Welcome to Laughter 101 -Mindful Laughter with Middle Schoolers
Alexa Fong Drubay
Squirming around the gym floor, one boy announced in a loud voice: “Oh boy, is this really going to suck!” Other kids nodded , while anxiously awaiting the start-up of what they were told was a session of Laughter Yoga. Obliged to attend, they had no idea of what to expect. As I stood before them and explained the origins of these wellness exercises and why laughter offers so many health benefits, I could feel their hesitancy but I was on a mission to get them up on their feet and laughing. The nervous energy was palpable in the room as well as a bubbling curiosity about trying something different in gym class. I approached the boy who had made that first statement and told him to keep an open mind and have fun with this experience. He looked a bit embarrassed but smiled back at me.
But first, how did I get there? This past April 2015 after a hard Pennsylvania winter, the PE coach of a local Middle School in West Chester (near Philadelphia) invited me to lead some Laughter Yoga sessions for 300+ 6th graders. It was testing week for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams, and she wanted to relieve some of the stress students were feeling. I was asked to lead a series of six sessions over a three day period, laughing with 50-60 kids at a time in the gym. It was a wonderful experience for the kids, and for me.
Never heard of Laughter Yoga (LY) ? Actually, it’s been around for 20 years. It began in 1995 in Mumbai, India when a physician named Madan Kataria read some medical articles about the health benefits of laughter. He formed his first club with his wife Madhuri and three friends in a local park. Today, Laughter Yoga is practiced in 101 countries at over 6000 laughter clubs.
Laughter Yoga is a combination of laughter exercises and deep yogic breathing, which increases oxygen into the body and the brain so you feel more healthy and energetic. Studies show that it strengthens the immune system * to help prevent you from falling sick, and combats a variety of illnesses like hypertension, insomnia, heart disease, diabetes and depression. When you laugh, endorphins are released in your brain that chase away moodiness and sadness – especially valuable during those patches in life when you’re feeling down.
What happens in a laughter session? Participants learn to practice laughing for itself, without the need for jokes or comedy. Dr. Kataria ran out of jokes after the first two weeks of his club sessions. So he developed 60 to 90-second exercises that everyone can do – clapping, singing, dancing, deep breathing, meditation and of course lots of LAUGHING. A particular favorite around the world is forgiveness laughter where you gesture as if offering forgiveness to one another with empathetic laughing.
As for school children, many fidget after sitting more than 30 minutes, and you can’t send them into the gym five times a day to release their pent-up energy. But you can let them stand and laugh for three minutes. This can be done right at their desks. Teachers are discovering that when things start to drag, short laughter breaks are a quick picker-upper and help refocus inattentive, drooping students with a boost of energy.
Back to the gym…Soon sixty kids were moving about in a circle making eye contact, swinging their arms and screaming out the greeting “ALO-HA!” and greeting each other in different languages. Not the usual gym exercise…I must admit that my first session with these 12/13 yr-olds presented quite a challenge. I assumed a few would not join in – typical of this age group when kids feel self-conscious, about trying something new and unfamiliar. But I was surprised when about a third of the class hung back.
More kids participated when we started exercises like “forgiveness laughter” (approaching others and saying :”so sorry, forgive me, I shouldn’t have done that”, etc.) which then morphed into “It’s okay, let me give you a hug -laughter.” Another one was “gratitude laughter” where you exaggerate saying thank you with laughter. By the time we got to “cell phone laughter,” where you imagine your best friend calling to share hilarious stories, most of them were hooked. These exercises encourage playfulness and allow for lots of experimentation and best of all, the release of the suppressed “inner child”.
When the second group of sixty students arrived, I could see once again many were uncomfortable about “laughing for no reason.” However, as we got into the exercises, their initial inhibitions melted away. Laughing in a group is infectious – it’s hard not to give in to the laughter surrounding you. Of course, not 100% joined in, but most did. Some have issues that prevent them from “letting go.” We are all on different paths in life and some things cannot be forced.
What did I learn from the kids? Well, as a mother and an adult, it’s hard to think like a 12 yr-old again and I did make a few faux pas. One of the PE teachers pulled me aside before I was about to lead my third session on day two. He delicately suggested, that I leave out two specific laughter exercises. These exercises are two core exercises that are used in every laughter club around the world – the “milk shake” and the “peeling the banana” exercises. At first, I couldn’t comprehend why those exercises would offend. Then, I had my “Aha” moment. It seems that the action of drinking the milkshake and the hand motion of popping the banana in the mouth cause some young people to imagine other acts. OHo ho ha ha ha! Okay, now I got it, and I was so grateful to have been told. I was wondering why some of the kids shrank from participating in those two exercises. LOL!
I left those two exercises out for the last two sessions (and in all future sessions involving teenagers), and concentrated on team building laughter exercises and positive affirmations. The student’s giggles gave way to laughter and they showed lots of enthusiasm and spontaneity during our sessions. Some loved the opportunity to “ham it up”. I handed out smiley stickers at the door – 99% reached out for a sticker and gave me a thank you and a smile. And that kid who initially proclaimed : “Oh boy, this is really going to suck?” Actually, I caught him laughing along with everyone else by mid session.
One thing I did not expect was the number of students who came up after the sessions
to thank me or just to give me a hug. The first time it happened, I had to hold back the tears that were welling up in my eyes. That’s when I began to realize the power of what was happening. Those kids were really happy! Now they know that when they feel stressed or when things go wrong, all they have to do is just laugh.
It’s so important to reach young hearts and minds with Laughter Yoga during adolescence or even before. We should begin with 4th graders because at this tender age, they are less self-conscious and more open to experimentation. Teen suicide rates are rising as kids mature and are confronted with more stresses at home and school, and problems with bullies and peer pressure. If students can learn at an early age how to defuse the stress in their lives with laughter, they will more confidently mature into joyful, empathetic, resilient and self-assured adults.
“It’s hard to be sour when you have the power of laughter!” Jack D. Smith
Alexa Fong Drubay is a certified Laughter Yoga Teacher who trained in Bangalore, India with the founder of Laughter Yoga, Dr. Madan Kataria. She lives in Media, PA and runs two weekly FREE laughter clubs in her community. http://www.meetup.com/Laughter-Yoga-Club-Delaware-County-PA/
As a motivational speaker, she leads presentations on “Laughter Wellness & Resilience”
and offers Laughter Yoga workshops and trainings for all size groups and groups of all ages. For more information, please visit www.laughteryogawithalexa.com or call 215 478 5669.