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When I scribbled “Laughing lunch” into the January 16th square on my calendar last week, I had no idea how valuable 40 minutes of chuckling in my office’s courtyard conference room would be. I had done Laughter Yoga before in a studio setting, and now one of my classmates—also a coworker!—was certified to teach. And what better place to start than an office building, where the majority of our daily smiles are actually just e-mail emoticons proceeding sarcastic sentences?
Talk about perfect timing, too. Although I normally walk for 30 minutes during my lunch break, today was Day 6 or something of a streak of grim Seattle-like sun-lessness, and you can just tell everyone is losing their sanity from the depressing sequence of little gray clouds pictured on The Weather Channel app. The opportunity to laugh with others seemed so much more appealing than sitting at my desk and trying to laugh at random YouTube videos of puppies descending stairs or the latest crime eyewitness-cum-autotune star.
In less than an hour, our facilitator Karen had done the work of a personal trainer: Getting us to exercise muscles—most noticeably our facial muscles—that are severely underused and in need of some strengthening. How sad is it that smiling and laughing actually began to hurt after just 10 minutes? Do we really spend that much time with clenched jaws and pursed lips that a few minutes of lightheartedness feels foreign to our faces?
Now, none of the exercises actually felt like work—they were silly and fun! What I love about Laughter Yoga is that it’s not about comedy or trying to be funny. No knock-knock jokes allowed! Laughter Yoga is more about awareness of breath, using fun and engaging exercises to initiate the physical act of laughing and, as a result, experience the joy that comes from full, belly-deep breathing; getting heavy doses of fresh oxygen; and soaking up the endorphins that flood the brain after letting the lungs, throat, and lips loosen up.
For example, in one exercise we scrambled around the room shaking hands with our classmates as fast as we could, laughing with each connection. In another, we navigated the room, bowing to each person we encountered—a deep and intentional bow complemented with a laugh, of course. Between each exercise was the standard Laughter Yoga clapping/vocalization pattern: Ho, Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha!
The class was non-stop action, and Karen did a great job keeping a comfortable pace—no awkward down time or pauses for anyone to slip back into “serious” mode.
The only time I felt it grow slightly serious (for me) was at the end, when we sat with our eyes closed and began a laughing meditation (i.e., laugh and then laugh some more and then just keep laughing until eventually it becomes genuine because the person sitting next to you sounds so stinkin’ cute when she laughs that it’s infectious). Halfway through this exercise, I could feel the laughter take a turn, and suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to cry. And not crying from laughing so hard but that deep, solar-plexus-based Oh God, Clearly All This Laughing Has Unlocked Something in Me kind of cry. Luckily the meditation ended before any sobbing commenced, but what a testament to how emotion can move freely once breath comes into the picture.
After sitting in stillness for a bit, I realized the class was very much like a massage, working muscles that really need to be worked but making me painfully aware of how stiff and rigid I am. Every time I let out a guffaw, I could feel it not just in my face but my neck, my chest, my back. It was uncomfortable at times, but I imagined myself a giant slab of stone in front of a sculptor, exercise by exercise chipping away at the hard edges.
I wasn’t exactly Venus de Milo by the end of class, but I definitely felt softer and just a little more human.
I feel like a bit of a hypocrite.
Just a few days after writing this post about chaos and how to ease into it with flow and grace, I had a rather miserable day at work that left me and all of my colleagues a pig away from turning our office upside-down into a scene out of Lord of the Flies. It was chaotic to say the least, and as desperately as I was trying to remember my very own words about not getting caught up in the madness, I felt my chest tighten, my head pound, and my mind race with negative thoughts.
What saved me from smearing my face with war paint and using my pencil as a spear, however, was the gift of laughter.
I am very fortunate to have a manager who is incredibly professional but also knows when to insert a good chuckle when the going gets tough. It’s a bit backward, because I’m the one who does all the yoga and tai chi and 5Rhythms and pranayama and insert-a-mind/body/spirit-thing-here, and yet at the end of the day, I’m the one sweating bullets and she’s the one reassuring me that everything is going to be OK, and then usually e-mails me a funny picture that gives us both the giggles.
Throughout the day, every time I used the restroom, I faced myself in the mirror and forced a laugh from my belly, feeling the wave of sound rise through my gut and chest, escaping through my mouth and causing my eyes to crinkle. It was a trick I learned from Bob Pileggi, whose Laughter Yoga classes always remind students that if you have to react to a situation, why not laugh instead of expending all that energy frowning and stomping and creating tension? It’s not making light of the situation; it’s just physically expelling your emotions in a more positive manner that’s not going to cause heart attacks and intestinal disorders somewhere down the line.
It is so appropriate, then, that just this week I stumbled across this video from the site Everynone.com, which features a small collection of some of the most intellectually pleasing videos I’ve ever seen.
The above video is only 2 minutes long, and I guarantee by the end you will either be laughing or, at the very least, smiling. It’s a simple compilation of people laughing, starting with babies and eventually ending at the opposite end of the age spectrum with older adults. It’s authentic, infectious, and a reminder that we are all human. What a gift it is to lose ourselves so much in joy.
The next video is my own. I had the pleasure of visiting dear friends Emma and Peter and their 2.5-year-old daughter last weekend. We were all gathered at Peter’s parents’ house, sitting around the living room, when an impromptu balloon war broke out. Despite little Gabriella being a cutie patootie, Peter’s mom is the real star of this video. Her laughter is so genuine and uninhibited; it just exudes pure, simple, and natural joy.
It’s hard to be a grump when you’re with this family, and I’m so glad I caught this moment of spirited spontaneity on video. It’s a 1.5-minute reminder that it is indeed possible to laugh during chaos.
Last Friday, I posted this message on Facebook and Twitter:
I’m getting my semi-annual “I’m losing control of my life” panicky feeling where a million things happen at once & I start to withdrawal 😦
Now, realistically, things aren’t that out of control. I have friends who are doing a ton more than me or who are going through some huge life issues, and I should just be counting my blessings that I’m not in grad school or caring for an insomniac toddler or having to approach HR about taking family medical leave (all real-life instances among my circle of friends). For the most part, the panic is just all in my head, and I’m letting stupid things get to me. I’m sweating the small stuff.
That’s why when I found out that Laughter Yoga leader Bob Pileggi was coming to town again, I knew I had to attend his class. I took one of his classes back in October, and the effects were immediate. It’s no secret that taking in more oxygen makes you feel good, and that’s the whole point of Laughter Yoga: to loosen up, open the lungs, work the diaphragm, and BREATHE! Suck in the air, let it out, and feel the ripple effects of all those sweet inhalations and exhalations. Everyone’s heard of a runner’s high, and it’s not that far off from the feeling one gets after Laughter Yoga. You get that same oxygen-induced buzz–almost a giddiness–minus the disgusting sweat and painful shinsplints.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about the class this time around; most of the exercises and my reaction to them are described here.
This particular class, however, had significantly more people, which certainly added to the experience. There were more eyes to connect with, more bellies to watch shaking. I even joked that one man had to have been the paid “decoy” because he was just so committed to the practice, his eyes twinkling, his laugh so hearty that every time I heard it I couldn’t help but double over myself.
We closed class by lying on our backs, our legs propped up comfortably on several folded yoga blankets, with just one instruction from Bob: “When I say ‘start,’ begin laughing and don’t stop until I say so.” What usually happens is that the first few seconds are a bit forced, simply a physical practice of vocalizing and pumping the belly. Then comes that tipping point, the moment at which something–usually someone’s cute little giggle or a bowl-full-of-jelly Santa Claus rumble–just sets everyone off, and the scale tips toward the truly authentic, gut-busting laughter. And I don’t mean a texting “LOL,” I’m talking about LOLFR–laughing out loud fer realz. Head thrown back/back arched/eyes crinkled laughing, the kind you get when it’s late at night, you’re a bit slap-happy, and you and a friend decide to apply Transformers tattoos on each other:
Bob always starts class by asking us to check in with our bodies and mind, to list on a scale of 0 to 10 how present and open we feel. I came into class as a 3 and just an hour and 15 minutes later was boosted to an 8. To tell you the truth, I’m always pretty resistant at the start of any kind of class, but I kind of see these endeavors as “therapy,” and know that by the end I will usually feel a million bucks better. Actually, even just a few minutes into class–after some simple deep-breathing exercises and a bit of meditation–I was already shedding my armor.
I used the lessons from the class later in the evening, when I was forced to park blocks away from the take-out restaurant where I was picking up my dinner. The walk I didn’t mind; it was the frigid wind chill that initially had me shouting expletives in the wind. I tried trading a f*** for a chuckle, and you know what? It made me feel better. Not warmer or less windblown, but just a little better.
Ever think of just laughing off a particularly annoying situation?
I could probably do this every morning on my drive to work, when I’m almost always stuck behind a slow-moving school bus/garbage truck/oil tanker.
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!
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?
What did you laugh about this weekend?