Monday, September 25, 2006

The Laughter Club

As I walked towards the group, the cool morning breeze slapped against my cheeks. Normally, I am not an earlier riser: I stay up late checking my mail and chatting on the Internet, but this one morning I decided to accept my friend’s 6:00 A.M. invitation to join her at the “Laughter Club.” I reached the Jogger’s Park, in Bandra, only to witness and participate in the most enjoyable, early morning exercise.

There was a group of about 30 people laughing hysterically. In what was called laughter therapy; they performed the exercises by clapping in rhythm and chanting ‘Ha! Ha! Ho! Ho!’ in unison. The beautiful package of stimulated laughter consisted of different types of laughter, including a hearty laugh (laughing as loudly as they could), a single laugh with the mouth wide open, a cocktail laugh (laughing in various tones), an arm-swing laugh (laughing during the exercises), a silent laughter (producing laughing sounds with mouth closed), a “jhoola” laughter (swinging the body and laughing), and a one-meter laugh (pretending to measure one meter of cloth and laughing). Each "laugh" lasted for about 30-45 seconds. Between "laughs," members practiced deep breathing and neck, shoulder, and stretching exercises, which are similar to many yogic asanas.

I stood behind the group and watched in amazement. Midway through the second set of laughter, I was struck by the strong sense of friendship and familiarity that I felt with people whom I met only a few minutes prior. I wonder if this is one of the great social benefits of large group "laughter"; although, I don't recall experiencing those feelings at venues such as comedy concerts where people laugh wildly. In the Laughter Club, there is a sense of camaraderie and welcome. A new dimension to the interpersonal relationship aspect of the Laughter Clubs is added by celebrating birthdays of each and every member after the laughter session. New members and visitors are introduced with a hearty and welcoming laugh. The session ended with a small prayer of seeking the art of forgiveness and understanding human relationships.

Since I was attending the session for the first time, I was introduced by my friend to the members with a happy laugher and each member came forward and shook my hand and laughed heartily. One couple had returned from their holiday and they were welcomed back with another loud laugher. Then they celebrated the birthday of Mr. Gosh, a regular at laughing club “A new dimension to the interpersonal relationship aspect of the Laughter Club is added by celebrating birthdays of each and every member after the laughter session” explained the club member. “Since I have lived alone, I had never celebrated my birthday at home,” said Mr. Gosh, “but now, I get to celebrate my birthday with so many important people!” He laughed loudly and invited every member for a special treat of herbal tea after the session.

The idea of Laughter Clubs is the brainchild of Dr. Madan Kataria, editor of ‘Your Own Doctor’ and ‘Mera Doctor.’ On March 13, 1995, he invited four people to start laughing, standing in one corner of his garden. Initially, some people scoffed and ridiculed the idea, but when the potential health benefits were explained, interests were peaked and attendance increased. In the beginning, all the participants stood in a circle and invited someone to come to the center and crack a joke or tell a humorous anecdote. People enjoyed the fun and felt refreshed after 10-20 minutes of laughter every morning. Everything went well for about 15 days, after which the stock of good jokes ran out. Stale jokes, jokes targeted at particular communities, hurtful jokes, and dirty jokes began to embarrass many members, especially the ladies. It was then decided that the club members would laugh without any jokes.

Laughter needs to be taken seriously. In 1998, this message proliferated the world when more than 10,000 participants from laughter clubs across the country laughed together at the Race Course grounds in Mumbai. The people agreed that laughter was not only the result of comedy but also an effective means therapy. The laughter therapy is, in fact, based on yogic principles and exercises, and the members are more like devotees of a form of laughter yoga. The diversity of the members is quite phenomenal with members representing a broad spectrum of cultural, economic, and religious backgrounds. Hindus, Muslims and Christians mingle and laugh with each other, erasing all religious and social boundaries. The outstanding success of the program was the result of excellent dedication of several Laughter Clubs. The enthusiastic participation by thousands of members proved that these Laughter Clubs are not a laughing matter. Today, there are 70 Laughter clubs in Mumbai and nearly 400 all over India.

How to Start a Laughter Club in Your Area Find a place in your locality where people can assemble early in the morning when they go for a walk. It can either be a public garden, a ground, or a beach. The advantage of selecting such a place is that you can combine your laughter therapy session with your morning walk. You may have a laughing session of about 15-20 minutes and then proceed with your walk. Also, it is easier to gather a large number of people at such places. The chosen place should not be in the immediate vicinity of residential complexes so as to prevent disturbance to others.

The ideal time to start a laughing session is between 6 A.M.. and 7 A.M. "The advantage of laughing in the morning," according Dr. Kataria, "is that 20 minutes of laughter in the morning keeps you in good spirits throughout the day. It energizes your body and charges you with happiness." Morning walks and laughter therapy sessions are complementary to each other, and the benefits of both can be experienced together at the same place and time of the day. Moreover, pollution levels are lowest in the morning, and this ensures a good supply of relatively fresh air. Anyone wishing to start a Laughter Club in India has to organize a group of at least 25 people (the larger the number of people, the easier it is to laugh) and then get in touch with the group leader of the Laughter Club. He then organizes a team of experts who go to that location to demonstrate the various techniques of "Laughter Therapy" and to train some people from the group as "Anchor Persons" (facilitators/leaders) who give the instructions that initiate the different kinds of laughter.

‘World Laughter Day’ is celebrated on first Sunday in the month of May. The reason for organizing ‘World Laughter Day’ is to remind people of the many benefits of laughter and to actually show them that to laugh is not as difficult as it is thought to be. One has to merely remove the usual inhibitions, be ready to laugh, and, then, just go ahead and laugh. Studies have shown that patients who laugh easily or more jovially suffer almost 40% less heart attacks as compared to those who don’t. Also, when people laugh heartily with those classic, jerky movements, mucous plugged inside the respiratory and digestive systems loosen up. This indirectly reduces the risk of various other infections. This new concept of group laughter is most economical and least time consuming. It helps expand health benefits, improve inter-personal relationship, enhances communication, reduces tensions, and increases productivity at workplace.

“The one benefit everybody gets is a sense of well being. After 15 minutes of laughter in the morning, I feel fresh throughout the day.” Mrs. Mansukhani, a regular member of the Laughter club, also says, “There is no medicine like laughter therapy which can give you instant results. I start feeling the freshness straightaway; many of my friends have found that they don't get irritated over small, little things after starting this therapy. Their approach towards life has changed.”

After our laughing session, we made a stop at the herbal juice stall. This is a customary stop for most club members in Mumbai. I chose a “Tulsi Sudha” and sipped my juice with my eyes tightly shut, feeling a sense of relief and looking forward to starting my new day.

Surprisingly, I reported to work in good humor. The sound of laughter reverberated in my minds as I went about finishing my chores. Truly, laughter is both, tranquilizer and equalizer. If you are one of those who snicker and smirk every time you pass a laughing group, do try and join them next time. It will do you good. Otherwise, those veterans might have the last laugh, at your expense.

Quotation by Dr Madan Kataria

“Laughter in Laughter clubs is not meant to be only outer laughter or physical exercise, but also inner laughter, that is, developing the spirit of laughter by being happy and making others happy. It is a joint effort to search for different formulas for stress-free living.”

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