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Laughter Yoga: Easing the Burden of Serious Disease

Tom Porter
Laughter Yoga instructor Nina Walsh leads a group in South Portland through a session.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine - Conditions like cancer, Parkinson's disease, PTSD and depression are no laughing matter. But an increasingly popular form of group therapy uses laughter to help people overcome these same health challenges.

Practitioners say that laughter - even fake laughter - is medically good for you.

At the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, a group of four people - mostly middle-aged women, in this case - is gathered for a weekly yoga class. But this session won't require any awkward poses or intense stretching.

"You don't have to be in shape or flexible, you don't have to put yourself on a yoga mat in order to come to class," says Nina Walsh, an instructor in what's called "laughter yoga."

Walsh says the most physically strenuous part of the class is sitting on a giant rubber ball and bouncing up and down. But that's not to say participants don't get a workout - of sorts.

"It releases endorphins, so you get the same sort of high as you get from running or other exercise, increases the circulation in your body," Walsh says. "And they've found that it clears other organs as well. So it increases lung capacity, heart capacity."

Laughter yoga was started in the 90s by a doctor in India who thought, literally, that laughter was the best medicine. And like traditional yoga, it employs some of the same breathing principles.

"Inhale - and the sound is 'ahhhhh,' " Nina Walsh instructs the group. Everyone sighs. "We go through a relaxation phase, and then maybe some gentle stretching, and then we go to standing, and we generate fake laughter through a 'laughter yoga chant.' "

"Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha," the group chants.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Laughter yoga practitioners Barbara Johnson, left, and Nancy Pogar.

This form of fake laughter soon gives way to the real thing. But real or fake, the benefit's the same, says Walsh. "The doctor in India found that even fake laughter was just as good as real laughter in getting your organs cleared out and circulation going."

"Decided that after two years having the diagnosis of cancer - I just felt ready to be part of this group," says Nancy Pogar of Scarborough. Pogar has only been to the class a couple of times, but says she noticed the effects immediately.

"I'm telling you, the laughter involved is so uplifting and I was very surprised at the soreness I felt the following day," she says. "So even though it's called laughter yoga, you're still getting a workout."

"I'm incredibly disabled and I wasn't even sure I could do any kinds of yoga," says Pogar's classmate Barbara Johnson, of Old Orchard Beach. Johnson says she's also felt the benefits of laughter yoga, despite physical challenges. "The benefit has been incredible. I walk my dog further, and my mood is much lighter."

Tom Porter: "Do you burst into laughter at random things when you've been here?"

Barbara Johnson: "Anything! I started laughing before I even got here - just the idea of it."

Instructor Nina Walsh says she's noticed a significant increase in the popularity of laughter yoga during the seven years she's been teaching it.

Nevertheless, she still encounters a lot of raised eyebrows when she tells people about the class. "When you say 'laughter yoga' people imagine that you're, like, doing regular yoga poses on a mat while laughing, and they don't know quite what to expect."

"Ho, Ho, Ha Ha Ha," the group chants. "Yay."

Learn more about laughter yoga.
For more discussion about what makes us laugh, tune into to Maine Calling Wednesday, April 1 at noon on MPBN Radio.