Tennis, playgrounds, cocktail bar and even a bird hide
Laughter Yoga in Cape Town
All jokes aside, this alternative exercise is good for the body and soul
I wear mostly black, prefer cutting sarcasm over slapstick and buried what my pre-school teachers used to refer to as a “happy hat” long ago somewhere out back alongside the notion that Santa Claus (a man with a flying sleigh and an army of elves) would prefer to spend his time squeezing down chimneys and delivering presents rather than taking over the world.
Needless to say, my interest in laughter yoga, an eccentric-sounding offshoot of the ancient Indian discipline based on exercise, deep breathing and meditation, was rooted more in a cynic’s curiosity than in a genuine concern with unearthing a new and unusual fitness alternative.
“Let’s leave our seriousness at the door with our shoes, and let our inner child out to play,” directs Kate Squire-Howe, the laughter yoga session leader at the Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre in Cape Town.
Ten of us, many of whom are first-timers, are assembled in a circle on thin blue mats in the venue’s shrine room on a sunny winter morning. We start by doing what Kate refers to as “laughter ice-breakers”: an exchange that requires each person to say their name, their profession and what cell phone they use, with laughter in between each announcement.
“I’m Dave,” nervously giggles one newbie, “and…I’m currently unemployed,” he shyly chuckles (as do a few others). “But I have a master’s in poetry,” he bursts out, laughing (along with the rest of the group).
Though his admissions and the forced post-laughter makes for a somewhat comical situation, laughter yoga - a phenomenon started by Dr. Madan Kataria from Mumbai in 1995 that has proliferated into more than 6000 social laughter clubs in over 60 countries - hardly employs the use of humour.
The physician, who dreamed up the idea for laughter yoga while reading a paper substantiating the notion that laughter is, in fact, the best medicine, started the practice by having a group of indivduals gather in a public park and tell jokes. He soon changed the nature of the session, however, when the participants’ jokes became crude and even insidious.
These days, laughter yoga is rather based on a series of improv-like exercises, many of which are designed to recreate the gleeful abandon with which we operated as kids.
“Now, I want you to find your laughter button,” urges Kate once we’ve finished laughing our heads off at the pretend credit card statements that we received in the mail. “Go around the room and show everyone else your button, and when someone presses it, laugh.”
After fighting the impulse to place my laughter button on my right nipple, I move around the room HO-HOing and HA-HAing like someone who’s had one too many cups of the Kool-Aid.
The central premise behind laughter yoga is that the body can’t distinguish between fake laughter and real laughter, and thus, even if you don’t take up the infectious chuckles of others, if you “fake it until you make it”, as Kate says, you still reap both the physical and psychological benefits that stem from giggles, guffaws and all-out mirthful belly laughs.
When we laugh, we lower the level of stress hormones in the blood and we release endorphins, thus boosting our immune system and lowering our blood pressure (great news for anyone trying to prevent heart disease, ulcers, strokes or arthritis). Not to mention, 60 minutes of laughter – real or false – works the abs significantly.
“It’s about learning to loosen up, relax and not take each other so seriously. I also find that I’m laughing more easily in life,” explains Kate, after we’re done pretending to ride lawn mowers around the shrine and burst imaginary balloons tied to our ankles.
In other words, though laughter yoga may feel as ‘off with the fairies’ as it gets, in reality, the only true departure is one from the contrived seriousness with which we weigh ourselves down as adults.
One popular statistic circulating the web claims that grown-ups laugh a mere 15 times a day, whereas children laugh as many as 300 to 400 times in a 24-hour period. While there doesn’t seem to be clinical research attached to this claim, nonetheless, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that when you’re little, you laugh freer, easier and more often.
As Dr. Kataria explains, “as adults we learn the art of suppressing emotions for fear of being ridiculed or facing a conflict, and we also use our brains first to comprehend humour.”
Children’s laughter, on the other hand, comes straight from the body, thus no influence is held by external stimuli, intellectual capacity or state of mind.
Laughter yoga looks to reincarnate this juvenile-like body-mind laughter model, and seeks to chip away at the restricted emotional expression that, in today’s world, has us mustering little more than an occasional self-deprecating dig.
I laugh hysterically at the woman next to me who’s developed a foot cramp from all the bouncing about, and she cracks up in return – triggering a thunder of laughter from the rest of the group, strangers who would normally need a fair bit of cajoling before holding eye contact, let alone laughing so openly together.
Kate directs us onto our mats for a final bout of meditation, the only real unifying factor that seems to have been inherited from yoga. I collapse exhausted, but uncharacteristically joyful.
Even with my sceptic’s outlook, I have to admit, the world carries a far rosier hue after the session’s ended. Laughter yoga may seem like the sickly sweet incantations of a crafty self-help guru, but the fact remains, there are some serious benefits.
By Stephanie Katz
A little too out there for you? Rather have a look at our overview of more traditional places to do yoga in Cape Town.