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Laughter yoga: The latest UAE therapy

Ever seen the bit in Mary Poppins where a contagious attack of the giggles sends them all floating up to the ceiling? The old Disney classic was on to something says Louisa Wilkins, who tries out a new Dubai wellness class

Laughter yoga
Image Credit: Supplied picture
The physical benefits of laughter yoga include better circulation; increased production of endorphins; improved ventilation and increased antibodies in saliva, to name but a few.

Why this experience?

Because laughter really is the best medicine.

What's it all about?

Sahar Moussly, life coach and laughter yoga instructor, says, "It has been proven that laughing is good for many things. It reduces anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress and tension. It also changes your perspective of life, improves mental functioning, improves self-esteem, provides a sense of empowerment, and restores hope and energy. Also, overcoming the fear of acting foolish in a group situation can release a person's inhibitions."

According to Sahar, the physical benefits of laughter yoga include better circulation; increased production of endorphins (happy hormones); improved ventilation, which reduces chronic respiratory conditions; increased antibodies in saliva; better cardiovascular health; and reduced blood pressure and heart rate. Additionally, it works the abdominal muscles and reduces the symptoms of rheumatism.

But will fake laughter have the same effect? Apparently so. "Our emotions are so strong that when you act happy, you feel happy," says Sahar. "The body doesn't know the difference between real and fake laughter."

There's lots of research to back Sahar up, including a study from Oxford University, which found that laughing promotes social bonds, boosts endorphins and increases pain threshold, and a study in the journal Psychological Reports reported that the body reacts to fake and real laughing the same way.

What happened?

My friend and I slipped into the room at Ductac feeling rather awkward, not knowing what to expect. Just the thought of laughter yoga had us on the brink of a giggle.

Sahar welcomed the group and gave a short explanation of what to expect. Interestingly, there isn't actually any yoga involved. "I call it laughter yoga because the doctor who invented it called it that," says Sahar. "The yoga element is because of the breathing exercises between the laughing. Now in the US they are calling it laughter wellness… and laughter therapy sounds a bit more serious than what we are actually doing."

Our group of eight started with warm-up exercises, such as one where we rolled our heads in a circle. When our chins were on our chests we said, "Oooooh" and when our heads were back, we said, "Aaaaah". These seemed hilarious enough at the time and I felt quite self-conscious. However, any sense of bashfulness quickly disintegrated once the laughter exercises started.

The first one was to laugh like you were embarrassed - like you didn't quite get the joke. Sahar said, "Imagine someone is telling a funny story, but you've got really uncomfortable underwear on and all you can think about is your underwear."

This was strangely easy to do - we were all turning to each other and doing a forced embarrassed laugh, which quickly descended into fits of thigh-slapping real laughter. Just when it was all getting a bit delirious, Sahar got us doing a breathing exercise - walking around the room like a sumo wrestler - to dispel the giddiness.

Other exercises included having a laughter argument, where you laughed a little accusingly and pointed at your neighbour; surprised laughter, where you did a manic laugh, as if you weren't sure if something was funny or not; and one where you had to touch your own arm and imagine that the touch sent a zap of ticklish energy into your body. An exercise that most of us found particularly funny was when we had to tilt our head to the side and make the action of pulling our hair downwards towards the floor and giggling. Catching sight of everyone in the mirror doing this was enough to trigger real, belly-rumbling laughter. It was non-stop hilarity from start to finish.

Between laughter, we either did breathing exercises, or we did a clapping chant where you clap your hands together twice saying "Ho, ho", and then slap your thighs (or your head, or your neighbour's hands) three times saying "Ha, ha, ha".

At the end of the session, we sat in a circle with our eyes closed. Sahar stayed silent, but a snort or giggle from anyone sent the rest of us off again. Finally, we lay on the floor in silence with our eyes closed - which also descended into laughter. We knew that we were acting like a bunch of loons but, even when we couldn't see each other and there was nothing to laugh at, we just couldn't stop... which just goes to show the power of group laughter sessions.

Did it really work?

It certainly did. I haven't laughed like that since my mum tickle-tortured me at age six. Not only did we all laugh ourselves silly but, by the end, I felt connected with everyone in the group - people I had never met before. I also felt energised, buzzing and in a fantastically happy mood.

My friend George says, "I was amazed at how quickly the group let go and how quickly I found myself screaming my lungs out in childish gurgling laughter. By the end I felt euphoric - and quite exhausted as it is quite tiring, but in a very good way. Afterwards I was delighted that I had spent the better part of an hour rolling around on the floor holding my ribs. I think a session of laughter yoga followed by a full body massage would be the perfect way to de-stress after a hard day in the office."

Will I go back? Most certainly - and I'll be taking friends and family. After all, what could be more of a laugh than laughing?

Still not convinced? Go on! You may feel silly beforehand and it may be miles outside of your comfort zone. But it's really good fun, it's really good for you and, deep down, you know you really, really want to.

Do it yourself

While it's better to try laughter yoga with a trained instructor (it is 30 times easier to laugh in a group than by yourself, says Sahar), you can do laughter yoga at home - by yourself, or with friends family, or colleagues. Sahar shares some tips and laughter yoga exercises:

Do it right

Stay engaged: "Keep eye contact with everyone around you."

Don't think about it: "It's meant to be creative, not rational. So don't worry about feeling foolish and leave your mind at the door."

Fake it: "If you don't feel like laughing, fake it until you make it. Even if you don't laugh for real, you will still benefit."

Don't try to be funny: "Laughter yoga is fun, not funny. So don't try to make jokes, or make funny faces."

Get into it:"Be enthusiastic, because the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it."

Laughter exercises

Sahar says, "The intensity of the exercises changes as you progress. Start with something gentle and build up to something more active."

Namaste Greeting

"Put your palms together with your fingers pointing up under your chin, and walk around greeting other people by bowing your head and giving them a tittering laugh."

Icelandic Geyser

"Stand in a circle and hold hands. All start making a low rumbling sound and start walking into the centre. When you all get to the middle, jump and laugh loudly."

The Lion Laugh

"Everyone looks really silly doing this one, but people really love it. It evolved from the Lion Pose in yoga - hold your hands up in a lion's claw pose, open your mouth really wide, stick your tongue all the way out and laugh deeply."


Try it out

Laughter Yoga, Dh70, but first session is free. Wednesdays 7.15pm-8.15pm at DUCTAC, Mall of the Emirates. Call Sahar on 050-6327316 to book.