Going to regular sessions of Laugh Yoga may sound ridiculous, even laughable. But that's the whole idea: Participants get in a circle, maintain eye contact, become playful and childlike — and through a series of goofy, nonsensical games, they at first force themselves to laugh, and soon they are laughing for real.
We all know laughter is contagious and that it's good for us, but we've somehow become a very serious society that labors under the delusion that serious people are responsible and get things done, whereas laughing people are goofing off and need to grow up, says Jean Roorda, a certified Laugh Yoga leader.
Walking by her Laugh Yoga class in Ashland's Lithia Park, you might mistake members for escapees from a nearby mental-health unit (most passers-by smile and wave). But laughing is serious stuff, and soon you discern they are applying themselves to dozens of exercises with mirthful devotion.
One never can tell what will trigger someone out of fake laughter into genuine hysteria, says Roorda, but it always happens. Among her favorite exercises is "milkshake," simply pouring an imaginary liquid from one container to another. Soon, it incites a real smile and, before long, doubling up and busting a gut.
After an hour of this, participants can't help but feel happy.
Fresh from a stressful episode with a partner at the hospital, real estate broker Sara Walker didn't think she could laugh much. But afterward she says, "This was such good timing. I feel so much better now. I am so surprised how much I was able to laugh. I feel shifted into peace, and now I feel I can handle the situation."
Other exercises have people in the class walking like chickens, milling around laughing at imaginary friends on imaginary cellphones, laughing as they try, like cats, to lick their elbows and wash their faces, a nearly impossible task.
They hold an imaginary friend in the palm of a hand and introduce the friend to all present. They do "argument laugh," pretending to be angry and disapproving with a partner. They toss a beachball full of laughter. They pretend they're waking up laughing. They send laughter to the center of the Earth on a slinky and bring it back.
"It's very therapeutic," says Veronika Farago. "Laughing is one of the hardest things to let yourself do, but it has amazing benefits — mentally, physically and spiritually. It's very heart-opening and healing."
The practice, called hasyayoga, was started in Mumbai, India, in the mid-1990s by Dr. Madan Kataria, author of "Laugh for No Reason," and now has more than 8,000 Laughter Clubs in 65 countries. It's considered part of pranayama or yogic breathing.
"It actually IS yoga because it brings a union — yoga means union — of mind, body and soul," says Roorda, adding that after you practice it awhile you don't feel like you're faking the laughter.
"You come to this place of genuine laughter," she notes. "The body doesn't know the difference between fake and real laughter and just goes along with it and accepts it."
After the session, Terry Hill says he feels "relaxed, like I released a lot of built-up tension and stress. In our society, we're conditioned to keep it all inside — laughter or crying — but to be really hysterical is an incredible experience. It's pure therapy."
Hasyayoga is being taken into prisons, schools, senior homes and corporations, says Roorda, where it has a positive effect on practitioners' moods and mental states — and boosts productivity in business. It started with the use of jokes, but Indians soon found it worked better without a specific cue.
The practice of Laugh Yoga draws on improvisational theater and invites participants to ham it up, which helps shed excessive seriousness, the "fearful mindset" and a sense of scarcity and uptightness, which pass for adult behavior, she notes.
Such seriousness tells us we need a really good reason to laugh, but hasyayoga trains you that you don't need a reason. As Nike says, you just do it.
"I'm surprised how easily I slipped into it. I didn't have to force it," says Sujana Hansen. "It was infectious. I wholly believe in its healing power. It's really needed."
Laugh Yoga meets twice a month on Fridays at the Rose Circle, 295 E. Main St., No. 6 (above Star Sushi) in Ashland. Cost is a suggested donation of $2 to $10 to support the Rose Circle.
For information, see www.heartofwholeness.com/Laughter.html or call Roorda at 541-531-3762.