I just recently got back from the 2013 All America Laughter Yoga Conference in Surrey BC. Inner Fire was a sponsor for the event, which is the largest gathering of Laughter Yoga practitioners in North America. 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. Other than taking a few laughter yoga classes with my late grandmother in the past, I really didn't know anything about the practice until I attended the conference. It was really an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
The first thing we had to do when we all got together was blow up a balloon as big as we could. We then were asked to pop all of them at the same time. This "ice-breaker" was supposed to be funny and make people laugh but I was terrified! I really don't like the sound of balloons popping! Afterwards, we all chimed in with a chant of "Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha! Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha!" while clapping. Then everyone raised their arms and shouted "Very good, very good, YAY!" It all seemed a little too silly for me. Why are all these grown people acting like they're 5? When we all sat down together, I also noticed that the average age was around 50 and that I was the youngest person there. Then I had a feeling come over me: I'm too cool for this. Yes, that's what 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 knew I was in for a new experience, so I suspended my judgment 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.orgfor more info). What was 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 a silly exercise that consisted of going around and poking people in the nose and laughing about it. Super ridiculous, right? I didn't think I would be in tears by the end, but I was. 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 your inhibitions go. 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 didn't really want to see, but at least the process of doing it creates the space for transformation. We did another exercise where we put our chins down and pretend cried and then put our chins up and pretend laughed. We just kept switching between those two positions. As I did the exercise, I actually started to cry and laugh, but I could switch just by tilting my chin. I had a realization that the line between sorrow and joy is actually quite thin. It all depends on how you perceive it with your mind and how you feel it with your body.
As the weekend went on, I realized that one of the main things the laughter yoga teaching community was struggling with is a lack of engagement with people. A lot of them expressed frustration with trying to teach certain groups, like students or corporate groups (basically anyone under 70). There were many horror stories of teachers walking into groups, 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. 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 this 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? Because it has to do with our emotions. How we act emotionally has a HUGE effect on how others perceive us. 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 like in that exercise with the switching back and forth between crying and laughing, 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.