A few years ago, I had a really eye-opening experience. It was 2013, and I was at the All America Laughter Conference in Vancouver’s lower mainland. I figured it would be nice to participate in an event that brought together yoga and laughter – two things that Inner Fire is all about. I really didn’t know much about the practice, aside from having taken a handful of laughter yoga classes with my late grandmother in years past. But my mind was open and my cheeks were prepped.
Picture this: A large group of people blowing up balloons as big as they can get them. Pop! Pop! Pop! peppers the air and pieces of balloon float down to the ground. Then the boisterous chanting of Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha! Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha! All whilst clapping along. To top it off, everyone raised their arms and shouted, “Very good, very good, YAY!”
This balloon-popping icebreaker was supposed to be funny and make people laugh, but not being a fan of balloon popping, I was leaning more towards terrified than tickled. It also seemed a little too silly for me. I couldn’t wrap my head around a group of grown adults – the average age among them being 50 – acting like 5-year-olds. I realized after the helium settled that I was the youngest one there. I am definitely too cool for this , I thought. Why do I need to pretend to be happy with all these strangers? Can’t we talk about down-dog alignment or something? I had been to a lot of yoga conferences and workshops, but nothing like this. I reigned in my judgement and listened on.
Laughter Yoga was created by a man named Dr. Kataria in India a few years back. He used the word yoga because laughter in its essence is a breathing exercise, or Pranayama (laughter yogis call it "Pranayahahama") :) Pranayama helps the Prana , or life force energy, the flow throughout the body in an effortless manner. Things like emotional or physical stress can cause the life force to be blocked or stunted. Dr. Kataria studied the benefits of laughter on the body, and they were extensive (you've probably heard the phrase "laughter is the best medicine" so I'm not going to go into detail about the benefits here – visit www.healinglaughter.org for more info). The real key to his discovery is that the body doesn't know the difference between real and forced laughter. The brain still responds the same way. In other words, you fake it ‘til you make it. The hardest part is making the intention to laugh. It's hard to do this on your own, so here's where group laughter sessions, or laughter yoga, comes in.
So I gave it a try. We did one exercise that consisted of going around and poking people in the nose and laughing about it. Sounds ridiculous, right? Funny thing was, I was in tears by the end. I realized that the "cool" factor that I was holding on to at the beginning was really just an illusion of how I thought I should behave around other people. What laughter yoga is really all about is letting go of your inhibitions.Now, don't get me wrong, it can be a super scary process to let your feelings out. You might come up against a side of yourself that you don’t really want to see, but the process of doing it creates the space for transformation.
In another exercise, we put our chins down and pretended to cry and then tilted our chins up and pretended to laugh, and continued to switch between positions. As I went through the exercise, I actually started to cry and laugh; I was able to trigger (or control) my emotions just by tilting my chin. That’s when I had the realization that the line between sorrow and joy is really quite thin. It all depends on how you perceive that sorrow or joy with you mind, and how you feel it in your body.
As the weekend went on, I came to learn that one of the main things the laughter yoga teaching community was struggling with was – and is – the lack of engagement with people. Many laughter teachers I spoke with expressed frustration with trying to teach certain groups, like students or business persons – basically anyone under the age of 70. They had horror stories (at least to teachers) of walking into spaces only to be met with blank stares and rolling eyes. I had that slightly embarrassing moment to myself when I realized I was thinking that way when I first walked into the conference. This sparked the question, Why are we so reluctant to open up to others in the name of joy and laughter? It puzzled me for a while but then I realized it was a struggle between the head and the heart. The head says, "You need a reason to be happy – that happiness must be earned!" and the heart says, "Can't I just be happy for no reason?"
Unfortunately, in our society, we are governed by the head. Logic and reason are the name of the game. Absurdity, kookiness and playfulness are limited to children and crazy people. But why? I boiled it down to it having to do with our emotions. How we act emotionally has a HUGE effect on how others perceive us. And we are concerned about what they think. We are programmed from a very young age to not burst out in laughter for no reason. It might offend someone. You might be labelled as that crazy person. Then your life is over. But what if you were given a safe space where it's OKAY to be weird, speak gibberish and honk someone else's nose? And you knew there was the physical benefit of releasing endorphins and making new friends? How much un-programming would it take?
At the end of conference (so graciously led by the founder of the American School of Laughter Yoga, Sebastien Gendry) I felt like I had a chance to find a new perspective on things. Just as in the chin-tilting exercise, life is full of emotional ups and downs. The tears (happy or sad) will be there either way, but we can create and share whatever reality we want just based on our intention. One of the most profound and amazing things about laughter yoga is that it really allows us to understand that we are one. Through this understanding, we can come closer to finding peace and joy within us and our surrounding communities. It all just starts with a smile.