Friday, July 10, 2009

Laughter is the best medicine

A new approach to integrative therapy

Credit card bills? Divorce? Another rainy day? In laughter yoga classes and laughter clubs around the world, people are thinking about these kinds of stresses and problems -- and then letting go of them, and laughing hysterically.


Laughter yoga, a growing trend in integrative medicine, combines hearty laughter with relaxed, yoga-style breathing. Developed in 1995 by Indian physician Madan Kataria, MD, it initially took the form of a small group of five meeting and sharing jokes in a park on a regular basis. Since then, it has grown into 6000 laughter clubs in 60 countries.


Bringing laughter yoga to Mass General and the community


At the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General, Laura Malloy, LICSW, director of yoga programs and a certified laughter yoga teacher, is the giggle guru. Malloy discovered laughter yoga through a local laughter club in Wakefield, and began offering laughter yoga classes at Mass General this spring. The first class on June 12 was an uproarious success, with more than 30 participants.


"I didn’t know what to expect, but it ended up being a lot of fun," says Susanne Loomis, project coordinator for media services in the Department of Radiology, who attended the first class. "I left feeling rejuvenated."


Donna Peltier-Saxe, RN, MSN, ACM, a project director at MGH Community Health Associates, is working to bring the program to all of the MGH HealthCare Centers. She initially introduced laughter yoga to patients participating in the MGH Revere and Chelsea HealthCare Centers' Happy Heart Program, which seeks to improve the health of women ages 40 to 60 at risk for cardiac disease. She's also working with the Chelsea and Charlestown HealthCare Centers to incorporate laughter yoga programs for their staff members.  


"It really was an enjoyable experience," says Lennie Lyons, a participant in the Happy Heart Program. "I don’t think we have enough laughter in our lives."


Laughter yoga is based on serious science


All giggles aside, however, laughter yoga is based on very serious science. It has been shown to decrease stress hormone levels while boosting the immune system, releasing endorphins and increasing levels of antiviral and anti-infection cells. Participants leave classes feeling happy, relaxed and alert. If you're looking to trim your waistline, laughter yoga provides an excellent cardio and mid-body work out. Engaging in a minute of hearty laughter is said to be the equivalent of 10 minutes of jogging or rowing.


And you don't have to be a contortionist, nor a comedian, to partake in laughter yoga. Participants sit or stand while the instructor guides them through a series of laughter exercises. It utilizes simple, playful techniques to induce chuckles, rather than humor. Studies have shown that this type of "fake it till you make it" laughter has the same benefits of "real" laughter. The body doesn't differentiate between the two.


A laughter "bag of tricks"


To create this therapeutic laughter, each laughter yoga instructor has their own "bag of tricks," so to speak. Peltier-Saxe says one of her go-to exercises is the "Chicken Dance" song, while one of Malloy's favorites is when, standing in a circle, each participant mentions something stressing him or her out -- "My teenage daughter is learning how to drive," for example. And then -- they laugh. Not because it's particularly funny, but because laughing at it, forced or not, helps. There's also the "elevator" technique, which pokes fun at awkward elevator silences. Participants gather close together and remain very quiet, until someone inevitably burst out laughing, and everyone joins in.


While classes are the most surefire way to get your giggle on, Peltier-Saxe and Malloy prescribe a daily dose of laughter. Consider this fact: children laugh 300 to 400 times a day, while adults laugh only 10 to 15 times.


"It’s about rediscovering childlike playfulness -- rediscovering joy," say Peltier-Saxe.


The next laughter yoga class at Mass General will be July 24 from 5 to 6 pm in the Thier Conference Room. For more information or to register, call Lauren at 617-724-3119. The registration fee is $10.

Find more general information on laughter yoga