A form of yoga that requires participants to cackle uncontrollably in the company of strangers. It may sound bizarre, but is this burgeoning wellness trend – claimed by practitioners to relieve stress, fend off illness and foster a sense of community – the solution to modern anxiety and general despair? Self-professed ‘repressed Brit’ Fiona Tapp joins a class in California to find out.
Every day the early morning dog walkers and crack-of-dawn surfers at Laguna Beach’s Main Beach share the sand with an unusual rabble, who stand facing the ocean, giggling and guffawing until their sides ache. No, these people aren’t in need of immediate medical attention, they are the Laguna Laughter Club – the only laughter yoga group outside India that meets daily – and today, I am joining them for a class.
Laugh it up
I’ve been a yoga fan since 2001, when my favourite Spice Girl, Geri, released her own yoga DVD. But as the laughter class starts, I quickly realise this will be a totally different experience.
A few curious walkers give our mismatched group serious side-eye as they pass by and I feel a swell of embarrassment as a repressed Brit. Reminding myself that I’ll never see these people again, I listen intently and follow along with a series of stretches and opening laughter prompts.
There aren’t any jokes involved in the session, it’s more like an improv class than a comedy routine. The hardest part, for me, is making eye contact with the other participants and suppressing my London sneer at the sheer level of early-morning cheerfulness on display.
After the initial awkwardness wears off, however, it starts to feel a lot like any other exercise class, I stretch, breath deeply and focus on my thoughts and feelings. A rhythm quickly develops where each new laughter prompt is followed by the same – now-familiar – chant and clap combination of “ho, ha, ha, ha, ha” “Very good, very good, yay!”
My teacher, Jeffrey Briar, the Director of the Laughter Yoga Institute based in Laguna Beach, has been practising traditional yoga since he was a teenager. After a career as a comedian and performer, he heard about laughter yoga from a friend and promptly went to train with the creators Dr and Mrs Madan Kataria in India. Since then he has practised laughter yoga almost daily for the past 20 years.
Briar, along with many other laughter yoga enthusiasts, says there are many benefits to regular laughter, including relieving stress, reducing blood pressure and pain, releasing endorphins, improving lung capacity and oxygen levels and providing a massage to internal organs.
“In the years before consistent daily laughing, I averaged three weeks of illness each year,” says Briar, a smile flickering across his face, “Nowadays, years may go by without my suffering through a single cold or flu.”
Briar says that the classes also encourage a caring attitude and the chance to make friends. I certainly feel the sense of community as I interact with the circle of participants, talking in gibberish, laughing together, shaking hands and even sharing a hug.
For many people, human contact is in short supply in the modern world, and platonic expressions of affectionate friendship can be quite therapeutic.
Barbara, who is 66 and retired, noticed the group when she was walking on the beach one morning. She describes that first class, and the subsequent five each week she has participated in for the past two years, as a joy, claiming they bring her “health, happiness and a sense of purpose”.
“Being around happy people is always a benefit,” she adds during a momentary pause in the chuckling.
Fake it 'til you make it
As the class wears on I’m finding it hard to keep up the laughs – and, at times, I have to admit I’m faking it. But Briar says that’s just fine.
“Laugh anyway, even if it feels forced or fake, and be sure to have eye contact with the other participants.” Says Briar. “Usually, within five minutes the inhibitions have evaporated, and the students are having a good time; laughing heartily and authentically.”
Laughing does help you to focus on your breath, a key tenet of yoga practice, and each class ends with a relaxation session, made all the more dreamy by the sand between your toes and the beautiful Laguna Beach ocean view to meditate upon.
During the warm-down, I feel exhausted but euphoric, the sort of conflicting emotional state you might find yourself in after a good night out with friends, including the sensation of being a little light-headed. My sides and jaw ache from so much laughter, but I also have a sense of gratitude that I was able to start my day in such a positive, if slightly strange, way.
Laughter yoga gives you an opportunity in our cynical times to temporarily free yourself from negativity, put your ego aside, and reacquaint yourself with the simple pleasure of laughing. But, can I see my fellow, famously-reserved Brits practising it daily – perhaps on the morning Tube ride to work? You must be joking.
Five Laughter yoga classes to try around the world:
1. California, USA: The very friendly and welcoming Laguna Laughter Club meets on the sand at the northernmost end of Main Beach in Laguna Beach every day at 8am (10am on Saturdays). More info: lyinstitute.org
2. Bangalore, India: Laughter yoga started in India and has become incredibly popular. In Bengaluru alone, there are over 200 classes. But the best has to be the original, still offered at the Laughter Club International Headquarters and taught by master trainers like Vinayak Shastri – this is arguably the best place to learn to laugh for meditation. More info: laughteryoga.org
3. Ottawa, Canada: Try laughter yoga for yourself in Canada’s capital city. Four different leaders operate classes throughout the week. More info: laughtercapital.com
4. St Albans, UK: Laughter yoga has in fact already found a – small but passionate – following in the UK. The Laughter Club International, based in the city of St Albans north of London, meets monthly on the first Sunday and has a small fee that goes to charity. More info: unitedmind.co.uk
5. Gambettola, Italy: Saturday classes in the commune of Gambettola, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, focus on laughter yoga to combat stress and welcome people of all ages, including children. More info: laurastudio.it
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