I had a lot to smile about yesterday–a fresh pumpkin raisin muffin from the farmers market, getting to pet a black pug, and a long mid-afternoon walk through town with Bryan–but the thing that got me smiling the most was an hour of Laughter Yoga!

Laughing with Buddha (Lhasa, Tibet)

A local yoga studio offered the hour-long class, led by Bob Pileggi. I was interested in the class because it seemed to be more about the physiological/psychological aspects of laughter and smiling, not about telling funny jokes or being silly for the sake of being silly. And just having written about the importance of breathing and opening up the lungs, I thought this would be a great way to experiment more with just that. Another reason I went was to figure out how to lighten up a bit. A lot of times when I’m doing the 5Rhythms, I feel like everything but my face dances, that there is so much emotion in my hands, my fingers, my torso…everything but my face. Even when I feel joy inside, my jaw clenches. It takes a lot of build-up for me to break out into a genuine smile or to laugh when I dance. I hoped that Laughter Yoga would teach me how to be more comfortable turning up those two corners of my lips. 🙂

I was a bit anxious when only three other students showed up for the class; would it be possible to bust a gut laughing with such a small group? (Answer: YES!) Bob instructed us to commit ourselves 100% to the exercises, like little children playing princesses or pirates. Immerse ourselves completely, don’t hold back. I vowed to do just that; I mean, I had paid for the class so I might as well dive right in.

We started standing with some simple warm-up exercises to loosen the spine and hips, then moved on to conscious breathing, very much like dirgha pranayama in yoga, raising the arms during inhale, lowering the arms during exhale. We picked up the pace by breathing as though we were blowing out a candle on a birthday cake, very sharp exhales, a bit like kapalabhati breath. Already, I could feel my lungs opening up, my cells dancing with oxygen.

Then came the vocalizations, which we used for much of the class: Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha, done while clapping to the rhythm. We did this standing in a circle, exchanging eye contact with others. This continued for a while, getting louder, softer, faster, slower. Bob encouraged us to change the pitch of our voices, the direction of our clapping. Soon, this exercise continued with us walking around the studio instead of standing in place, still making eye contact with those we passed. Things lightened up at this point, and we shifted in and out of different “characters,” maybe ha-ha-ha’ing haughtily like a snobby debutante or ha-ha-ha’ing demonically like a monster. Before we knew it, unconscious giggles slowly began to escape our lips.

Once the beginnings of true laughter began to appear, we got back in our circle and…laughed. It felt a bit forced at first, just a tad uneasy. But the longer we continued, the more real it became. Each person’s laughter took on a different tone; one woman had a cute giggly sound to hers, another had a spirited ebullience to hers. Hearing all the different kinds of laughter was, well, kind of funny and contagious, and eventually I felt the shift from “I’m doing this because the instructor said so” to “I’m doing this because it’s coming naturally to my body!” It was a bit like babies crying–when one starts, they all start.

Next, we connected laughter to emotions. Standing in the circle, we took turns shouting out things that brought joy to our lives. After each person made their exclamation, we all laughed. It went a bit like this: “My baby nephew falling asleep on my chest.” (::laughter::) “Walking down Main Street, USA in Disney World!” (::laughter::) “Little curly puppy dogs!” (::laughter::) Then came the trickier part: doing the same thing, but shouting out things that caused us stress: “Sitting in traffic!” (::laughter::) “Sallie Mae loans!” (::laughter::) “Getting into a fight with your boyfriend!” (::laughter::) As Bob explained, if something stressful has happened and there’s nothing you can do about it, why cause yourself more stress by stewing and steaming? By choosing to laugh at something, you’re guiding your body into a more optimistic response and not harming your health in the process.

One of my favorite exercises was the three-part’er: (a) Cover your mouth and give a small, polite, demure little giggle; (b) Relax and give a medium-sized chuckle; and (c) Let loose and give a full belly laugh. I found this to be a bit like 5Rhythms–a little wave of laughing–from flowing to staccato to chaos. By the time we got to chaos (full belly laugh), we were ready to erupt. For a while, it sounded like the five of us were old college chums meeting up for the first time in years, cracking up about the good ol’ days. The funny thing is that I only knew one person in the class.

Before a final savasana, we lay on our mats and went through a final breathing-to-laughter exercise. Maybe it was because we were all spread out across the room and couldn’t see each other, but I found my most authentic laughter during this part. I heard one woman’s delightful giggle and just lost it, the full back-arching, throaty laughter you get when someone tickles you mercilessly. It eventually winded down naturally, and soon I was sinking into my yoga mat for a very peaceful savasana.

Sure, the class felt a bit silly at times, but just an hour of ho, ho, ha-ha-ha’ing and laughing without reason opened me up from my core to my head. That area of my body that always feels so neglected during 5Rhythms had a chance to dance, and I felt all kinds of wonderful pops and cracks throughout my spine and neck as the muscles around them relaxed and warmed up. For someone so intrigued by pranayama practice, I was thrilled to work with the breath in such a unique way–standing and moving and laughing–not necessarily sitting in lotus pose and doing ujayii breath for 20 minutes straight.

Also, on a more biopsychosocial-spiritual level, the actions of laughing and vocalizing are centered around the chest (anahata chakra) and throat (vishuddha chakra). Since finding out I have hypothyroidism, I am especially interested in the vishuddha chakra, and that maybe perhaps I don’t give it enough attention. Maybe introducing more laughter and throat-opening exercises will help my thyroid?

Playground version of simhasana (Lion's pose)

What did you laugh about this weekend?

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