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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?
I haven’t blogged in a while but it’s not because I’ve been living in a vacuum. Stuff has happened, thoughts and ponderings have crossed my mind, but the truth is that I’ve just chosen to censor myself and make y’all believe that I’m living some crazy-awesome-busy life and just don’t have the time to document it.
It’s not really fair for myself or for those who read my blog to write only about the good things in life, the times where I have triumphed, learned a lesson, and moved on with clarity and newfound wisdom. Because, for real, that’s only half of the picture. My husband and I recently started Netflixing Twin Peaks, and what we’re learning is that there’s more to one person than what meets the eye. Not that I have any Laura Palmer-type secrets lying around, but I do have days that I don’t do yoga, don’t dance, act cranky, and forget to breathe. I have days that I mentally scold someone for starting every morning with a complaint and then I come home to my husband and complain about all the complaining. Sometimes I just don’t want to blog, tweet, or decipher the cryptogram that is now Facebook. There are times that I start the day blasting LMFAO in the living room and dancing circles around my husband and then shun him for the rest of the afternoon for no good reason (i.e., today).
One of the take-home lessons I learned during my experience at Kripalu was to acknowledge both the light as well as the shadows. Kripalu is a popular yoga and wellness retreat center now, but several years ago it suffered a PR nightmare when the resident guru was accused of performing unyogic acts with his disciples. Instead of keeping this “secret” under rug swept, my YTT teachers were open about the scandal; they were acknowledging the darker side–the shadows–of the institution. Expanding this philosophy to a personal level, it means to sit not only in your prouder moments but to face your darker ones as well. When the sun is shining and your heart is singing, breathe it all in. When the clouds are black and your heart hurts, breathe it all in.
One of my shadows of late has been my complete and utter lack of energy. It started last month when I could barely finish a 5Rhythms class. Even with being mindful of my movement and using the wall and floor for support at times, I kept sneaking glances at the clock, wondering why on earth this 2-hour class felt like 5. I felt like I was running on fumes, and instead of floating home in a state of post-dance bliss, I kind of just trudged my way into bed. Swimming, my second favorite activity next to dancing, also became a labor of love. Suddenly my normal 30-minute workout sessions were no longer achievable, and I’d call time after 20, 25 if I had coffee beforehand.
Even Disney World, my happiest and the happiest place on earth, couldn’t snap me from my stupor. I know it’s natural to wear yourself out after a day in the parks, but a seasoned Disney World fan girl shouldn’t be caught looking like this in the middle of the day.
After a month of this nonsense as well as some other health-related issues, I finally went to my doctor. A lot of my symptoms were pointing directly at the thyroid as the culprit, and my bloodwork sealed the deal. When I got my thyroid levels tested 2 years ago, they were right on the cusp of hypothyroidism; now, they are most definitely in that territory. I know there is all kinds of controversy out there about what the “correct” reference range is for TSH levels, but mine exceed anything I’ve found online and would certainly explain the uncharacteristic feelings of blah I’ve been experiencing.
Because hypothyroidism affects mood and mental focus as well, perhaps that can explain my mini-mental breakdown last week, when I was left completely incapable of making the decision whether or not to accompany my husband to Philly for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon expo. The day before I was all “Yeah! This will be fun! Philly! Athletic gear! Lunch in the city!” Saturday morning, however, was a different story. I knew I needed to study for a work-related exam I was taking the next day, and I was afraid going to Philly would cut into my cram time. Instead of deciding (a) OK, I should really stay home to study; or (b) I can go to Philly, study on the train, and at home when we return, my brain went like this: &**&^&%^$&#$%%&*(*&*!!!!! It was like PMS from hell, complete with crying, sobbing, and throwing of clothes (and punches…in the air). The thing was, I didn’t have PMS; it was a perfectly neutral part of the month. I had checked my calendar just to make sure and was even more upset when I knew I couldn’t blame womanly hormones for my hot mess of a breakdown. It felt like the decision-making part of my brain just shut off, and I was faced with two options that both seemed great and terrible at the same time. And I’m not talking about the latte-versus-frappuccino indecision you face on a 60-degree day in March, but rather a complete numbness of the ability to say yes or no and accept that decision.
(In case you’re wondering, after much consolation from my husband, a shower, and me “working it out” through about 30 minutes of tears, I finally decided to go to Philly and then studied at home that night.)
On a lighter note (meaning, I’m not going to blame my thyroid for this), one of my other recent shadows has been my reaction to the news of Disney planning to open an AVATAR land in the Animal Kingdom park. If it were April, I would have totally thought this was some kind of April Fools joke, but this is for real! I’ve never seen Avatar, but even if it’s super-awesome, does it really require an entire land? At first I was upset that they agreed to partner with a non-Disney movie, but then people brought up Star Wars and Indiana Jones and The Muppets, and OK, I get it, but the key difference here is attraction versus LAND. Also, Animal Kingdom is such a pure park; if Disney is really pushing for this Avatar nonsense, it should build it in Hollywood Studios and reserve any extra space in Animal Kingdom for a future Australia. I cried to Bryan that after him and dancing, Disney is my passion and that any news about a potentially disastrous business decision affects me to the core. I eased up a bit after reading this relatively positive outlook of the Avatar endeavor but then fell back into my sinkhole of misery after reading this one.
Whatever happens, I just hope Animal Kingdom doesn’t face this fate come 2016 or 2018 or whenever everyone has forgotten about Avatar:
OK, I just exposed my shadows. Anything you need to come clean about?