By Brian Goslow
Beverly Rousseau may not have entered laughing, but it didn’t take long before her non-stop guffaws filled the next hour. She continued laughing even as she got back in the car with her girlfriend.
Rousseau, 68, of North Attleboro, has been attending sessions of the Let’s Laugh Today Laughter Club since it began meeting on the fourth Monday of each month at the First Universalist Society in Franklin Meetinghouse last fall.
“I heard about it from a friend,” she said. “There was no convincing needed. A girlfriend said, ‘You want to go laugh?’ and I said, ‘Why not?’ We tried it the first night and we loved it.”
The gathering, hosted by Bill and Linda Hamaker of Walpole, attracts 40 to 50 people per session. The couple (Bill’s 60, Linda’s 55) first heard about laughter yoga through watching Oprah, The Today Show and Good Morning America.
While looking for a mini-vacation destination, they found courses for the exercise in the catalog of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge. Attracted by the health benefits, they attended the retreat and wanting more, began to attend a laughter yoga club based in Wakefield.
It wasn’t long before they decided to bring a similar program to their own area. So, they traveled to Chicago to be certified as instructors by Sebastien Gentry, head of the American School Laughter Yoga. “We are both introverted people and thought this was something we could do (to better our lives),” said Linda Hamaker.
The Let’s Laugh Today website describes laughter yoga as a fun form of exercise that strengthens the immune system, unwinds the negative effects of stress, lowers blood pressure, improves mental alertness, enhances blood oxygen levels, boosts circulation through good cardio-vascular effect and makes you feel good in the here and now by lifting your spirits.
Madan Kataria, a physician based in Mumbai, India, started laughter Yoga in 1995. “He started a movement, a movement hopefully toward peace, because if you’re laughing, how could you be angry?” Hamaker said. The American School of Laughter was formed in 2004.
“It’s an easy type of exercise,” said Edward Hick, 76, of Franklin. “There’s no heavy lifting, but it relieves a lot of stress. It’s like going back to being a child.”
Let’s Laugh Today gatherings open with announcements by the Hamakers, who then give attendees scenes to play out. “You can pretend you’re at a cocktail party with a drink in your hand,” said Jean Burke, 53, of Norfolk. “You’re doing a little bit of a skit in a way. The variety and range of facial smiles is interesting to see. It takes a while to get used to. The key is being open to the experience, which feels different than your everyday experience.”
While it’s common to think the laughter comes from watching other people doing silly things — and that does happen — the goal of the hosts is teaching the benefits of induced laughter. “The laughter is simulated; in a group, it turns contagious,” Linda Hamaker said. “It’s a scientific fact that the body can’t tell the difference between a fake laugh and a real laugh.”
Margaret Lewin, MD, FACP, medical director of Cinergy Health, agreed. “It almost doesn’t matter whether you’re smiling because you’re smiling or making yourself smile or whether you’re laughing because you’re laughing or making yourself laugh. The benefits are the same,” she said.
“I don’t understand why, but it raises your endorphin levels. Actual chemical changes occur that increase the number of antibodies and T-cells in your body.”
Lewin said laughter causes people to take a deep breath, expanding the diaphragm and relaxing the shoulders and muscles. This is especially beneficial to those who may not be as active as they used to be.
“As you get older, you don’t breathe as deeply as you do when you’re younger,” Linda Hamaker explained. “You’re not getting enough oxygen into your lungs. A good belly laugh does that.”
There’s also the psychological value of laughing with people instead of at them. “There are a lot of people who don’t find humor in their life, they’re very sour,” Lewin said. “Laughter yoga is not a stressful interaction; it’s a real mood changer. It just really takes a focus from stress, guilt and negative emotions.”
Burke enjoys seeing newcomers at the Franklin gatherings. “They’re unfamiliar faces but you connect,” she said. “You see this breakdown of the boundaries we employ in our everyday interactions with others. Since we rely on cellphones and the Internet so much, to have that face-to-face connection is good, necessary and valuable.”
The age of participants ranges from a group of young teens to an 83-year-old man; ages 10 to 100 are welcome. “Most of our people are over 50,” Linda Hamaker said. The attendees come from throughout the region; only a few are members of the host church.
“With some people, it (laughter yoga) catches on and is something they need in their lives,” Bill Hamaker said. “Others enjoy it, but if they have something else happening, they let the schedule of the moment take over.”
In addition to their regular meetings in Franklin, the Hamakers have given laughter yoga presentations at area businesses, community and health centers and the local high school. Linda Hamaker said one of their hosts told them not to expect the crowd embrace being humorous. “By the end of the hour, they were laughing like 5-year-olds,” she said.
Having a laughter pie thrown at them induced them to participate. “You pretend you take a cream pie, then the thought of throwing it — the laughter comes over their faces,” she explained. “It’s like Soupy Sales used to do, only he threw real ones.”
Bill Hamaker, whose parents exposed him to various New Age Eastern religions and meditation as he was growing up, said he always found things like yoga relaxing and comforting. He found that same feeling while attending the laughter yoga sessions at Kripalu. “Lying on the floor, you close your eyes and listen to the laughter around you,” he said. “Laughter is a means of reaching that state of lasting relief.”
With some people hesitant to join in the fun because of skepticism over the yoga tag that dates back to the 1960s when it was first introduced to worldwide audiences, Let’s Laugh Today’s website stresses, “You don’t need to have done any yoga in the past or own any special clothes to attend or engage in any of the contortion exercises equated with yoga.” The word yoga is intentionally left out of the group’s name so as not to dissuade anyone from attending.
Lewin agreed that yoga still has its skeptics. “They say, ‘I can’t stare at my belly button for an hour,’” she said. “But if you can convince them to go and laugh with a group of people, they’ll enjoy that.”
After all, who couldn’t use a good laugh?
For more information, visit www.letslaughtoday.com or call 508-660-2223.