Adelle and Bernard Becker will take a hearty belly laugh from laughter yoga over playing bingo any day. “The feeling of laughing is therapeutic,” said Adelle Becker, 87. “Laughing until your eyes water, it’s just fun being in a group, doing the same thing at the same time and just acting like kids when you are in your 80s.” The couple call themselves groupies of the activity and regularly participate at Weinberg Assisted Living facility in Deerfield.
Laughter yoga or laughter therapy promises to relieve stress and strengthen the immune system. Dozens of instructors from as far away as Zimbabwe and Venezuela recently gathered for a training session in Rosemont with Madan Kataria, an Indian doctor widely credited with starting laughter yoga in 1995.
“Learn to be joyful and happiness will follow,” Kataria said. “What we lost in the process of growing up we can retrain. Laughter becomes habit when you repeat every day.”
Tosha Tobias traveled from Chile and said her services are needed following a sizeable earthquake in February.
“People have been calling me from all over the country saying, ‘Please, we need to laugh,’ ” Tobias said. “They are asking me to come to different places and help kids and adults.”
Sandra Scheinbaum, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, said laughter can dissolve “distressing emotions. You can’t feel angry, sad or anxious while you’re laughing. Laughing is relaxing and recharging.” She also says laughter can protect the heart by improving the function of the blood vessels and increasing blood flow.
But does it really work, skeptics might ask. Doctors have been studying laughter ever since the 1970s when author Norman Cousins was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and beat it by reputedly watching repeated episodes of “Candid Camera.”
Doctors at Loma Linda University in California reported in a study published last year that “mirthful laughter” may lower the risk of heart attacks and raise good cholesterol in diabetics. Two years earlier, researchers at the same hospital found that even anticipating “mirthful laughter” increased health-protecting hormones, according to the American Physiological Society.
Dr. Michael Rakotz, who specializes in family medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem, admitted he doesn’t know much about laughter yoga as a specific discipline.
“I do know about laughter, and I know about yoga,” he said. Both offer proven health benefits: Yoga helps people maintain strength, balance, flexibility and aerobic exercise, while laughter reduces stress, he said.
With yoga, participants “will get their heart rate up, which lowers blood pressure and hopefully lowers their cholesterol. The strength, the balance and the flexibility are all things that help us as we get older,” Rakotz said.
“We know laughter is a very good way to relieve stress and has a very positive impact on the mind and body,” he said. “Stress is not good for us. Stress interferes with our metabolism. The metabolic effects of stress on our bodies can inhibit our immune system.”
Caryl Derenfeld, of Buffalo Grove, founder of Learned Conversations, integrates laughter yoga into her work with senior citizens. She calls it a “freeing experience. Such a simple idea as laughter is a component that can alter a mindset, that can clear your mind, give you the opportunity to move forward in your life when things are difficult,” she said.
Another instructor, Tracey Colagrossi teaches a class the third Saturday of each month in the Hanover Township Senior Center in Bartlett. Laughter yoga, she said, is a true aerobic exercise with benefits that are “quantifiable.”
“We have a blood pressure machine in the senior center and they take their blood pressure before and after (laughter yoga) and their blood pressure is markedly lower,” Colagrossi said. “They let off their stress and their core muscles are worked out. They feel the benefits right away.”
The technique, she said, requires deep breathing, which forces participants to take several deep cleansing breaths.
Debbie Friend of Deerfield is a certified laughter yoga leader who works with groups of all ages in corporate settings, cancer care centers, community centers and child care facilities. Her goal, she said, is to see laughter yoga classes in schools.
Health care often focuses too much on rehabilitation after a heart attack or stroke, Friend said.
“These diseases are preventable if you manage your risk factors in the first place,” she said. “Everyone knows you have to exercise and you have to eat right, but the third piece of the puzzle is stress management, and everyone can do laughter.”
Tribune reporter Lisa Black contributed to this report.