By Caroline Gerdes | LSU Student
Jenny Norris conducts a yoga class at Agame Yoga and Meditation Center in Baton Rouge. She breaths in through her nose and rhythmically belly laughs through her mouth. The class follows suit.
At what are they laughing?
Sitting outside of Norris' laughter yoga class, one unsure new student asked the others if they had been to class before. A veteran student praises laughter yoga, noting "you glow after."
Everything starts as usual in this yoga class: Norris guides meditation while seated in the lotus position. The class sits with eyes closed. So far, it's a regular yoga class.
Then Norris asks the class, eyes still closed, to curl the corner of their mouths up into a smile. From there, the class does laughter exercises. Norris warns not to force laughter in a booming tone. Keep it low and quiet.
A laughter exercise is similar to an icebreaker game done in a theater class. For example, one exercise asks the students to laugh as if her chuckles start and fuel a motorcycle.
Madan Kataria, a medical doctor in India, developed these exercises after researching the medical benefits of laughter in 1995. He led a laughter club where people told jokes. The club ran out of clean jokes, according to certified laughter yoga leader Norris, so Kataria developed laughter exercises.
Laughter yoga currently is practiced internationally and is used for a myriad of reasons surrounding physical and mental health.
Jolene Fehler, executive director of Funny Bones Improv and certified laughter yoga teacher, said she holds laughter yoga classes for seniors, children's hospitals and high-stress workers.
She was once was hired to give a class to retail employees preparing for a stressful holiday season. According to laughteryoga.org, classes also are held in prisons to relieve inmate tension and stress.
Is the adage, laughter is the best medicine, true?
According to Kataria's research on the web site, laughteryoga.org ,it helps with ailments from anxiety to high blood pressure to chronic diseases.
"The best way to reduce mental stress is to activate [the] parasympathetic system which is opposite of [the] sympathetic system. This can be done by changing the way we breathe. If we can learn to breathe from the diaphragm, mental stress cannot occur."
The web site also discusses how the extra oxygen released during laughter provides the key for "maintaining good health as well as healing a variety of illnesses."
A study also is provided discussing the link between low blood sugar and laughter. as well as laughter as a pain reliever for chronic diseases like arthritis, migraines, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's.
Funny Bones Improv put these theories into practice by performing for children's hospitals in Chicago and New Orleans. Fehler, a Canadian turned New Orleanian by way of Chicago, says she first did sporadic hospital shows while living in Vancouver, B.C.
When she moved to Chicago, there was no outlet to perform for sick children. Thus, the creation of Funny Bones Improv, which does nine performances a month between the two cities. In New Orleans, she performs at Tulane Hospital for Children, Children's Hospital and Oschner hospital.
Funny Bones' mission is to do improv for kids and "promote healthy lifestyles through laughter," according to Fehler.
As the children have varying degrees of ability, Fehler said Funny Bones integrates laughter yoga techniques into the improv show. Mostly, they provide comedy to make the children laugh, rather than requiring patient participation.
The point of laughter yoga, she says, is to reconnect with "childlike playfulness." Adults only laugh at a stimulus, what Fehler calls cognitive laughter. Children, she said, laugh physically or for no reason.
"[Kids'] bodies just giggle."
And this is the type of laughter that laughter yoga aspires to reach. The laughter is for no reason and it should eventually develop into real "contagious" laughter, she said.
As the body cannot tell the difference between real and fake laughter, Norris says, people who cannot reach genuine laughter receive the same benefits from the class.
If this is all sounding akin to 1998 Robin Williams film Patch Adams, it's no coincidence. Before becoming certified in laughter yoga, Norris studied clowning.
"Not scary children's clowning," she clarified with a laugh (of course), but a "lost art."
In 2007, this brought her from her native England to Peru to work on the Belen Project with Hunter "Patch" Adams where she clowned and provided services to improve the lives of Peruvian children.
It is also where she met fellow clown, and now husband, Eric — who led her on a journey to Baton Rouge.
Since moving to the U.S. in 2010, Norris has directed this passion for laughter into laughter yoga and has recently started a monthly laughter yoga class at Agame. It is conducted on the basis of donation only or, as she says, "pay what you like."
During her class, laughter reverberates throughout the room. Class ends not with the normal mantra "omm" but with giggles.
Norris said people should not be afraid to come out and try something new, although she said she understands it may not be for everyone.
Fehler said laughter yoga is like any exercise class. One may feel apprehensive about entering. But, she notes, there is "no expert laugher versus new laugher," as we have all been laughing our entire lives.
Norris said her decision to laugh has influenced how she lives her life.
"[You] can make a choice about how you want to approach life." And laughter yoga, she says, is a good tool. "Learning to laugh at life itself is a good thing to do."