When my editor announced out loud that she’d assigned me to review a laughter yoga session, the Friday team burst into a collective chuckle. Sending the office cynic to what is a session of forced laughter is a masterclass in all four levels of irony. I could definitely appreciate the sublime humour.
So when I dragged myself to Al Wasl Park at 8.30am on a wintry Saturday for my one-on-one laughter yoga session with Naser Al Riyami, an Emirati laughter yoga specialist, neither of us looked like we thought this was a hoot. More so perhaps Naser, who had to drive from Abu Dhabi at an outrageously early hour on the last weekend before his wedding. As far as cheerful starts go, this definitely wouldn’t make it to the top of the charts of joviality, I thought.
Naser is a far cry from what you’d expect a laughter yoga (or hasyayoga, as is the Sanskrit word for it) coach to be. The psychologist who is founding partner of ChangeWorks Abu Dhabi is wry and quick with sardonic ripostes that blindside me from the get go. He’s disenchanted by pop psychology and categorically distances himself from widely accepted mental health findings – ‘a statistic of one in the general population is a norm not an illness’.
A part of me is ecstatic knowing I won’t have that effusive brand of positivity, the one we often find ourselves peer-pressured into, forced down my throat. But there’s also a part of me wracked with doubt about how a realist and a cynic are going to sustain any form of mirth and glee for the next three-quarters of an hour.
However, over the course of the next 40 minutes, sat cross-legged on a park bench, I learn that laughter yoga is independent of inbuilt joy or a sunny disposition because laughter, Naser explains as he takes me through basic breathing exercises – inhale, exhale, repeat – is contagious. ‘There’s a laughter centre in the brain that generates laughter when you hear it. It’s naturally contagious.’
It works better in large groups, but it’s not impossible to sustain in a one-on-one setting either, Naser adds. The key, my coach tells me, is eye contact. ‘Neurons mirror another person and fire off laughter within yourself,’ he says, holding my gaze and launching into a hearty ‘ha ha ha ha’, inclining his head to one side and signalling me to follow suit.
I can only describe the 10-15 second interval of silence on my end that ensued as something similar to blanking out because of stage fright. My brain comprehends it needs to laugh but it is simultaneously finding it ridiculous and unnerving to do so. I’m just supposed to break into laughter without an episode of Saturday Night Live or a well-crafted pun to trigger said laughter? That’s what crazy people do…
My internal debate is broken by a pronounced ‘he he he’ from Naser, who is encouraging me silently with his eyes to join him. I take the plunge and do what I’ve always feared would herald my slow decline into insanity – laugh hysterically for no good reason.
Of all forms of yoga, laughter yoga is the newest, only 25 years old. In fact, its connection to yoga is tenuous and the moniker stands because of the yogic breath work it includes that engages the diaphragm and brings in more oxygen to your body and brain.
There are no convoluted poses to contort your body into here – 15 minutes into our session when a group of mums and their kids enter the park for what is a morning walk, I’m mortified and would rather they caught me sweating through a pigeon pose than sound like Santa Claus as I ‘ho ho ho’, clapping as I do so.
Rule number three – ‘we do not laugh at each other, we laugh with each other’ – of laughter yoga that Naser outlines for me as part of my induction is not one these onlookers are aware of.
The other two and only rules are no talking, just laughing and be careful to not hurt yourself or others.
It also incorporates the four elements of joy: laughing, clapping, dancing and singing.
‘I’ll spare you the dancing today,’ Naser declares. ‘It’s only fun in large groups.’
Laughter clubs are rampant in India – walk through parks and green compounds of building complexes in metro-cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru early morning and it’s not rare to see groups of senior citizens laughing exaggeratedly.
The concept is the brainchild of Mumbai-based physician Dr Madan Kataria, who first started it in 1995. He was captivated by how humour can heal in Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness and wanted to test if laughter truly is the best medicine. ‘So he told his wife Madhuri, ‘‘let’s go to the park and round up some people to laugh.’’ To which she said, ‘‘sure, but it’s 4am now dude’’ and turned around and went to sleep,’ narrates Naser.
I burst into giggles – it’s the first time the session has genuinely tickled my funny bone. Jokes and funny anecdotes were how Dr Kataria first tried to initiate laughter in his laughter groups but he soon found out what every stand-up comic does – one person’s humour is another’s reason to take offence, and when you run out of good content, so does the number of people who show up. Further research led him to the conclusion that when it comes to laughter, faking it till you make it holds true – and that’s been the leading tenet across the 5,000-odd laughter clubs worldwide.
There’s some truth to this – when I’m not being gawked at by mums and toddlers the simulated laughter bubbles up easier, my body is relaxed and I’m engaged in the silliness and childlike playfulness of the laughter exercises Naser is running me through.
There’s one where I laugh through miming the making of a milkshake, another one involves wagging a finger at each other and laughing through what’s a confrontational gesture and then there’s laughing to the happy birthday tune. There are over a hundred different laughter exercises and in a group setting they incorporate movement such as running, leaping and even roaring, I learn later from a YouTube video.
The eye contact helps keep me rooted and oblivious to our surroundings and I’m not sure if I’m laughing at the absurdity of it all or because my body has been tricked into believing this is the real deal and is now hopped up on serotonin and dopamine.
‘Childlike playfulness is laughter yoga’s primary principle and while silly, it has serious benefits,’ Naser tells me. It’s one of the reasons why cheese brand La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow) has launched a campaign ‘Because it’s better to laugh’ promoting the benefits of laughter, and has collaborated with Naser. A survey the brand conducted show that those who laugh are 30 per cent more likely to have a balanced diet, live longer. Research from Japan also shows how elderly people showed increased bone mineral density and improved moods after weekly laughter exercise sessions of 30 minutes for three months, and a 100 belly laughs burn the same amount of calories 10 minutes of rowing does. My sore abdominal muscles will concur.
Another benefit of faking laughter till you make it is that it heightens your sense of humour, explains Naser. ‘I was watching an anime show one night and laughed out loud at a humorous scene. It made me realise it had been a while since I had laughed out loud. Earlier, my response to funny things would be a silent mental chuckle, but I’m prone to laughing out loud now.’ Naser uses the therapeutic benefits of laughter to make people open up during hypnotherapy sessions with clients: ‘the better you feel, the faster you heal,’ he tells me.
We’ve come to the end of our 45-minute session and in typical yoga fashion finish with a seated stretch while humming. It’s during this that I realise the niggling knot of stress in my back that has plagued me for weeks, despite concentrated stretching and massages, seems to have, well, vanished.
I’m not sure whether I want to laugh or cry in relief.
– For more info on laughter yoga and certified laughter yoga clubs in the UAE visit laughteryoga.org and facebook.com/lavachequiritarabia/