ON a cold and dull bank holiday Monday, I make my way to a room on the third floor of an old Georgian house, on Baggot Street in Dublin.
Outside the door are discarded shoes. I am late and from outside I can hear howls of laughter, pounding footsteps and the din of general silliness in the room. It is my first laughter-yoga class. I have yet to go in, but I feel like a bit of an eejit.
When I enter, I’m straight into the mix. “So what you have to do, in this exercise, is take a deep breath in and, as you let it out, you start to laugh,” says our instructor. “So, deep breathe in and… ha, ha, ha, ha.”
There 20 in the class, an impressive number for a bank holiday. As I look around the room, I notice that most of the people look normal and there are, perhaps surprisingly, quite a few men.
Our instructor introduces us, in a very calm and warm manner, to the exercises.
When the exercises start, however, she throws herself into them with such vigour and abandon, that you cannot help but follow along, and, quite soon, you don’t mind feeling like an eejit so much.
A laughter-yoga session lasts from 40 minutes to an hour and involves such tasks as talking gibberish to a stranger, running around the classroom and laughing into people’s faces, getting down on your knees and jumping up like popcorn, and, my own favourite, pushing a person across a room as if they are on a swing. The session finishes with a seven-minute laughter marathon in which everyone lies on their backs in a circle, with their heads touching, and proceeds to laugh. When we all, eventually, stop, I count five people crying.
One of those is Annabel O’Keeffe, from Clogheen, in Co. Tipperary.
“This is my first time,” she says enthusiastically. “My sister brought me and I just thought it would be fun and it turned out to be totally brilliant. I’ve never laughed so much in my life. I was lying next to Christine [another ‘student’] at the end, and the two of us were in tears. It was too much. I was really apprehensive beforehand, but I’d definitely do it again. Once I knew they weren’t going to ask me ‘what’s stressing you?’ and then get everybody to laugh, like they do in some places, I was fine.”
Annabel has tried other types of yoga, including Bikram, Hatha and Ashtanga. Comparing laughter-yoga to those, more physically demanding types would be to miss the point, she says.
“I wouldn’t class this as exercise at all,” she says. “This is completely different. It’s very liberating and it’s nice to be in a room full of people, laughing in a recession, isn’t it?”
Our instructor, Sharyn Cuneen, has a background in holistic therapies and emotional healing. The 30-year-old first came across laughter-yoga when she was planning a trip to India, its country of origin. She didn’t learn laughter-yoga in India, but when she returned home, the Dubliner investigated further.
“I was running happiness workshops for adults about two years ago — just different ways of thinking and stuff to encourage positive thinking,” she says. “I was doing laughter as part of that and I thought I should look into laughter-yoga again and, once I got into it, there was no going back. I actually stopped doing the workshops and just followed this,” she says.
Sharyn runs the classes with her boyfriend, Niall, who is absent today. There must be a bucket load of laughs where they live, I say.
“People often think that,” she says (with a laugh). “And we do have a great laugh. But we’re also very normal and we also have a great cry, or a great fight sometimes, but, yeah, we laugh as well.”
When I ask Sharyn about the benefits of laughter yoga, she rather refreshingly does not spout statistics at me or medical studies, but talks about her own experiences.
“I hear about lots of benefits from the net, and that, but, in my experience, I see people actually uplifted and happy. I mean you’ve seen it just now yourself,” she says.
“And, after the class, people always say that they loved it and they feel great. People who have depression often say to me that they thought it was beneficial. For me, I always feel more uplifted after a class.”
“Yoga is just a word meaning join or unite,” she says. “So, in this case, I think the meaning is fulfilled. I’d say you probably feel closer to people in the class, after laughing together, than after other physical types of yoga. But it’s nothing like the yoga we’re used to.”
That’s for sure. But it is a great laugh.