Dr Gita Suraj-Narayan, 56, and her daughter Sheroma, 26, from South Africa, received the IBN Tilmeez award for the best healthcare management research study at the combined 7th Annual Pan-Arab Critical Care Medicine Congress, 3rd Asia-Africa, World Federation of Societies of Intensive and Critical Care Medicine Conference and 7th Emirates Critical Care Conference in Dubai in April.

They researched the benefits of laughter therapy for stroke victims.

Their work has impressed the members of the social welfare department at Ryukoku University Junior College in Japan so much that they intend to use their techniques of laughter-yoga to help people deal with the shock of the recent earthquakes in Japan.

Suraj-Narayan, a social worker for more than three decades, started singing the praises of laughter-yoga three years ago.

In 2010, after witnessing the benefits laughter-yoga exercises brought to frail-care, cancer patients and Aids orphans, she decided to test her theories scientifically.

“I found there were amazing results where patients started walking better and there was a reduction in blood pressure. But I also realised that there was no scientific research to show the benefits of participating in laughter exercises,” said Suraj- Narayan.

She started her ground-breaking research and selected two groups of 20 people from the Verulam frail-care centre, where she holds weekly laughter-yoga classes.

With the help of the medical staff at the centre, and Sheroma, Suraj-Narayan monitored the health of both groups over a four-month period, but conducted laughter-therapy sessions with only one group.

She then documented the findings in a research paper entitled Biopsychosocial impact of laughter yoga on stroke survivors.

“Those in the laughter-yoga group made great strides. People who couldn’t walk, began walking. Those who were using two walkers to get around started using just one.

“Our greatest achievement was with one of the members who suffered a stroke and could not walk or talk. Now he leads the group in the exercises when I am not around.”

Suraj-Narayan said winning the award had been a “validation” of her beliefs. She hoped that health practitioners worldwide would begin to see the therapy as a legitimate way to heal.

When it comes to the positive effects of laughter, Suraj-Narayan lets her personal experiences guide her. She lost her sister, Mala, to cancer four years ago and firmly believes the therapy was her sister’s way of reminding her to keep laughing.

“We were very close and we relied on each other. She was a happy, laughing person. World Laughter Day fell on her birthday, and I graduated as a yoga leader on the anniversary of her death. I knew there was more to this.

“Helping people, and laughing with them, has helped me deal with my grief.”