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Laughter Clubs: No Laughing Matter
Sherry Roy

This is not an article on madness. Nor is this propaganda of a conspiracy theory which sees anarchist forces congregate through the morning dew ever so stealthily to sow pandemonium in a civil society. There indeed is a reason behind this ‘will to laugh,’ it goes by the name of laughter clubs.

The origin of laughter clubs in India

Laughter clubs were founded by the Mumbai based Dr. Madan Kataria in 1995, an allopathic physician in Internal Medicine and Cardiology. He mixed medical know-how of happy hormones’ release while laughing with the religious practice of yoga. Thus was (re)born laughter yoga. Yogacharyas understand that yoga was never meant to be a fitness régime - in Hindu philosophy, yoga is a means to moksha (salvation or liberation), which is, isolation from the physical nature, or oneness with the Hindu concept of God. Physical yoga (hatha yoga) is only one form of yoga. In that sense, and as many of its followers agree, congregating to wilfully laugh is an other-worldly experience.

Kinds of laughter
It is an out-of-the-world experience even for those watching a laughter yoga session – may the sun be excused. A typical session lasts for 20-40 minutes, and various preludes to laughter are meticulously enacted, along with some yoga type stretches and breathing exercises: the namaste laugh (say namaste and laugh!), churning-the-curd-laugh, lassi laugh (elaborately pour the imaginary lassi from one imaginary tumbler to the other, and then to the mouth, and laugh), the tiger or lion laugh (yes, you enact their growls and laugh out), the Ram-Ram-Hare-Hare-Om-Om laugh (chant all these and laugh), the rainbow laugh (bend like a rainbow and laugh), the chilly coup laugh, the belly laugh, the ghost laugh, the butterfly laugh… the combinations are endless.

60,000 laughing clubs across 60 countries
Naturally enough, onlookers dismissed them for escaped retards 14 years ago, when they would try to laugh together by telling each other jokes. But today, with more than 60,000 laughing clubs across 60 countries (even its founder does not have the accurate figures), the ones who are laughing last are surely laughing the longest. The turning point came when they ran out of jokes, but still wanted to laugh. So they started to face each other and imitate laughter, silly as the idea sounds. “My being a medical doctor helped,” insists Dr. Kataria, “and my observation that the happy hormones would be released even when you will yourself to laugh (because your body cannot make out whether your laughter is spontaneous or conscious) gradually came to be accepted.” Today, even some medical doctors are part of this ha-ha-ho-ho-ho.

Laughter as complementary therapy
The medical effects of laughter are encouraging enough; the grey area is of laughter yoga being therapeutic by itself. “I am not claiming this to be a cure for ailments, except maybe depression where laughter is the best medicine,” says Dr. Madan Katria, “It is advisable that you continue with whatever medications you have. Laughter yoga is only a complementary therapy. Laugher is both preventive – the positive mind state created strengthens your immune system – and therapeutic – where it reduces your stress. When you see that about 80 percent of our illnesses are caused by stress, you understand its importance.” Laughter also strengthens cardiovascular functions, oxygenates the body by boosting the respiratory system, improves circulation, tones muscles and helps with digestion and constipation.

Laughter yoga and the movies
Laughing at laughter clubs was never more appreciated than through the Hindi film Munnabhai MBBS, where Dr. Ashtana (Boman Irani), while boiling with anger, would consciously remind himself to laugh at it. This unnatural way of letting out emotions (I’m-so-angry-that-I’ll-laugh) had the audience around India (through its Tamil and Telugu remakes too) roaring in laughter - laughing at the character, not laughing with him. Maybe the bald headed Dr. Asthana was modeled on Dr. Kataria, maybe not, but this doctor of laughter does not hold that in contempt. In fact, one might even suspect that he endorses it: “There was a lot of truth in the laughter yoga technique portrayed in the movie, and it popularised laughter even more.”
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