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Laugh yoga practitioners guffaw their way to good health

Tony Nelson

In an open churchyard in south Minneapolis, a group of grown men and women are pretending to be airplanes.

They buzz past one another, wings outstretched, as if oblivious to how silly they look.

A woman in a purple hippie skirt and midriff-baring tank zooms toward a young man wearing shorts and two-day stubble.

"Ha!" the woman greets the man.

"Ha! Ha!" he responds.

Suddenly, from deep inside the air traffic pattern, an airplane in a bright red shirt morphs into a human and begins to rhythmically clap: "Ho. Ho. Ha-ha-ha!"

The other airplanes drop their wings and turn into people, then join in the joyful refrain:

"Ho. Ho. Ha-ha-haaaa-aaaa-aah!"

A middle-aged man with floppy hair giggles. A lady in a black turtleneck and slacks lets out a deep guffaw. A bewildered young man chuckles quietly to himself.

Then they all turn into chickens: "Bock bock be-gawk!"

Who are these laughing maniacs? Think of them as enlightened.

These people are practitioners of laughter yoga, a phenomenon that has taken the self-help world by storm. Often, devotees find that what starts out as forced laughing quickly becomes genuine mirth. Proponents say even fake laughter has benefits.

"I don't think the body knows the difference between whether we're faking or whether there's an actual laughable situation occurring," says Gilbert Ellison, a psychologist at Southwestern Regional Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "The immune system—the body generally—seems to respond anyway."

The laugh-your-way-to-health message was first popularized not by a psychologist or medical doctor, but a journalist. In his influential 1979 bestseller, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, Norman Cousins claimed that laughter greatly reduced the pain he felt from severe, chronic arthritis. He said that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter guaranteed him two hours of pain-free sleep.

Cousins parlayed his writing success into a career as an adjunct professor of medical humanities at UCLA medical school, where he studied emotions and healing. His influence sparked the modern self-healing movement.

Today, whole foundations exist solely to promote the benefits of laughter, and two academic associations—the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and the International Society for Humor Studies—study therapeutic humor. Many scientific studies have attempted to quantify laughter's benefits.

The modern laughter yoga movement started in 1995. An Indian doctor named Madan Kataria decided he needed to lighten up, so he gathered a group of friends in a public park to tell jokes.

After two weeks, they ran out of material.

So Kataria replaced the standup routine with silly exercises.

Today, Kataria has become the laugh yoga movement's dalai lama, presiding over 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries from Mumbai to Minneapolis. In the United States alone, 352 clubs meet each week to laugh together.

In his lively book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, points out that it's hard to know if the benefits of laughter—if they exist at all—really come from laughing, or just from spending time with other people.

"If you find a positive effect for laughter, is it exclusive to laughter?" Provine asks. "Or would the same be true of talking, or yelling or singing—or just jumping up and down?"

The laughing yogis aren't too worried—for them that question is moot.

Two years ago, a former corporate trainer named Jody Ross stumbled across a laughter session at the Mayo Clinic. At the time, she was suffering from chronic back pain, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, and mood disorders.

Then she tried laughter yoga. She was instantly hooked. In April 2009, she drove down to Ferryville, Wisconsin, to attend Laughing Laura's Iowa School of Laughter Yoga. She became a certified laugh leader, and founded the Twin Cities' first laughter club.

Today, Ross is the biggest proponent of laugh therapy in Minnesota. She leads free laugh sessions on Monday nights and Thursday mornings and gets paid to bring laughter to senior facilities and treatment centers around the metro.

"Initially I did it because I thought it would make me feel more cheerful," she says. "But what happened is my back pain went away 100 percent. My fibromyalgia went away. I began sleeping better. My marriage improved.

"I just see the evidence for myself."

  

APRIL RIELAND STICKS her fingers in her armpits, brings them to her nose, and inhales deeply. She flings her hands above her head and bursts out laughing:

"Ah ha ha ha ha!"

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha-a-ah!" the others chortle with her.

It's lunchtime and Rieland, 23, is on a rooftop terrace in downtown Minneapolis. A huge smile spreads across her face. She's actually getting paid for this.

Rieland is a social worker, attending laugh club because a client made laughter part of his therapeutic routine. Since she began chaperoning him to the laugh class, Thursdays have become her favorite day of work.

 

"Laughter yoga Thursday mornings is so nice—it's a nice break," she says.

It's not like Rieland was having trouble finding comedy. Most nights, she came home, made dinner, and watched television with her fiancé: Drew Carey's Improv-A-Ganza, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory. Sometimes, they'd laugh so hard tears would roll down their cheeks.

"I'm big into comedies, comedy movies, and comedians," Rieland says. "Anything with Adam Sandler. The Hangover was one of my favorites. "

Rieland's got a sense of humor. She's close with her family, she finds her job rewarding, and she's engaged to a guy who cracks her up.

But lately, Rieland hasn't felt much like laughing—at least not since her dad's brain tumor started growing again.

"It's always on my mind, even when I'm at work," she says. "It's kind of hard not to think about it."

Five years ago, Rieland was at her parents' turkey farm when her cell phone rang. It was her mother, calling because April's father had passed out at work.

April jumped in the family's purplish brown Chevy Lumina and quickly sped five miles down the road to Melrose Feed Mill.

She found Joe Rieland leaning against his truck. He didn't remember passing out. All he could recall was stepping outside to take a phone call.

April helped her father to the car and rushed him home, where he boarded a car with her mother to drive to the hospital. The doctors explained that Joe had had a seizure and might have brain cancer.

The next week was a whirlwind of appointments: blood tests, an ultrasound, an MRI, and finally, a biopsy. The test results confirmed what doctors had suspected: On the back left side of his brain, Joe had an egg-sized tumor.

Joe's doctors immediately prescribed chemotherapy. The tumor wouldn't go away, they explained. The goal was just to keep it from getting bigger.

For 18 months, Joe swallowed chemo in pill form. The treatment made him feel nauseous, but he still had enough energy to work, as long as he came home for a mid-day nap.

When the treatments were complete, life returned to almost normal. April moved to Minneapolis for college. Sometimes, the only reminders of the tumor were the brain scans Joe had to undergo every few months.

Six months ago, one of those scans revealed the disturbing image of Joe's tumor spreading, oozing across the gap between the two brain halves into the right side of his brain.

Last month, Joe was at Abbot Northwestern for a couple of weeks, undergoing radiation. Every evening after she finished work, April went to the hospital to keep her mother company, staying most nights until 11 p.m.

Now April's parents are back in New Munich. Her father is just beginning to regain the ability to walk and speak. They're waiting for a few months to find out if the treatment helped.

"It's hard for her to watch him get worse and worse," says April's fiancé, Joe Toeben. "On Thursdays, she's definitely in a better mood."

Brenda Rieland is glad her daughter has found a way to briefly forget the family's worries.

"I think it's just kind of a stress-reliever," Brenda says. "She'd like me to go with her. But I said, 'It just doesn't work right now.'"

  

IN HIS LOOSE-FITTING brown pants and oatmeal-colored hoodie, Michael Dorfman, 22, was clearly the youngest guy in the room. Plenty of young women laughed in his orbit—some of them quite fetching.

Not that Dorfman was thinking about women. For the moment, his attention was fully focused on tilting his pinkie high in mockery of a snooty British tea party. Nearby, a bald man wearing a tie shimmied and giggled, sipping from an imaginary cup near a red-haired girl in glasses.

It was a March afternoon, and Dorfman's first laughter class left him feeling energized. He felt even better when a curly-haired woman with expressive brown eyes approached him afterward.

"Hi," she said. "I'm Lynn."

Lynn O'Brien was a music therapist. Instantly, they felt a connection.

"I could tell, spiritually, that we would be very compatible," O'Brien says, her voice animated. "We were wondering if there had been a past-life connection."

Within minutes, they'd touched on spiritual philosophies and exchanged phone numbers. That led to coffee, then dancing, meditation, and recently, the concert of a famous yogic chanter.

"And now she's one of my best friends," gushes Dorfman. "I've never had such a strong connection with anybody in my life, really—a spiritual connection."

Dorfman grew up in Minnetonka. He smoked his first joint at 13; it soon became a weekly ritual: smoke some weed, pop in a DVD of Dave Chappelle's Half Baked, eat a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream of the same name.

 

Life went merrily along like this for several years, with Dorfman stoned more often than not. He gigged around town in a sunny Sublime-knockoff band called High Five.

"In the span of five years, I lived the decade of the '60s," Dorfman says. "I worried my parents—a lot."

The summer before his senior year of high school, his world turned upside-down when his girlfriend dumped him for a guy Dorfman considered as close as a brother.

"That was just like, whoa, wake-up call for minute," he says. "Something needs to change."

So the next year, Dorfman made a pilgrimage to Israel on a free birthright trip for young Jewish people. One night, at an art gallery in the holy city of Safed, the seat of Jewish mysticism, Dorfman had a strange experience.

He was listening as a mystic/artist named David Friedman described his art, connecting the themes in the paintings to Kaballah, Jewish mysticism. Suddenly, Dorfman had a strong physical reaction.

"It was almost as if a flame lit inside me," he says. "I felt complete shivers all over my body, a tingly feeling. It was pretty amazing."

The experience launched Dorfman on a spiritual quest. When he returned to Minnesota, he started reading everything he could about Jewish mysticism. He noticed, for the first time, that a meditation center stood less than two miles from his parents' house. It seemed like the universe was pointing him there, so he started meditating.

When Dorfman entered the University of Minnesota, he intensified his practices. Last summer, he attended a retreat in rural Illinois, where he maintained total silence for 10 days. Each morning he rose at 4:30 a.m. to a meditation gong, meditated for hours, and ate nothing but natural vegetarian food and herbal tea.

When he returned to Minnesota, he was a changed man.

"That completely accelerated my growth," Dorfman says. "Since then, I now consider my life and almost, like, every moment, into a spiritual practice."

He moved off campus and into a house in Seward and stopped smoking pot and drinking alcohol entirely. His family has noticed quite a difference.

"He is just so serene—so peaceful," says Dorfman's mom, Elisa.

Dorfman has adopted laughter yoga as enthusiastically as his other passions, even teaching his family to laugh for no reason, like he does.

"Sometimes we just get together, my daughter him, and I, and we say, 'Hey, let's just laugh,'" Elisa Dorfman says. "And we just do it, in our living room."

  

IT'S 9 A.M. and Laura Lepisto is right on track with her morning routine—the only part of her day that follows a regular rhythm. She starts out in the bathtub with some inspirational reading—today it was The Way to Love, by Anthony de Mello—and then journals. She does her breathing and eye exercises, then she dries off and walks the dog.

Afterward, Lepisto might meet a friend for coffee, work a few hours at Moss Envy, a friend's organic products shop, or head up to the cabin in Wisconsin to meet her husband. Not a bad life.

"I know," she admits, laughing.

Lepisto seems like the last person who'd need an excuse to smile. But over the years, she admits, her spark had started to go out.

Twenty years ago, Lepisto was working a stressful job as a manager at a beauty store in Ridgedale Mall. One day, she was having lunch with some girlfriends at TGI Friday's when an older man approached and gave her his card.

She called him, they went out, and she really liked him. Ron Eikaas was a school psychologist 23 years her senior, but he acted much younger. They went on hikes, and kayaking, and cooked meals together.

One day, as Eikaas's birthday approached, Lepisto asked if he liked sponge cake.

"Sure," he said.

On his birthday, Lepisto presented Eikaas with a thick, chocolate frosting-covered loaf. Eikaas whipped out a knife and started to slice the sponge cake—but his knife bounced back rather oddly.

Lepisto burst out laughing. She'd spread chocolate over a stack of sponges, she confessed. Sponge cake!

Two years later, Lepisto and Eikaas married, and Lepisto quit her job.

"I've never been super motivated by money," she explains. "I like to have experiences."

On Eikaas's savings, the couple traveled to Mexico and across the United States, dividing the rest of their time between their house in Florida, their cabin in Wisconsin, and their Minneapolis home. Along the way, Lepisto pursued yoga, watercolor, sculpting, acting, improv, writing, investing, and standup comedy.

But a few years into their marriage, Eikaas developed health problems. One year around Christmas time, he rushed to the emergency room with a terrible pain in his stomach. It turned out that he'd been suffering from an intestinal defect, perhaps related to eariler football injuries, and now his body was going into septic shock.

 

Lepisto waited beside Eikaas's hospital bed and rubbed his belly, then watched the hospital staff wheel him away to the operating room, where they removed a section of his large intestine. The recovery was painfully slow.

"He just got down to skin and bones, and his feet turned black," Lepisto recalls.

Just when Eikaas finally stabilized, Lepisto's mother had a brain aneurism. Two years later, Eikaas shattered his pelvis in a backhoe accident at their cabin. Lepisto cared for them both.

"She was always intensely a caretaker," Eikaas says. "And I think it weighed heavily on her. I think for a while it took the spirit out."

Lepisto took a 15-week stress reduction course and read a lot of self-help books to try to build herself back up.

On New Year's Eve, Lepisto was at home with a terrible cold: sniveling, sniffing, and runny nose. In the midst of the misery, Lepisto made a promise to herself: She decided to dispense with all the serious self-help methods and try to have more fun.

She started going to comedy clubs on Thursday nights, and soon stumbled across laughter yoga. She took Ross's training and got certified to lead.

"I think she's really found something that fits her," says DeEtta Miller, a friend of Lepisto's for nearly 30 years. "She always thought that humor was important."

Recently, Lepisto was working with Miller at Moss Envy when a customer came through the door. Lepisto belted out a greeting.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Miller wondered if her friend had gone off the deep end.

But the customer just looked up and grinned. It turned out Lepisto was speaking a common language. The customer answered back joyfully "Ha! Ha! Ha!"

   

THE SILLY EXERCISES have ended, and now it's time for the most important part of the night. The laughers pull their chairs into a circle. When everyone is peacefully settled, the leader begins the chant.

"Ho, ho, ha, ha," the laughers say, slapping their thighs on the "ho's" and punching on the "ha's." "Ho, ho, ha, ha!"

The hilarity is contagious, and laughers who were faking it start to laugh for real. The laughter ebbs and flows in waves—just as one person drops out another busts in.

Slowly, the laughter fades. One by one, the people put their hands quietly on their laps and sit in silence. For a minute, isolated bits of laughter erupt at random intervals, like the last kernels of popcorn in a microwave, and then the churchyard goes silent.

Ha. 


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