The road to enlightenment and inner peace isn’t typically paved with chuckles. When you think of the great philosopher-prophets of New Age theology like Gandhi, Yanni, Deepak Chopra and Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, you don’t usually find yourself doubled over in laughter.
Okay, maybe with Yogi, but that’s only because of his name.
The pursuit of a more perfect soul is serious business. Yoga enthusiasts grimace with what we’d call pain (and they’d call something like “unblocked chakras”) as they contort themselves through their daily routine. Tai-chi-ers make everybody who watches them bust out chortling, yet they remain inwardly calm and completely unamused by their dance of pointlessness. Practitioners of transcendental meditation won’t even look you in the eye, much less offer a twinkle. You might be able to get away with putting whipped cream on their hair or marking up their faces with a Sharpie for your own amusement, though they won’t be particularly impressed.
But there is one organization late to arrive on the mysticism scene who turns this self-serious attitude on its head, then hoots derisively as its shirt bunches around its neck revealing a paunchy underbelly. Laughter Yoga International was founded in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria to combine the relaxing invigoration of yoga with the joyous release of glee via chuckling and chortling. I visited his website at laughteryoga.org to do this week’s Website Review.
Dr. Kataria’s tittering bald head is all over the home page of this site: in the banner logo where he’s laughing at a black guy, an Asian guy and a white woman, in the opening of a creepy video clip about quietly laughing alone while the rest of his temple sleeps, and all over the training DVDs and CDs he offers for sale. (Most of these are pretty expensive, but an audio titled “Ho Ho Ha Ha Grounding Dance” can be had for as little as $19.95).
A segment of the home page called “Laughter Yoga News” cycles through about ten late-breaking updates of how virtually the entire world is now giggling its way through twists and bends and restorative inversions. At the Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, young Muslims take time out from their military drills to yoga and laugh. In Iran, the city government of Tehran has sponsored so many “laughing clubs” that they now claim 17,000 members. A huge crowd of segregated men and women in Mumbai form a hooting chorus of derision that circles the camera as if staging a scene from a Bollywood production of “Alice in Wonderland.”
But it’s not just America’s sworn enemies in the worldwide war on terror who are laughing their way to sunnier dispositions and improved blood flow. Laughing clubs have sprouted up in places as diverse as Bulgaria, Boston and even Singapore, where Dr. Kataria recently attended the World Toilet Organization (WTO) summit and doubtless had convention-goers doubled over with all the obvious opportunities for bathroom humor. Even Staunton, Va., is making preparations for World Laughter Day later this spring. The annual holiday, set for the first Sunday each May, will make an awkward complement to the more-established Mother’s Day; I can’t imagine most moms appreciating being honored by their children with gales of laughter instead of cards and a buffet brunch.
A recounting of the history of Laughter Yoga traces its origins to a gathering Dr. Kataria had in a park 15 years ago. It was a simple idea, combining yogic breathing (traditionally called “Pranayama”) with unconditional laughter (known for centuries as “Hahahaha”) into an exercise routine that became a complete well-being workout. The doctor documented this merger in a book titled “Laugh for No Reason” and soon there were over 6,000 social laughter clubs in about 60 countries. The “Laughter Movement” was now on the march, a dedicated army that could launch a show of force anywhere in the world to baffle and bemuse the unconverted.
Dr. Kataria uses his medical background to discuss the biology of laughter. “Clapping in rhythm, chanting ‘ho ho ha ha’ in unison, and positive affirmations like ‘very good very good yaay’ helps the brain to develop new neuronal connections to produce happy neuropeptides,” he writes. Even if what you’re laughing at isn’t really funny (say, Jay Leno), the body doesn’t recognize the insincerity and still triggers positive chemical reactions. When you add yogic breathing to the equation — Kataria notes that it’s “difficult to survive if we stop breathing for even a few minutes” — you can achieve a “Life Energy Force that flows into the body from cosmic energy fields.”
Laughter yoga is now spreading its reach through a variety of avenues supported by this website. Readers are told how to set up a local club: “Make sure it has adequate ventilation and toilet facilities … be careful you won’t disturb your neighbors as clubs can get very noisy … is the floor suitable for falling down?” There are online laughter clubs available through blogtalkradio.com, with the two most popular shows hosted by “Miss Lafalot” and “Laughing Lady Amy.” (For some reason, I’d love to see those two wrestle). There are telephone laughter clubs where you can join into conference calls and snigger along with dozens of fellow chuckleheads. There’s even a Skype Laughter Club that allows you hoot and cackle right into someone’s virtual face.
In the “Ask Dr. K” pulldown, one reader addresses what would appear to be a fundamental conundrum of the movement. Its headquarters is located in Mumbai, India, one of the world’s poorest and most over-populated cities. I’ve been to Mumbai on business several times and — believe me — it’s no laughing matter.
“What do you say to those who criticize you for not focusing on serious issues? How can you laugh when you see so much poverty? When so many people are hungry and sleeping in the road, how can laughter yoga solve this problem?”
Dr. Kataria basically dodges the question, agreeing “we cannot ask poor people who have no food to laugh” while speculating that “if we make rich people laugh they will definitely look after poor people,” and hopefully not just as a source of jokes.
Another humorless writer asks “what does your philosophy say about how we should respond to the horrific terrorist attacks on Mumbai where you lived?” The doctor says that even then he didn’t stop the laughter clubs from meeting, though “we did not feel like laughing when hundreds of people had lost their lives” so instead they simply gathered in a park to breathe and stretch (hopefully after the last gunman was finally hunted down, since breathing and stretching people make such an easy target). Terrorists and non-terrorists “all breathe in the same environment, so in a way we’re connected through breathing. I appealed to laughter lovers around the world to close their eyes and breathe for those who have lost their lives during these attacks.” True, the victims won’t be able to do much breathing for themselves, but that mystically projected assistance can’t really do much practical help.
Regardless of the many troubles we face these days in such a cruel and complicated world, I think there’s definitely something to be said for the merits of this “global movement for health, joy and world peace.” I love a good laugh as much as the next person, and there are plenty of these (though most are unintentional) to be found on this website. The video images of Dr. Kataria staring into his laptop and demonstrating how he’s learned to quietly laugh by himself for his early-morning constitutional is pretty hilarious, though I would contend that his muffled guffaws sound more like asthmatic wheezing than anything else. Still, he makes a compelling case for optimism and community, and I would urge others to join in this movement by visiting this website and laughing heartily at Dr. Kataria and his whacky philosophy.