Arts & More
4:33 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

Laughter Yoga Delivers Stretches For The Soul

The goal of traditional yoga is to make you feel stretched, calm, and grounded. Put the world "laughter" in front of it, and you get an hour of fun that will leave you feeling stretched and less stressed. 

"Laughter is the best medicine," says instructor Angēla Essick Dykes "So medicine is supposed to make us feel better and heal, and so the ultimate outcome in my opinion is that laughter brings healing."

On a sunny Friday afternoon at cancer and grief center Gilda's Club Grand Rapids, I joined a class of laughing newbies and enthusiasts for an hour of nontraditional exercise that sought to work out your soul. Laughter yoga is an activity that requires no mat - just a willingness to be spontaneous, and to lose - and find yourself - in laughter. 

"The yoga part is the breathing. We're focusing on the breathing and the energy that comes from the breathing and the oxygen that comes in through the breathing which increases health throughout the body and mind," says Dykes, who has been teaching yoga for three years. "And laughter is contagious. Even if you're fake laughing other people hear that and it stimulates and engages laughter in them also."

The hour turns everyday occurrences like talking on the phone, telling someone off, and saying hello into guffaws, chuckles, chortles, and hilarious facial expressions. 

The concept was developed nearly 20 years ago in India by physician Dr. Madan Kataria. As he was readily aware of the health benefits of humor in daily life, the physician was inspired to create a laughter club. The original gathering of five people has now turned into a worldwide network of certified instructors and pupils who are dedicated to stretching out the inner soul.

Dykes came into the practice after entering a depression that followed a severely debilitating car crash in 2008. 

"Someone crossed the center lane and hit my vehicle head-on. Over 35 bones were broken in several places. I was literally broken," she says.

She admits to being a skeptic the first time she attended Laughter Yoga a few year later. She came with a mat in hand, naturally.

"Even though I didn't actively participate very much, I felt different," she remembers about the end of the class.  "And what Laughter Yoga did for me personally was shift from this ever-present gray dark cloud of depression and sadness, and it switched over to great joy for me."

Now Dykes leads a free monthly class at Gilda's Club, and was asked back for a second year to teach as part of comedy showcase Laugh Fest. She understands that not everyone who attends is ready to laugh, but could sure use one.

"Fake it 'til you make it. Decide at this moment that I'm going to laugh (laughs) even if it's for two seconds - it's two seconds of laughter that you weren't laughing. And then maybe tomorrow or later today you do it for twice as long (laughs) and you're laughing already and that's just four seconds!"

Dykes will be leading a Laughter Yoga class March 16 at 3 p.m. at Gilda's Club.