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Laughter practised as medicine Sep. 13, 2004
Provided by: Sun Media
I never thought my name was all that funny. But when I introduced myself last week to a yoga group, all 16 of them broke up laughing. I laughed, too: "Hi, my name is Marilyn. (Ha, ha, ha!) I write about health. (Ha-ha-ha-ha.) And I feel better already!" (Ha-ha-ha-haaa.) I really do after spending an hour with my new laughing friends at Shiv and Sarita Sud's laughter club in Toronto's east end.

"I don't have to go to Yuk Yuk's," chortles the cheerful Shiv. "Yuk yuks come to my house!" Hysterical laughter from the group. Linda, one of the participants, relates her own story: "I've always hated doing the dishes, so I decided to wash them while laughing," she says with some mirth. "That was the first time I ever enjoyed doing dishes!" We are clapping our hands, grabbing tissues to wipe tears of laughter from our eyes.
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Life isn't just funny. It's hilarious! And believe it or not, this club acts as a kind of therapy. "Laughter is a stress-buster," says Sarita who, as a breast cancer survivor, knows a thing or two about stress and anxiety. Sarita has a great laugh, it doesn't seem forced at all. Still, she tells anyone who can't laugh easily to "fake it until you make it." The club's rules are few but one is that you must laugh after every sharing. That means when you introduce yourself, you laugh; when you tell the group about the nasty client you suffered through today, you laugh. Got a headache? You gotta laugh!

"I've just been here for five minutes," says Lynn, a young woman in the corner. "I have to learn how to laugh." She seems like an inward laugher, not like some of the others who belt out their ha-ha's with gusto. "I tend to laugh at nothing," she says apologetically. "Well, you're in the right place!" Shiv shouts with glee. What a hoot. We are in convulsions.

STRESS HORMONES

These people take their laughter seriously. The group practises Hasya yoga which is based on a set of principles developed in India by a physician named Madan Kataria. It was the '90s and he had been writing an article based on research that showed how mirthful laughter decreased the stress hormone levels in the body, thus strengthening the immune system. Just try laughing for an hour or so. You'll find that the drearies of the days have dissipated. Whoosh, gone.

Faced with writer's block, Kataria decided instead to put various theories to the test by forming a group. At first, Kataria was mostly laughed at. And while the first couple of sessions were based on the participants telling a humorous anecdote or cracking a joke or two, the doctor realized that he couldn't depend on people coming up with jokes forever. Besides, the funny jokes that fuelled the first few sessions were eventually replaced by jokes targeted at various groups, hurtful jokes and dirty jokes. So jokes were banned. The club members had to learn to laugh without them.

At our group, Shiv takes us through one of the laughing yoga exercises: After deep breathing, everyone chants "Ho-ho, ha-ha-ha." "It clears your lungs," explains Sarita. "When people laugh, the energy is light. When it's not there, you feel it."

Shiv greets every morning with laughter. "I used to laugh by myself and my family used to laugh at me, not with me," he says. "After six months, Sarita got into it with me. It's a blessing if you can laugh with someone on a regular basis. You gain the right perspective on things. Things don't overwhelm you -- they are manageable."

Paul, a laughter leader, takes the floor and leads the group in a variety of yoga exercises, each with a laughter twist. When they meditate, they don't look dull and deadpan: They're all lying on the floor, chuckling away as if they actually enjoy their inner peace. "It takes away tension," says Paul, explaining why he could come to the laughter club just hours after he had to help a sick uncle find a nursing home. "This takes you to the here and now and you're not thinking of what happened before in your day."

Laughter is contagious. On his Web site Laughteryoga.org, the famous Dr. Kataria notes that if you look into the eyes of the person next to you while you're laughing, that person will start laughing. (If you click on the Web site's International Clubs, you can find various Canadian laughing yoga practitioners.)

Everybody loves a good laugh, and maybe that's all there is to this form of therapy. Maybe it works because Shiv and Sarita, who also lead a weekly laughing group through Bridgepoint Health, are the kind of people who instantly put others at ease. "I'm married to Charles," Karen told the group when asked what laughing yoga had done for her.

"Now I laugh at all his jokes -- even if they're not that funny."
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