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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Column: Hasyayoga

Bikram Yoga’s multi-billion dollar franchising scheme and the multiplication of various styles of yoga (everything from Power Yoga to Kundalini Yoga) start to look a lot like the rows of potato chips at the grocery store. Which one is right for me? Every aspect must be weighed in order to make a decision – flavor, quantity, calories and general label appeal. I do not mean to reduce the 3000-year-old Ayurvedic practice to snack foods (Ayurveda is based on whole, organic foods anyway), but let’s face it, in the city of Davis alone, there are close to 50 different types of yoga to choose from. What’s the rookie yogi to do? Try Laughter Yoga!

My first exposure to this practice was in a Bollywood movie. In a particular scene, elderly men were gathered in an open park at sunrise and were literally just laughing. What started out as a casual group practice emerges today with over 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries. Laughter Yoga, also known as Hasyayoga (hasya means laughter in Sanskrit), consists of deep diaphragm breathing, eye staring, stretching, hand-shaking, hugging and sometimes even hopping like frogs, all culminating into contagious laughter.

Dr. Madan Kataria, who developed Hasyayoga and is the author of Laugh for No Reason, says laughter may indeed be the best medicine. He started the first laughter group in India with five people. They started out by telling each other jokes; after 10 days, they ran out of jokes. Dr. Kataria then incorporated yoga techniques. He says our body does not know the difference between genuine and simulated laughter. This means that whether we laugh at a really good joke or participate in self-induced laughter, our bodies reap the same benefits.

In a scientific experiment conducted at UC Irvine by Dr. Lee Berk, participants were shown clips of comedy movies and their physiological responses were measured. According to the study, general benefits of laughter include reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood including cortisol and adrenaline. Laughter also boosts the body’s natural “killer cells” (cells that attack tumor cells and viruses) and promotes a general sense of happiness and well-being. It is possible that the effects of watching a funny movie and self-induced laughter may be different. However, even as a laughter group may start out with routine exercises, it almost never fails to produce genuine laughter in the end.

We all have those times that we laugh with friends or family – at first it starts out with a joke or an incident but grows into uncontrollable, long-lasting laughter. When was the last time you had a good laugh? So good that your eyes started tearing, your stomach and face hurt and by the end of it you had forgotten how it all started? Okay, Laughter Yoga may not go that far, but you get the idea. Laughter is contagious.

My friend from high school had the loudest, most outstanding laugh; we’re talking non-stop, uncontrollable laughter. When she laughed, it was impossible not to join in, even if the joke was on you. I suppose that is the point of Laughter Yoga – no matter how it starts, the value lies in the process of not taking ourselves too seriously. Dr. Kataria’s advice: “Life can be a challenge. It helps if you’re able to laugh.” I suspect that after sustained practice of any type of yoga (especially Laughter Yoga) one finds even-mindedness from which to approach life’s daily decisions and complexities; a certain light-heartedness that knows bad times will pass and good times will come.

Debbie Roquet, Certified Laughter Leader and Creator of Davis Hysterical Society Laughter Club, leads Laughter Club events and workshop at the I-House, Institute for Restorative Health, Davis Senior Center and other venues. You can visit her website at laughtercompany.org for more information. (Watch the youtube video of Dr. Kataria’s group!)

In the words of yoga student and teacher Julie Rappaport, “The postures teach us about ourselves … They bless us with immediate feedback.” I believe the immediate feedback Rappaport is referring to is mental and physical feedback. With all the options of yoga schools out there, choosing our first class can be a little challenging. It is definitely worth bouncing from school to school until you discover which style of yoga suits your body and personality. When you receive that feedback, while in a pose or maybe hours after class has ended, it will just stick with you, like a PB&J sandwich. And who knows, maybe Laughter Yoga is exactly what your body is searching for.

Reach MEGHA BHATT at mybhatt@ucdavis.edu.

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