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Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!
Laughter yoga teaches guffaws without gags to ease our stress
Posted: Feb. 15, 2008

The next time you're stuck in traffic and getting stressed out about it, flip open your cell phone, hold it up to your head and laugh.  What are you laughing at? It doesn't matter. Just go ahead and laugh.

This is the message being spread by Diane Kane and others like her. Kane is a certified "laughter leader" (no kidding). She brings the word of "laughter yoga," armed with a slide show and lots of reasons to yuk it up: ("Think globally, laugh locally," "Laugh 'til it Helps," and "Laughter Prevents Hardening of the Attitudes.")
Kane, a former kindergarten teacher, is president and CEO (Chief Elation Officer) of the Milwaukee Laughter Club. She's one of more than 30 certified laughter leaders in Wisconsin.

Laughter yoga programs are popping up at civic clubs, support groups, hospitals and hospices, senior communities and caregiver circles. Kane has done programs for Gilda's Club in Shorewood, and the Wisconsin Association of Medical Directors.

The Pentagon has a laughter yoga program for the families of those deployed. Retired Army Col. James "Scotty" Scott became a certified laughter leader, and has brought laughter yoga to National Guard family groups across America.

So what exactly is laughter yoga, and what makes it different from, well, ordinary laughing?
It's easy to laugh when you hear a joke, says Kane. But people need to laugh, especially when there's nothing in particular to laugh about. Laughter yoga teaches them how.

The funny thing about laughter yoga is that there are no poses with intriguing names (you'll find no "downward dog" - though if that makes you laugh, go ahead and think of it.)  There aren't even any jokes.  "Jokes are very touchy," Kane says. "Not everyone thinks they're funny." 

Plus, you eventually run out of them. Madan Kataria, a physician who started laughter yoga in India in 1995, found that out firsthand. 

No reason to laugh

Convinced of the health and mind benefits of regular laughter, he gathered the first laughter yoga club - five people - in a Bombay park on March 13, 1995, for the purpose of laughing. They started out with jokes, but eventually they ran out of them. He then came up with a program of warm-up and breathing exercises, followed by various kinds of laughter. Four years later he wrote a book called "Laugh for No Reason."

Laughter yoga was brought to the U.S. by psychologist Steve Wilson of Gahanna, Ohio, who studied with Kataria. He trained others, including Kane, to be laughter leaders. He also established the ongoing World Laughter Tour, the programs that bring laughter yoga to the uninitiated. There are now more than 4,000 certified laughter leaders in America.

On a bitter cold afternoon in mid-February, the laughter tour made a stop at the North Shore Library in Glendale.  Kane set up for her free, one-hour introduction to laughter yoga in the community room.
"Hello," she said as people poked their heads in the door. "Are you here to laugh?"  As they settled in, Kane went through all the good reasons to laugh: It boosts the immune system and blood flow, it's associated with heart health, it releases endorphins, the feel-good hormone, and darn it, it just feels good.
Kane quoted Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. She quoted clown/doctor Patch Adams ("People crave laughter as if it were an essential amino acid") and French dramatist Victor Hugo ("Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face").

She started with warm-ups and introduced the group to the laughter yoga mantra: "Ho-ho-ho. Hahaha." She took the crowd through deep breathing and, at last, laughter exercises:

Lion laugh: Teeth-baring laughter with hands raised like paws, fingers spread.

Fireworks: Laughter accompanied by arms bursting in overhead circle.

Laughter meter: Arm moves left to right as your laughter grows (yep, just light a laughter meter).

Wow: Yell "Wow!" and laugh.

Slam the door: Slam an imaginary door and laugh (optional: Say the words, "You want it when?")

I'm outta here: Point to an "exit sign" (real or imagined) and laugh.

When the one-hour session was over, Kane told the crowd: "If you don't remember anything else I say today, remember this: Keep laughing."  She deputized the children to help the grown-ups find ways to laugh. She issued "stock." That's right, laughing stock.

This is how Kane does her World Laughter Tour presentation. "Everybody kind of has their own touch to it," she says. "I don't know too many people do it with a Power Point."

Adaptive laughter

Charles "Chip" Lutz, a certified laughter leader who heads the Fun Squad Laughter Club in Kenosha, says he gears his laughter yoga program to the group.  For assisted living centers, for instance, he uses no visual aids in order to make it more interactive. And he tries to adapt exercises to each group. For instance, for a group of journalists, he might have them do the "Slam the Door" exercise, with an editor in mind, and have them shout, "You want it when?"

Lutz, a professional speaker who incorporates laughter yoga in his talks, was drawn to laughter yoga when he saw a news story about the Pentagon's use of it. Lutz, who retired in December as commanding officer of Milwaukee's Navy Reserve Center, knew firsthand how tough deployment could be for families. His wife, Lara, also in the Navy, was deployed overseas.  "My best friend was gone," he says. Lutz says he slipped into depression and lost 30 pounds. Then he saw the movie "Old School."  "It allowed me to laugh and step out of that spiral," says Lutz. "When we laugh, it gives us that mental respite that we need."  Then he read about the World Laughter Tour and went to Florida to train. Now he's a trainer, too.

The assessment

After the laughter stopped for Kane's program, people headed back to the cold world outside. What did they think of the chuckle-fest?

Liz Haworth of Glendale was there because she saw a sign on the door when she went to the library with her daughters, Emilie, 6, and Madeleine, 9.  Her assessment: "It was short and sweet, and it was free." And she thinks there's something to the idea of finding a way to smile.  As for doing laughter yoga herself? "I don't know if I personally would sit down and do what I would call laughter yoga. I barely have time to do regular exercise, let alone laughter exercise. But I can see the benefits."

Bruce Weiss of Fox Point said he agreed with the premise. "It seems pretty simple, but we don't do it enough," said Weiss. He said he had done some of the deep breathing and laughter with his kids when he got home.
Had he done any laughter exercises on his own?  "Ah, not yet," he said. "When I go to shovel my driveway, I might."

From the Feb. 18, 2008 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel



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