.
Laughter also opens the blood vessels into your heart, Curran says, increasing the heart’s blood supply and combating hardening of the arteries.
And you don’t need jokes or comedy to make you laugh, you just have to reconnect with the child you once were, who knew how good it is to giggle.
“Babies and children laugh without jokes or humor, we have all seen that happen, so the actual reaction of laughter in the body is something that comes from the body and from the fact that you are happy or you are playing,” she says.
“That is all we are doing in laughter yoga, we are allowing the body to be in a place where it can laugh pretty much by itself.”
Everything is better when you laugh, Meschitschek says, and friends and family will only look at you strangely for a while.
“They look at you as if you come from the moon (but) it is not very long before they start laughing too,” she says and bursts out laughing.