Laughter yoga class is 'bubble bath for the soul'

Herald Health CorrespondentJanuary 21, 2014 

In the sunlit studio at the Center for Building Hope, it's easy to pick out who will be leading the laughter yoga class. The class is about to start and 13 people are seated in folding chairs in a big circle.

There she is -- Trish Engert, the woman who will be helping the class giggle and guffaw without telling a single joke.

A green beanie topped with a silver propeller is on her head and she's wearing a bright red T-shirt, appropriately draped with a frothy lavender boa. The T-shirt says "Laugh Until It Helps." She has props, a red and yellow clown's horn that makes circus-like beeps, and a wand with glittering streamers.

Most of the people in the circle have never taken a laughter yoga class.

Some have never heard of it until now. They had seen the class listed on the center's events calendar. Figuring it was a regular type of yoga class, despite the name, they showed up with mats.

The mats are unnecessary because no one is going to be lying down. But halfway through the class everyone will be on their feet in the center of the circle for a vigorous group mingle. They'll be flapping their arms like a chicken and laughing like a chicken, if a chicken could laugh -- ha-ha-squawk!

They'll be doing all kinds of laughs, the wicked witch's cackle, a little girl's he-he-he giggle, Bug Bunny's taunt, in other interactions. They'll stand in a circle to do the hokey-pokey, singing the song but with ha-ha-ha instead of words.

First the warm-up and introduction: Seated in their chairs, they go around the circle one-by-one, making up a laugh or doing their own. Despite being on the spot, they're good sports. One woman tries out a whinny-sounding giggle.

Engert has chosen an assistant and given her the wand with streamers. The assistant is instructed to randomly shake the streamers over someone's head throughout the class. Everyone is supposed to stop and applaud the classmate being streamed. They do so with enthusiasm, just short of jumping up and saying bravo.

By now, everyone is grinning and looking lighthearted. Smiling broadly seems like a natural response to being amid what feels like a live laughter soundtrack.

"It gets movement in your entire internal body … I can't explain it but it does," said Pearl Wald, 79, after the class.

"They say it's a bubble bath for the soul," said Engert.

After a session of laughter yoga, people often feel lighter.

"We move a lot of energy through the body … when you have a lot of unexpressed emotions, it can make you feel heavy," said Engert.

Laughter yoga came into the spotlight in the 1990s. A physician in India, Madan Kataria, became interested in scientific research showing how laughter improved physical and mental health.

Kataria, author of "Laugh for No Reason," started a laughter yoga club and the concept spread in India and to other countries, including the United States.

Engert was introduced to laughter yoga through Ohio psychologist Steve Wilson, who started World Laughter Tour. She took the World Laughter Tour training course to became certified as a laughter yoga instructor.

One of the first principles is that having a sense of humor -- or even being happy -- isn't necessary to take advantage of a laughter yoga class.

"It's more of a physical laughter, what is called simulated laughter," said Engert. Through exercises like pumping the belly and saying ha-ha-ha through the breath, spontaneous laughter can arise.

In a laughter yoga class, "most will get into spontaneous laughter," she said.

The exercises don't rely on stand-up comedy routines or telling a silly joke. It's all physical activity.

"Everybody has a different sense of humor. Jokes don't always go over," said Engert.

Engert, age 65, is a massage therapist and traditional yoga instructor. She became interested in modalities that soothed the mind and body when she was in her 40s and needed relief from the effects her then-Type A personality.

A good belly laugh can boost endorphins and mood and break down stress. One of the effects, according to proponents like Kataria, is improving the immune system.

In a laughter yoga class, there is a lot of social interaction and connection, too.

One of the effects in her own life, said Engert, was outside of class. Laughter yoga made her begin to laugh more throughout the day. What once might only make her smile makes her laugh out loud.

Engert gives workshops by invitation at places such as churches. She also does private events. Once, a friend who was getting married asked her to lead a laughter yoga session in place of a typical wedding shower.

She is a volunteer at the Center of Building Hope, where laughter yoga is offered on an occasional basis. The next session may be scheduled in the spring. You can contact Engert at 941-376-2349.

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at shemmingway@hotmail.com.

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