In the News
FEBRUARY 03, 2016
We tried it: learning to laugh it off with laughter yoga
A blonde-bobbed woman, about 50 years old, chuckles to herself among a group of strangers sitting in a circle — her eyes mischievous and child-like. She folds her hands to her mouth, and reddens as if about to erupt with laughter.
Then she does.
Her mouth is agape as she cackles and bends her head back in response to the sheer raucousness of the moment. The circle of about 12 people imitates the laugh, and the room, inside Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, suddenly explodes with mirthful laughter.
You’d be forgiven for thinking any number of these 12 people (myself included) are crazy. But the simple fact is that they’re doing yoga — well, a form of yoga. And it’s not quite what you think.
What is laughter yoga?
Laughter yoga, for starters, isn’t yoga in the traditional sense: There are no mats required, no balance exercises, no sun salutations to speak of. Instead, there are laughing exercises created not to be funny (though they do tend to be), but to force laughter for the sake of deep breathing, which is where the “yoga” portion comes into play.
Because of increased oxygen intake from the deep breathing involved with laughter, the exercise is thought to reduce levels of cortisol, what’s popularly known as the “stress hormone,” and boost endorphins. By association, laughter can regulate blood pressure, relax muscles and, it’s been argued, manage pain that comes with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Though, the jury is still out on how impactful a fake laugh is as opposed to one that’s involuntary.
The exercises, of which there are a core 100, were developed in 1995 by Madan Kataria in Mumbai, India, with some tweaks made through the years by any number of the 6,000 “laughter clubs” around the world — including one hosted by Media, Delaware County’s Alexa Drubay.
“A lot of people think [laughter yoga] has to do with yoga and expect it, thinking they’re going to do yoga poses. But I try to explain to everyone it’s laughter exercises with deep yoga breathing,” Drubay told PhillyVoice. “It complements regular yoga.”
Though classes do start and end much like a yoga session, opening with a philosophical explanation of the practice (in short: lighten up), and finishing with an abbreviated version of the Shavasna deep-breathing meditation. The middle, meanwhile, feels a lot like experiencing an elementary-level music class all over again, mixed with aerobics and, of course, laughter.
At different points of the hour-long session, I found myself peeling an imaginary banana, conducting an orchestra, shaking up an imaginary cocktail, singing “This Little Light of Mine,” wiggling my body against a classmate and acting out my own laugh for others to repeat. It is, at its heart, an experience that’s about finding joy in the absurd, familiarizing yourself with your body, connecting with strangers and embracing distraction — the latter being the point when the activity stops feeling ridiculous and starts feeling like stress relief.
And while I faked many laughs at first, the energy of the room proved so emotionally contagious — truly, how can you not laugh when middle-aged men and women next to you guffaw while making monkey poses — I could hardly tell which laughs were real or fake by the end. If its blissful effects were phony, I was happy to live in ignorance.
It’s not just an experience that’s recommendable for frown-face skeptics; it’s practically built for them.
A laughter yogi on a mission
The quirky experience, on a local level, comes courtesy of Drubay, a 54-year-old who explained she seldom smiled or chuckled before she discovered laughter yoga — first in 2010 when a cousin introduced it during a family reunion, and again in 2014 during a journey through the Googlesphere. Inspired by the purported health benefits of laughter, she took a spontaneous trip to India to meet Kataria and train to be an instructor.
“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of laughter clubs there,” Drubay said of her experience there, adding that it’s a 7 a.m. ritual for some people. “They have them not only in parks but at businesses. Because they realize the value of laughter yoga in the corporate world: that it helps with stress, improves workers’ performance and boosts their health.”
HANDOUT ART/ALEXA DRUBAY
Her goal, she said, was to start her own club locally as well as bring that kind of stress-relief to workplaces, elder homes and schools stateside — cultures that are increasingly becoming busier and more serious. That, and to be able to train others to take the wellness practice to other communities. Since hosting her first laughter yoga session at Smedley Park in September 2014, she’s conducted about four two-day training sessions out of a studio in her home, consisting primarily of therapists, social workers and nurses from New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
The challenge, she said, is to get skeptics to experience and understand laughter yoga for themselves.
“When you look at it from the perspective of ‘This is something I want do for myself,’ and mindfully introducing more laughter into your life regardless of whether something is funny or not, it changes your whole mindset about it,” Drubay explained. “You look at it as a workout tool, just like you would lift weights – ‘I’m going to do my daily laughter.’ It’s not based on comedy or humor; all you have to have is a willingness to laugh.
“If you can get over that mental thing of ‘Oh I may look funny,’ that inhibition, and do it because it just feels really good, then you realize the value behind it.”
That value, apparently, extends beyond just Drubay’s classes: Cooper Health’s Anderson Cancer Center, for example, offers laughter yoga as one of several wellness programs for cancer survivors.
“A big, heavy laugh is equivalent to transformational breath work sessions people come to, and it’s a whole lot easier and more fun and no one has to know,” Julie Fischer, the practitioner for the program, explained to PhillyVoice. “It expands the lungs and brings air into the whole body in a very gentle way. A lot of times, our survivors have had surgeries and things in those areas — especially our breast cancer population. So, coming out of the effects of the surgery, the chemicals and such, it helps to detox the body, strengthen it and really move oxygen through.
Cancer, she teased, is not a funny subject. So, it provides them an opportunity to release their innate urges to laugh without fear of judgment.
“Laughter yoga is built on the premise that there’s always the ability to laugh,” she said. “We laugh because we can, and not at anybody’s expense.”
Look, there is something inherently … well, odd about the idea of people gathering to laugh their knickers off for no apparent reason. And it’s not for everyone, but it is worth exploring even for people who might otherwise expect they’d hate it. There’s something incredibly liberating about finding a safe space to unwind; it’s like screaming into a pillow, if that involved circle time and pretend theater with 12 of your closest strangers.
But the challenge after, of course, is to translate that tension release into your daily life — to replace outrage with laughter.
The morning after the session, trekking it down Walnut Street during rush hour, I passed a cab just as it turned a corner and into a pond-sized puddle. Sure enough, it splashed a tsunami of water on me, leaving me soaked. My blood boiled, my fists began to clench — but then I breathed.
And I laughed it off.
January 2016 –
Delco Magazine – www.delcomag.com
Click here to find out more about
Life, yoga and…laughter!
Published: Friday, December 26, 2014
By Christina Perryman
Laughter Yoga was brought to Delaware County by Media resident Alexa Drubay.
The health benefits of yoga are proven and many. From simple things like better posture and flexibility to bigger benefits such as less stress, lower blood pressure and even, for some people, lower cholesterol. Yoga helps with weight loss, chronic pain and much more.
Laughter, surprisingly, has many health benefits of its own. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing has a variety of short and long term benefits including lower stress levels, soothing tension, relieving pain and improving the immune system. So it makes sense that combining laughter and yoga would pack a one two punch.
Laughter Yoga is new to Delaware County but has actually been around since 1995. The technique, developed by Dr. Madan Kataria in India, began with only five people in Mumbai Park. It has grown to encompass thousands of people across 72 countries and was brought to Delaware County by Media resident Alexa Drubay.
Drubay was introduced to the concept by her cousin, Melanie Rudolph, who has taught the technique for six years. Drubay said she attended a family reunion in Memphis, Tenn., in 2010 and Melanie, a resident of Louisville, KY, lead an introductory session. More than 100 people attended.
“I felt wonderful after having tried it and hoped to practice laughter on a regular basis,” said Drubay.
She said, however, she became busy with other life things and didn’t get back to Laughter Yoga (LY) until February 2014 when she was doing research for a Toastmaster’s speech. Drubay said her interest was reawakened and she became fascinated with learning about LY’s health benefits. Drubay noted she was impressed with the scientific studies that supported the ways laughter helps heal the mind and body.
“This is how I suddenly experienced my ‘aha’ moment,” Drubay explained. “All my life I had been searching for a way to give back to others and so I became very excited about the possibilities of devoting more attention to this. I felt like I was suddenly on a mission to brighten other’s lives and to bring more laughter to my home, my relatives, my friends, my community and beyond. So off I went, to the source, to Bangalore, India in August 2014, to study with the founder of Laughter Yoga, Dr. Madan Kataria.”
“I figured that some people would think I was crazy to go off and study Laughter Yoga but actually, my family was very supportive of me and encouraged me to go off and discover and learn more about it. They could tell that I was becoming happier through the practice of laughter,” she continued.
So how does Laughter Yoga work? LY is an exercise routine that combines yoga deep breathing with guided laughter exercises. The official LY website, www.laughteryoga.org, says laughter is initiated “as a body exercise in a group and with eye contact and childlike playfulness. It soon turns into real and contagious laughter.” This oxygenates the brain and body, which in turn makes participants “feel more healthy and energetic.”
Drubay established the first Laughter Club of Delaware County in September on the site meetup.com. The group started meeting weekly, Sunday afternoons, at Smedley Park in Springfield, while the weather was warm. She said 18 people attended the first meeting.
“It was a wonderful first meeting and it felt so good to be out there in nature, laughing together,” she noted.
Drubay said when the weather began to get cold she started searching for a place indoors to hold the meetings. “Since these Laughter Club Meetings are free, or sometimes I ask for donations for a charity, I was looking for a place to host us, without having to pay a rental charge. I would like to thank the Swarthmore Public Library and also the Media Borough Council for their support and allowing me the use of their rooms to hold meetings,” she said.
Drubay said LY is different from traditional yoga. “Don’t worry, you won’t be asked to twist yourself into a pretzel,” Drubay joked. “Laughter yoga is the practice of easy-to-follow laughter exercises combined with deep yogic breathing. We do not use jokes or comedy to create laughs. I teach the participants skills to access their suppressed laughter. I coax out their inner child by guiding them through simple laughter exercises.”
She said, “If people feel awkward at first, they just fake laugh and soon…it becomes real, contagious laughter. The group maintains eye contact and so it is also a very good social connector and a good way to foster team work. Laughter is universal and everyone, regardless of their social position, cultural background, religion etc. can connect through laughter.”
Drubay explained, “Laughter Yoga combines laughter, deep breathing, running around the room, seated exercises, speaking gibberish, dancing, experimentation, letting loose, singing, humming, connecting with others, meditation, reflection and having a great time!”
Laughter Yoga is non-religious and non-political and is not just used for social clubs. It is practiced a wide variety of places – in companies and corporations, in schools and colleges, at cancer clinics, hospitals, prisons, refugee camps, fitness centers, health facilities, yoga studios, with the disabled and many more.
“I tailor the LY workshops to the specific groups. I also offer special Certified Laughter Yoga Leader trainings to encourage others to become involved with Laughter Yoga and to spread laughter to their communities,” Drubay said. “In December, my training will attract participants from MD, DE, PA and NJ. Health practitioners, yoga teachers and social workers often seek this LY Leader certification as a therapeutic way to help their patients.”
Drubay detailed the multiple benefits of this type of exercise. LY is a mood elevator. “Laughter Yoga can change your mood with-in minutes by releasing endorphins from your brain cells. This improves your outlook and if you feel good, you do everything better. It helps you remain cheerful throughout the day. Mindfulness through laughter,” Drubay explained.
It is a stress buster. “Laughter Yoga reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. If your immune system is strong, you are less likely to get sick and if you have chronic health conditions, it can help you heal faster,” she said.
There are also “business benefits.” Drubay explained, “Our brain needs 25 percent more oxygen for optimal functioning. Laughter exercises can increase our net supply of oxygen to our body and brain, which helps with efficiency and performance. You will feel energetic and can work more than your normally do without getting tired.”
Drubay said it is a social connector, “When you practice these exercises, you draw more oxygen into your body and brain, which creates those happy endorphins. Participants make eye contact and so this is also a good social connector and teamwork is encouraged.”
Finally, Drubay said it encourages laughing through challenges. “Anyone can laugh when times are good, but Laughter Yoga teaches people to laugh unconditionally so they can laugh even when times are hard. It provides strength in adversity, a coping mechanism to help people keep a positive mental attitude regardless of the circumstances.”
Best of all, there is no experience necessary. “We welcome everyone to the Laughter Clubs. No experience required! However, keep in mind that Laughter Yoga is considered aerobic exercise. People with uncontrolled high blood pressure, heart disease, epilepsy, any kind of hernia, severe backache or major psychiatric disorder, or fully pregnant should avoid Laughter Yoga. When in doubt, please consult a physician,” Drubay said.
Drubay noted sometimes Ernie Oktay, who teaches a laughter Club in Bryn Mawr, joins Drubay’s classes. Oktay has lead classes for six years. “He is an amazing inspiration to me,” Drubay said. “We have decided to join forces and joint-lead some club meetings and sessions together, like the one soon for Homeland Security. What I like about the Laughter Yoga community and its’ leaders/teachers/practitioners, is that we all try to be very supportive of one another.”
Drubay will run Laughter Yoga club meetings Monday Night Meetings from 6-7 p.m., Jan. 5, 12, 19, 26, at the Media Borough Community Center Exercise Room, Media Municipal Center, 301 N. Jackson Street, Media. For additional meetings and events, visit meetup.com, Laughter Yoga Delaware County or Dubray’s website,www.laughteryogawithalexa.com.
July 2016 Laughter Yoga article in UK’s Tatler Magazine:
BBC Report on the benefits of Laughter Yoga Therapy in the work place.
A great workout! Laughter Yoga in Hong Kong