It may sound like a joke, but laughter yoga promises real health benefits to those willing to put on their best grin and have a go, writes Margaret Jennings
HO! Ho! Ho! It’s the season to be jolly and there’s lots of spontaneous fun in the air with the countdown to Santa’s arrival only 10 days away. But do you know that in general, while children laugh naturally up to 300 times a day, as we grow older we laugh less and less...
Just take a moment to think about when was the last time you had a good old guffaw. And while we are at it, let’s remember that well-worn maxim: laughter is the best
It makes sense then that we could do with a good dose of that medicine as we age. But would you sit with a group of strangers and pull faces to ensure that they laughed their heads off at you? Welcome to Laughter Yoga, the (relatively) new kid on the block!
The difference between laughter yoga and traditional yoga is that instead of using poses as exercises, it uses instead laughter, creative visualisation, breath work and role play, says Cork-based instructor Deborah McCann. This promotes harmony and health from within, which brings about a physiological change in the body which all helps us to age healthily.
“As we grow older we can suffer from many diseases of ageing, but laughter yoga promotes physical health,” says Deborah. “It helps strengthen the immune system, increasing oxygen to the body cells and brings a positive mental state instantaneously. With the release of endorphins — the feelgood hormone — laughter yoga is great for supporting mental health. It helps overcome depression, anxiety, frustration and daily stresses of life.”
A study carried out in 2010 in the Allameh Tabatabai University, in Tehran, Iran, among 60 depressed women, average age 66, found that laughter yoga was at least as effective as a group exercise programme for improving the participants’ depression and life satisfaction.
At Carechoice in Montenotte, Cork, where Deborah has introduced laughter yoga, the senior activities leader, Kay Courtney, tells Feelgood: “We all enjoy a good laugh and we all feel the better for it. Laughter Yoga lifts a person’s mood, stress levels drop and people feel part of a group because it encourages us all to participate — residents, family, visitors and staff.
“At one of the laughter yoga sessions, one of the residents was joined by her daughter and grandchildren and as well as she having a good laugh it was also inspiring to see her visitors leave on a high after the visit.”
The oldest participant in one of Deborah’s sessions at a care home has been 94, but in her public classes in the general community the ages range from 20s up to 70s, with a growing number of those interested aged in their 50s, she says.
“Laughter yoga combines unconditional laughter with deep belly breathing exercises. Everyone can laugh for no reason without relying on humour, jokes or comedy. Laughter is initially simulated as a physical exercise with a childlike playfulness and the laughter turns into real and contagious laughing,” she says.
“Sessions include gentle warm-up techniques like stretching, chanting, clapping and body movements. A series of laughter exercises follow which prolong hearty laughter interspersed with breathing exercises. Then classes finish with a calming and balancing meditation.”
While no prior yoga experience is needed or high levels of fitness, one recent participant in Deborah’s classes, 58-year-old Patjoe O’Leary, has been practising yoga for 15 years and was interested in the different dynamic.
Compared to normal yoga sessions where you listen to the instructor and do your exercises, he says: “With laughter yoga, you’re interacting more. First, we are looking at each other and making all these sounds... the hee hee hee, the ha ha ha, the ho ho ho. It becomes childlike and playful in a good way.”
Research has found that being socially connected is a big plus for healthy ageing — as is learning something new.
Patjoe says: “For me the laughter yoga exercise breaks down a barrier; you become more familiar. Sometimes for me personally you can go out in the social scene and it can be a false connection, like where both sides feel they have to put on a certain persona or whatever, but I just feel with yoga people are more themselves and more authentic so I suppose you can relax more into who you are and not be hiding your vulnerabilities.
“You can be who you are in all yoga, but in the laughter yoga we have to connect because we are all doing the laughing. Someone else’s laugh will make you laugh and it’s not a mockery laugh — it’s genuine.
“And for me someone laughing at me, it’s funny, whereas in another situation you might feel different about someone laughing at you. In laughter yoga the more they laugh at you, and you at them, the better; that’s the intention.”
An open mind and a willingness to laugh is all that is needed to partake in a session, says Deborah.
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