Laughter yoga? What on earth is that all about?
I join the circle and sit cross-legged on the carpet, sharing nervous smiles with my new classmates. We are a diverse group of nearly 30 people, ranging in age from the young and hip to the elderly and more fragile-hipped, all gathered at the Arlington Central Library.
Instructor Diane Cohen welcomes us to Laughter Yoga with her singsong voice and expressive face, proclaiming the library conference room a “judgment-free zone.” Then she moves on to her first order of business: teaching the newbies to clap with splayed fingers while exclaiming, “Very good, very good, YAAAY!”
I raise my eyebrows. I judge. I glance at my watch: 58 minutes to go.
I’ve come to the free class after reading that sustained laughter reduces stress hormone levels, aids digestion, acts as a painkiller, eases depression, stimulates the heart, enhances circulation and strengthens the immune system. This is why laughter yoga is now practiced in 70 countries worldwide.
The concept originated in India in 1995, when physician Madan Kataria set out to study the wellness benefits of laughter. He met five patients in a park and proceeded to deliver a comedy routine, but after several gatherings, he ran out of jokes. Delving further into his research, Kataria read that the body isn’t able to differentiate between real and fake laughter. So he decided to ask his group to laugh for no reason.
Taking that mantra to heart, Cohen leads our class through a series of forced laughter exercises, all the while encouraging us to embrace childlike play. We chortle and shake hands. We laugh rhythmically while dancing in a ridiculous conga line. We guffaw to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (“Ha-ha-ha-haaaa!”).
A certified life, career and executive coach for both private clients and U.S. State Department employees (her company in Virginia Square is called Coaching2Connect), Cohen sees a lot of people who are undergoing major career and life transitions. Many could use a good laugh. “[I counsel] people who are stuck and want more in their lives” as well as those who want “to accelerate the good things in their lives,” says the former research analyst for the Bureau of National Affairs and the World Bank, who holds degrees in English and economics from the University of Maryland and George Washington University, respectively.
Laughter yoga, she says, is just an extension of that work.
About 15 minutes into fake laughing, I feel a real belly laugh escape. Soon, I’ve dissolved into inexplicable, sweaty hysterics. By the time Cohen leads the class through its final yogic breathing exercises, I feel happily exhausted, like I’ve spent hours giggling in my bunk bed at Girl Scout camp. Before I leave, I add the date of the next class to my iPhone calendar.
Laughter yoga: Very good, very good, YAAAY!
Your day job as a life and career coach seems rather somber. How did you discover laughter yoga?
I first heard of it when I read a book called A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink. He has a chapter about play, [which] refers to laughter yoga. Some time went by and a lot of sadness came into my life, with the death of my parents and the death of a friend. A lot of people I work with as a coach have sadness in their lives, too. I’m a very upbeat, optimistic, cheerful person; however, there were times when I needed to bring more lightness into my own life and into my work. So I decided to take a laughter yoga certification program.
You never joined a class first? You just decided to go for it and teach?
I couldn’t really find a class here, so I thought, well, I’ll just jump in. So in April 2012, I went for a two-day certification program at Yogalaughs in Keswick, Va. My first impression was, what was I thinking? It was so wacky. But I felt so good afterwards that I thought, this is worth the weirdness and goofiness of it. I led my first class at the Arlington Central Library just weeks later. Vicky McCaffrey at the library really went out on a limb for me, inviting me to do it on a monthly basis.
Growing up, were you the person who made people laugh?
One of my strengths when I was a little girl was that I was a big laugher. I think that was my ticket to a lot of slumber parties because I had this really funny, goofy laugh. But no, I wasn’t the class clown by any means. Actually, I call myself a recovering very serious person. Growing up, I thought I was going to cure poverty and make peace in the world. There are still causes I care about deeply. I’ve been an environmentalist for decades.
How do you drop your inhibitions and act nutty in front of a roomful of strangers?
I consider myself a reserved person, but once we get going, the people who do like it offset the ones who think, “This is really weird.” It’s the combination of the energy from the room and what I bring to it. I say, “I’m going to make a fool of myself for an hour. However, we’ll all feel good after this.”
Do you think the word “yoga” is a misnomer, given that no poses are involved?
It’s like yoga in terms of the breathing (called pranayama breathing), although we don’t do the traditional poses. The breathing is an important part of the whole exercise because you’re bringing in that oxygen. I’ve been doing traditional yoga and meditation since the mid-’70s, so laughter yoga was a perfect next step for me.
How is laughter therapeutic?
It brings a sense of lightness to one’s life. There are so many people who don’t have a reason to laugh. The goal is not to diminish the seriousness of what people are going through—job loss, retirement, grief. It’s just to take a break from it. Dr. Kataria says we take ourselves seriously, and it’s time to take laughter seriously. He says it’s part of a peace process.
I’ve read that laughter yoga is gaining popularity at senior centers.
I led a class at an assisted living facility recently. One of the participants said, “This is so stupid!” I said, “It is. However, I bet you’ll feel so good after this hour.” You have to do it for 10 or 15 minutes to feel the benefits. I think there’s a sense of community and connection with other people in laughter yoga. Even for those who just sit there. They’ll laugh, and even without moving, they can enjoy the energy.
Have you ever pulled an abdominal muscle? I brought my husband, and he nearly did.
No, I haven’t—although I know another facilitator who says she’s lost a lot of weight in her abs!
What cracks you up? Whom do you find hilarious?
Healthy humor that isn’t mean or making fun of anyone. I love Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Walter Matthau and the movie The Full Monty.
Jenny Sokol is a writer living in Arlington. As a mom of preteens and the spouse of a three-time combat veteran, she recently learned that laughter yoga is inexpensive and hilarious therapy.
For information about Laughter Yoga in Arlington, email Diane Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org.