Yoga gets the last laugh

2008-02-01

Laughter Yoga
Laughter Yoga

Giggling your way to health and well-being may sound like a joke, but it's no laughing matter - or is it? As the number of scientific studies on the benefits of a good guffaw grows, laughter yoga is on the rise - and so are Japan's laughter clubs.

What's everyone laughing about? For starters, laughter works stomach, chest, neck, and facial muscles, leaving them and others relaxed after a workout chock full o' chortles. Researchers say its effects may range from stress release to reduced risk of heart disease. But its boon to well-being is as obvious as the punch line to a good joke.

These are just a few reasons why the laughter movement is afoot, and why a gaggle of gigglers meet weekly at one of Tokyo's laughter clubs in Kichijoji. After stretching, participants form a circle chanting their signature "ha-ha, ho-ho-ho" to rhythmic clapping. The act punctuates deep breathing, simulated laughter and other activities designed to evoke the inner chuckle-prone child. It's not just fun-filled mock snowball fights or mochi feasts, either. Members practice finding humor in things as mundane as napping or as disheartening as a sky-high credit card bill.

Hour-long sessions end with meditation and relaxation techniques. To the uninitiated, it is an enigmatic exercise in pure silliness. But therein lies laughter yoga's secret to success: of its many lauded benefits, few who have tried it can deny that practicing simulated laughter can stimulate the real deal.

"Laughter yoga, or hasya yoga, is the use of laughter as an exercise, without the use of humor, jokes or comedy," says Mary Tadokoro, 53, founder of Kichijoji Laughter Club. "Very simply, laughter exercises are combined with yoga-based breathing exercises, or pranayama. We do not use hatha yoga poses per say, although a few of our laughs derive from them; for example, the lion laugh is based on the lion pose."

Tadokoro first learned of laughter yoga from a friend who experienced it as part of a coaching conference. The 35-year-veteran ex-pat says the two were initially looking for ways to support multicultural families, "where they could laugh heartily and forget the pressures of living in a foreign country." It wasn't long before she co-founded Japan's first laughter club in 2005. Ironically, English interpretation is often provided for ex-pats, but she says core members of most clubs here tend to be Japanese.

Laughter yoga is the brainchild of physician Madan Kataria of Mubai, India. Since 1995 it has spread globally spawning some 5,000 laughter clubs in more than 50 countries throughout Europe, America and Asia. Virtually unheard of in Japan three years ago, it now boasts at least nine laughter clubs, with three in Tokyo set to host seminars lead by visiting Kataria in March. Despite its expressed purpose, laughter yoga targets the silly and the somber alike.

"No sense of humor is necessary," says Akira Sugiura, 41, founder of Tokyo's Yoyogi Koen Laughter Club. "People are pleasantly surprised to see their sense of humor develop after joining our clubs. We see many instances where people who have difficulty expressing themselves become more cheerful. They tell us that friends and relatives say they seem happier." But is such Tomfoolery really yoga?

"That depends on how you look at yoga," says Akira, who also studied and taught yoga in Mumbai for a year. "When people think of yoga most think of asanas yoga (postures) but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Yoga is a philosophy and it means union. It consists of the yoga of action, karma yoga; the path of devotion, bhakti yoga; yoga of knowledge, jyana (or jnana) yoga; and the science of mind control, raja yoga.

"We call laughter yoga 'yoga' mainly because we practice pranayama (breathing) exercises, which are a part of raja and hatha yoga. I would also say laughter yoga is a part of karma yoga (as a form of community service)... I am intrigued by the whole idea of laughter yoga and its benefits for humanity and for myself. It's a fun exercise."

Like the movement's early days in Mubai, Sugiura holds his sessions free of charge in a public park. In fact, most laughter clubs in Japan are free, ask for an unspecified donation or cost no more than 2,000 yen per session. It's in keeping with a peace-propagating philosophy that seeks to transcend class and other distinctions using laughter as an equalizer. As Tadokoro says, "It's kind of hard to fight with someone that you're laughing with." Yukking it up, however, offers more than mere philosophical benefits. Ever since Norman Cousins told his story of overcoming a fatal disease by watching Charlie Chaplin movies in "Anatomy of an Illness" some 20 years ago, scientists have been taking a serious look at laughter.

In 2005, researchers at University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore showed for the first time that laughter induced by humorous movies seemed to dilate the inner lining of blood vessels, increasing blood flow and reducing stress. The opposite occurred in the same group of about 20 volunteers when they watched stress-inducing films. The study adds to another by lead researcher Dr. Michael Miller in 2000 that showed of 300 subjects those with healthy hearts are more prone to humor, indicating a link between laughter cardiovascular health.

A similar study at Moriguchi-Keijinkai Hospital in Osaka showed infants with eczema have milder symptoms and fewer allergic reactions when breastfed by mothers who laughed beforehand, compared to those that didn't, according to the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. And in addition to reducing stress and blood pressure, Loma Linda University Medical Center studies in California note that laughing can boost the immune system by upping the number and/or activity of T cells, the antibody IgA, IgB and Complement 3, which aids antibodies.

The list of such research goes on. Skeptics, however, are wont to question their perceived biases, small numbers of subjects studied or if results are really derived from laughter or if they can be reproduced by similar activities such as screaming. But advocates seem to laugh off skeptics. Such health benefits, regardless of how accurate, don't seem to be laughter yoga's main draw.

"People come for a variety of personal reasons," says Tadokoro, "ranging from the realization that they seldom laugh and they want to laugh more, to people who want a gentle exercise, to people who love to laugh and who love the opportunity to laugh for no reason." For them, it offers a chance to have the last laugh - and that's just the beginning.

To join Mary Tadokoro's laughter club in Tokyo's Kichijoji, e-mail: tokyolaughterclub@gmail.com or call: 090-2427-3991. Learn more about Akira Sugiura's outdoor laughter club in Tokyo's Yoyogi park via e-mail: dmt@apost.plala.or.jp or phone: 090-9190-1756.

For more on laughter yoga in Japan, next month's seminars by the movement's visiting founder and a nationwide list of clubs, visit: http://www.laughteryoga.jp. Also, see the international site for Dr. Kataia's School of Laughter Yoga at: http://www.laughteryoga.org/



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