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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2008

LAUGHTER YOGA

Let loose nature's way to tone body and soul


Staff writer

Ha-ha, funny isn't it, but Laughter Yoga has nothing to do with telling jokes. In fact, humor plays no part in this unusual form of the ancient Hindu discipline. Here, laughter has to be unconditional.

News photo
Participants in a recent Laughter Yoga class held at the Kichijoji Laughter Club in western Tokyo display with delight the joyful, infectious levels of levity the practice has helped them to share. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

But, shame to say, it was the innocent appeal of sheer frivolity that made me fish out my leotard and head for trendy Kichijoji in western Tokyo in search of enlightenment with a snicker.

To begin with, when I walked into the class in a small room on the first floor of a condo close to the station, I was nonplussed when I was greeted by Mary Tadokoro, cofounder of Laughter Yoga Japan, which now has six clubs in eastern Japan and three in the west. Her firm handshake and ear-to-ear smile surely eased my nervousness over my first ever yoga experience — but weren't yoga instructors supposed to be austere, imposing and serious?

All the other participants — five Japanese people (including Tadokoro's husband) and an Indian guy — were beaming too, as if privy to a private joke. But we hadn't even started.

Then, for a moment, Tadokoro's grin disappeared as she explained one of the basic rules of Laughter Yoga: "Talking is not allowed, as the part of the brain that uses speech is different from that where laughter comes from, so it diminishes the benefits."

We formed a circle and began with some rhythmic clapping to get the circulation pumping as soothing music played. With complete abandon, Tadokoro and her husband started a "ho-ho, ha-ha, ha" chant that was soon taken up by the others. A few minutes of this was enough to make me feel tingly all over.

"Most people's breathing is so shallow that only a third of the air from the lungs is expelled," said Tadokoro — "which is why we perform laughing exercises that force out the stagnant, stale air."

From a standing position, we were told to bend forward and, while exhaling, tip our heads as low as they would go. Then, while inhaling, we were told to straighten up and fully extend our arms high above our heads. This was the point of no return.

News photo
Indian practitioners of Laughter Yoga let their mood-enhancing endorphins loose during a session in Mumbai. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAUGHTER YOGA INTERNATIONAL/ www.laughteryoga.org

The ear-splitting "ha-ha, ha-ha, ha" that erupted from all present (except timorous me) veritably shook the room. Hey, I thought, these people have crossed some kind of Rubicon, because laughing out loud with a bunch of total strangers — without a single joke — felt awkward to say the least. But my reaction was apparently normal, which is why first-timers are advised to "fake it, fake it and then make it."

After several repetitions, though, my self-conscious reaction more or less disappeared as "ha-ha" subliminally became "hee-hee," then "hu-hu" before that final side-splitting "ha" trans- mogrified to "ho."

The completion of each exercise was celebrated with a triumphant upward thrust of the arms and a rapturous "yata ne! (nice one!)." This childlike playfulness, I'd by then realized, is one of Laughter Yoga's essential elements.

And so it was with the imaginary huge bills we'd each received in the imaginary post. On Tadokoro's signal, we moved around showing them to each other, making eye contact — and convulsing with laughter. Zany, yes — but infectious, for sure, and I was beginning to understand that stuff about "unconditional laughter."

Next, as the final exercise in this part of the session, Chaskar Mukund, 55, a member of one of India's original Laughter Yoga clubs, commanded, "Stick out your tongues, curl up your fingers to make claws and move around showing everybody else while making scary noises." Scary it wasn't; but lots of fun for sure. And then, like a bunch of 6-year-olds, we lined up single file to form a human locomotive that we accelerated by windmilling our arms.

Fifty minutes into the class, my T-shirt was soaked with sweat, my stomach muscles hurt from all that laughing and I had tears of mirth in my eyes.

Next came the cerebral stuff. As with more traditional forms of yoga, Laughter Yoga has its meditation component. For this, Akira Sugiura, 40, a qualified Laughter Yoga instructor who also spent a year learning traditional Hatha-style yoga in India, told us to sit on the floor in a circle, and said, "I want you to do the following exercise to still your minds. Just look into the circle and if you feel an urge to laugh, laugh, but if you don't, that's all right too. Just close your eyes."

The dead quiet that spread through the room must have lasted a full 3 seconds. Then what started as a snicker suddenly erupted into fits of laughter. Why, I really don't know.

The session was rounded off with a group meditation where we went through each body part and imagined putting it to sleep. Soon my entire body felt like a dead weight, and — honestly — the few minutes just enjoying that feeling of lifelessness were some of the most blissful of my life.

Mary Tadokoro, 53, a U.S. resident of Japan for 35 years, cofounded Laughter Yoga here in May 2005 with Canadian yoga teacher Lisa Booth. She did so, she says, because "there was a need for laughter to enjoy living in Japan."

"With problems such as stress-related illnesses, suicides and depression even among children, there's a great need for laughter in Japan. What's more, it's so easy," said Tadokoro.

In fact, she explained that Laughter Yoga came out of Mumbai in India in 1995, when one Dr. Madan Kataria, who was writing a paper on the benefits of laughter, came across a book which said that, biochemically, the body can't tell the difference between real and fake laughter. Combining this with breathing exercises devised by his yoga-teacher wife Madhuri led to today's Laughter Yoga.

Now, a little over a decade on, there are more than 5,000 Laughter Yoga clubs in 50 countries, and studies show participants' blood pressure and heart rates fall beneficially, while their stress levels also fall and the production of endorphins — the brain's natural mood enhancers and painkillers — is also enhanced.

Takashi Okayasu, 32, is in no doubt that doing Laughter Yoga for the last 18 months has had a dramatic effect on his life. "I used to want to only associate with rich, influential people to further my career as an event planner," said Okayasu. "But not anymore. Now I don't care who I hang out with, as long as we have the same sense of values."

Or, as Tadokoro put it, "Humor-based laughter divides people, whereas laughter itself is universal."

Laughter Yoga may not help you put your feet behind your neck — but to feel the power that laughter gives your mind and body, look no further as you make your New Year's resolutions to sort out your life.

For more information about Laughter Yoga in Japan, and Dr. Kataria's upcoming visit in early March, go to www.laughteryoga.jp


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