Don’t be alarmed if you happen upon a group of people laughing hysterically for the bulk of an hour at Balboa Park. No, it is not the weekly meeting of the Cheech and Chong fan club. They’re practicing laughter yoga, the latest health trend that is popping up all over San Diego, and if there’s one thing San Diegans excel at, it’s health.
The activity is simple and rooted in a platitude we are all familiar with: Laughter is the best medicine. Created by Dr. Madan Kataria in 1995 in Mumbai, laughter yoga is a form of voluntary group exercises that invoke laughter to improve mental and physical health. Kataria found that the human body’s chemical reaction to laughter is the same whether the laughter is forced or genuine and even fake laughter, especially in a group, quickly snowballs into real laughter.
I stumbled upon a class at Old Trolley Barn Park in University Heights by mere coincidence of time and place but was soon invited to participate. As you can imagine, laughter yogis are a friendly bunch. Being the curious cat that I am, I joined despite all gut feelings not to.
I showed my naiveté when I admitted to the teacher I was not in fact dressed for yoga. It soon became clear that there would be no Downward Facing Dog, no Warrior II and definitely no Happy Baby poses, as the term yoga is used only due to the many breathing exercises it incorporates.
“Yoga is about getting your mind in this relaxed place where your body and mind are connected,” said Michael Coleman, a local attorney and executive director of Laughter Matters, a nonprofit organization that trains laughter yoga leaders in San Diego. “Laughter yoga does all the stuff that yoga does, but it also connects people. All those differences go away. Laughter is a powerful way of connecting a community.”
The group leader took us through several exercises, all of which came from a stack of cards she kept in her fanny pack. No matter what the activity was, the end goal was the same: to laugh as much and as hard as you could.
Initially, the groups’ laughter, and my own, was stilted. We were told to imagine ourselves winning the lottery, which is admittedly so far from reality that it is actually quite hilarious, just not so much in the ha ha sort of way. When Coleman went to his first class in 2006, he felt just as uncomfortable.
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“I almost left my first class,” said Coleman, who laughed constantly throughout the interview and encouraged me to do the same. “I felt very uncomfortable and self-conscious. I stuck around and as we were lying on the ground something broke, in a good way. We had a great relief of laughter. There were tears from eyes and I wanted more.”
As soon as I embraced the utter ridiculousness of the whole situation, my forced laughter quickly became genuine. Although perplexed onlookers initially made me self-conscious, the thought of them seeing our activity without any knowledge of what we were doing made the whole situation all the funnier.
When the group leader told us to chase each other around with invisible lawnmowers, I lost it. I have never laughed as hard in my entire life. Soon my face was wet with tears, as I quickly neared a level of pee-in-your-pants hilarity I never thought I could achieve amongst a slew of strangers.
When Coleman first tried laughter yoga nearly ten years ago, there were only two free classes in San Diego. Now there are free weekly meetings all over town at parks, senior centers and public libraries. A number of private classes are held at brain injury centers, homeless shelters, cancer centers, hospices and corporate retreats.
The benefits of laughter are many. It reduces stress, worry, pain and anxiety while increasing energy and productivity. It is said to reduce heart disease, reduce blood pressures, improve breathing and release endorphins.
“Stress is mental but it has effects on your body,” said Coleman, who is undoubtedly the happiest lawyer I have ever interviewed, which I can say with ease after talking to hundreds of attorneys for our sister publications. “I know a woman who had a heart transplant. She did laughter yoga and said she feels like it helped her stay alive and deal with the whole process. It’s not going to cure cancer … but it changes your attitude and attitude is important.”
Laughter yoga is still earning clout in the scientific world, though laughter itself already has credibility. One study found that pain thresholds are “significantly higher after laughter” possibly due to the “endorphin-mediated opiate effect” it creates.
“Laughter is like windshield wipers. We can’t stop the rain, but we can see better,” Coleman said. “It changes your perspective and helps you get to your destination.”
Did I leave the group feeling healthier? I’m not sure. Did I leave the group feeling happier? Absolutely — I even left the interview feeling happier. If happiness is equated with health, as the movement’s leaders seem to think, then I without a doubt left that park healthier than I arrived and with a good story, to boot.