8 Mar 2015 General

Laughter Yoga

laugh (2)I recently joined a Laughter Yoga (Hasya Yoga) Therapy course at Amritapuri. Though I was vaguely aware of the feel-good effects of laughter, I had never thought to seek out more opportunities for laughter in my life.

Well into my first class, I realized there would be much less downward facing dog poses and handstands than I had anticipated. It was more of a holistic mind-body experience.

Amma says, “80% of all illness is stress-related. Seriousness is a disease, and we should try to leave it and allow ourselves to laugh more. Laughter is good for our hearts. Laughter is good for the health. People have a 500 kg weight in their bellies that is almost impossible to move. Laughing from our hearts is the best way to open up.”

At first, we practiced simulated laughter through mimicry and other fun exercises, but soon the fake giggles quickly turned to uncontrollable belly laughs. And once the laughter starts, it’s contagious – it just rolls and rolls into one laugh after another. I was amazed to learn that the brain does not know the difference between a fake laugh and a real laugh. The motion creates the emotion: just as someone who is hunched over with their arms crossed may not feel very expansive, one who is intentionally choosing happiness through laughter will begin to feel more joyful. By practicing laughter in childlike play, we began to open up, instantly experiencing the benefits in our body and mind. In this room overflowing with delight and heartfelt laughter, I started to feel how everything really is just a lila – a game – in this great Divine play of Bliss Consciousness.

Together, we laughed at our mistakes, our fears, and how seriously we take ourselves and each other. I realized one of the funniest things about humans is precisely how serious we are – how hard we can be on ourselves. After more than an hour of exercises and games, the childlike innocence deep within seemed to awaken. I remembered how Amma often says, “The childlike innocence deep within us is God.”

It’s said that children on average laugh 300-400 times per day, while the average adult laughs 10-15 times, if that. It is scientifically proven that laughter and silly, childlike emotions are what stimulate our immunity and thymus gland (the immune center) the most. This gland is large when we are children, but shrinks in size as we age and become more serious. Even the syllable “ha” has been found to stimulate the thymus. So, if you’re serious about your health, it’s important to get silly!

I learned how Laughter Yoga is an enjoyable form of detoxification. As we often only use the top two-thirds of our lungs, through deep belly laughter we fully exhale all the stale air trapped there, similar to pranayama (another reason for the term Laughter Yoga). With this stagnant, residual air may come coughing and the expression of suppressed or even unpleasant emotions, as this bottom one-third is where much of our grief is stored.

laugh (3)Through Laughter Yoga Therapy, we are able to bring light into those unseen, neglected areas, freeing any contractions, and giving ourselves the permission to Be in this Bliss that is everything. We need a framework in order to process our stress, past traumas, and negative emotions, and laughter is the best medicine! I was then, to my amazement, bubbling over in whole-hearted, side-splitting Bliss and getting a taste of my true nature which I too often bury in stress and worry.

Towards the end, we lay on our backs in the one yoga posture everyone knows and loves, shavasana, imagining we were relaxing on Amma’s Ocean of Bliss. I had a peculiar buzzing sensation start in my head, and slowly spread as a light trickle down my body. After a few moments, I found myself not laughing, but crying, seemingly unconnected to any external trauma or trigger. This cathartic release poured out of me and turned into a blissful, yes blissful, flow of tears. I just lay there feeling raw and wide-open, allowing myself to feel it all, letting any inhibitions wash away into the Ocean of Bliss. It was one of the most healing and transformational experiences of my life.

I then understood why this technique is coined Laughter Yoga, “yoga” meaning union with the Divine.

Anyone who has succumbed to a good belly laugh will tell you that laughter is physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually therapeutic. Simply put, it makes you feel good, but why is this? For starters, laughter reduces our stress hormones while stimulating a release of endorphins, which are the mood-elevating hormones in our brain. Laughter boosts our immune system by increasing T-cell activity, helping to fight viruses and tumors. Laughter helps lower blood pressure, improve blood flow, decrease pain, stabilize blood sugar, and reduce inflammation throughout the body. Laughter is an aerobic exercise; just 10-15 minutes of laughter a day is as beneficial as a 30-minute cardio jog and can burn up to 40 calories. Laughter “massages” the internal organs, and gives a light workout for the heart, lungs, diaphragm, and abdominal muscles. Laughter releases tension in the muscles of the face, neck, shoulders, and abdomen – where we tend to hold our stress. Laughter floods our brain, and the rest of the body with more oxygen, keeping our lungs healthy and allowing our bodies to perform at peak levels.

We don’t have to try too hard to experience these benefits – laughter is contagious, even more so than yawning. When we see a child giggling in their play, or witness a group of friends bent over cracking up uproariously, we tend to find a spontaneous smile or a chuckle dance on our lips. This is because our bodies are constantly trying to bring us back to homeostasis. When we see someone genuinely laughing, the sympathetic response of mirror neurons in our brains recognizes that state, and quickly aligns to create it within. We know innately that this Bliss is who we truly are.

Laughter Yoga creates a positive, higher vibration of energy, stimulating the right side of our brain where our creativity lies. This shift allows us to develop a sense of humor in all situations – when we’re stuck in traffic, cut in front of in the chai queue, or other times we really don’t feel like laughing. By tuning back to the sensation of Bliss within, we can learn to cultivate this state and tap into it throughout our day for those times when we can’t just burst into spontaneous laughter, whether that be at work, grocery shopping, or talking with your in-laws.

laugh (1)Just like we wouldn’t do a headstand in the middle of a shopping mall, practicing Laughter Yoga doesn’t mean we just start laughing at inappropriate situations or times. Rather, just as yoga asanas help us to keep physical balance in the world, Laughter Yoga therapy helps us diffuse stress and cultivate a positive outlook in daily life. Laughter lightens our heavy loads, loosening the grip of the mind to create enough distance for an objective, light-hearted perspective. This brings more clarity, equanimity, and peace. It also helps us to bounce back when the going gets tough, facing obstacles with enthusiasm, joy, and optimistic faith. As we increase our joy quotient, it becomes easier for us to cope and find hope, trusting that any trials and tribulations we face in life are for our ultimate growth.

Since my first class, I’ve become hooked on the positive vibes – turning my life day by day into a comedy instead of a soap opera. I’ve taken more group classes, and researched into the healing benefits of laughter. At the Amritapuri ashram this past winter, I went deeper into the cultivation of joy by becoming a Certified Laughter Yoga Leader. This allows me to professionally bring this remarkable technique to anyone, anywhere: in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, businesses, you name it!

Spirituality is not just about how long you can sit with your eyes closed; it’s the living experience of celebration and gratitude for each and every moment. Practicing Laughter Yoga helps us to live in the spirit of laughter. It opens our hearts both physically and emotionally, where joy and appreciation for the present naturally reside. Tasting this Bliss inspires us to continue with our arduous journey upwards, despite any twists, turns, or rocky patches down the road. Although it is not a substitute for meditation, seva, and the other spiritual practices Amma teaches, laughter can help infuse inspired enthusiasm and joy into our sadhana and lives.

Amma says, “Just as we wash our face and prepare ourselves for the day, we need to clean our mind as well. Enthusiasm is a bath for the mind.”

We are truly blessed to have Amma to guide us along the way, back home to our true nature.

May all the beings in all the worlds be happy!

– By Vinodini & Ambujam – USA