By now nearly everyone in the world knows about the remarkable health benefits of laughter. Hearty belly laughs release those feel-good endorphins, lowers stress, and if you end up laughing so hard that milk spurts out of your nose, you're probably burning calories too, even as your friends sidle away from you and pretend they've never seen you in their lives. Laughing just makes the world a sillier, better place. (Maybe someone ought to send some Woody Allen books to famous sourpusses, like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez?)
"Laughter yoga" combines yoga breathing with unbridled laughter.
That's why as a card-carrying member of a professional humorists society, I felt duty-bound to check out a new trend called "laughter yoga," which is supposed to combine yoga breathing with unbridled laughter. Laughter yoga began in India, a place so crowded they could use a few laughs. At last count, there are more than 5,000 laughter clubs throughout the world.
I had found yoga unintentionally funny before, especially when an instructor once tried to get us to bend our left legs up and over our right ears – from the rear. Students who were made of a remarkably pliable substance (rubber, perhaps?) and could successfully twist themselves into these extraordinary shapes inspired great awe in me, but my own sincere, yet ludicrous attempts to contort myself this way were slapstick funny. However, laughing during yoga could sometimes get you into trouble. Another teacher, wearing a white turban and toting a guitar, opened his class with Jeremiads on the futility of war, blocked chakras, and other things that didn't strike me as all that pertinent to getting in shape. Trust me on this: you will get kicked out of class on your asana faster than you can say "oooohhhhm" if you start giggling during a class taught by a yoga teacher who has had a humorectomy.
Laughter yoga would pose no such risks, and it sounded so crazy, I thought, it just might work. As we stood in a circle, the group leader, Hilary, told us that we were all very brave, which immediately gave me a feeling of dread. My bravery is tested enough on a daily basis by trying to raise four kids and working as a freelance writer. Yoga teacher Hilary's body was toned to such perfection that at first I wanted to cry, not laugh. Fortunately, I was distracted by a guy who had the name AL GOMEZ tattooed on his forehead. At first I thought he had forgotten his ID at home, but later he said he was working on a Ph.D. in laughter studies, so perhaps walking around with AL GOMEZ on his forehead and testing public reaction was part of his dissertation. If that's the case, things in academia are in worse shape than I suspected.
We had to introduce ourselves through a gibberish dialect of our choice – English was banned for the hour. A few people were already fluent in this, and my lame efforts made me regret that I had paid little attention to Gibberish 101 in college. Next we were supposed to do a trust exercise where one person stood in the middle of a circle and allowed herself to freefall into the group, making funny noises in the process. Bravery would really be an advantage here, so I quietly stepped out of the circle, channeling my inner great-grandmother from Russia: "You're going to stand in the middle of a group of goyim to see if they'll catch you if you start to fall? Are you meshugga?" This may strike you as paranoid, but remember, paranoia is a skill – I just make it look easy.
"You're going to stand in the middle of a group of goyim to see if they'll catch you if you start to fall? Are you meshugga?"
I wish they had invented laughter yoga back when I was younger, when I could instantly unleash my sense of restraint and "blow up" a laughter balloon under my armpit and make appropriate noises as I let the air out, as I did with gleeful abandon in college drama classes. But now, I found that I'd rather struggle to get a perfect "downward dog" pose than romp on all fours and bark at the moon. Was everyone else really having fun, or were they also pretending, like me? We may be past the heyday when Jewish comedians ruled the laughosphere, but I still wondered: why go for fake laughs when there are plenty of real laughs to be had if you just look around?
I began to perk up when the session drew to a close, and we sat in a circle to share our feelings. ("Sharing feelings," which probably began here in Southern California, has spread like a contagion around the world, and on behalf of my native state, I apologize.) I was worried that I had just become too repressed, my mirth gland manacled shut. Maybe I was no better than that humorectomied yoga teacher! If so, it would explain why I hadn't had any fun at this dumb laughter party.
But one brave young man shared the feeling that the evening had struck him as a bunch of piffle and bushwa. (I have translated on his behalf. His exact words are not printable here.) That's when I burst out laughing. Hilary may have resented it, but hey, it was my first genuine laugh of the night, and it felt great.
We ended with affirmations of all the good that we hoped for in the coming week, and as I left the building, I was just as convinced as ever that laughter is still the best medicine, but that some prescriptions may have unpleasant side effects.