Laughing yoga enthusiasts tout its benefits
Spenser Li/Special to The Gazette
The inventors of yoga thousands of years ago probably did not envision plastic camouflage helmets, conga lines, and Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" as part of the routine. But Nira Berry doesn't particularly care. In fact, she'd probably laugh them off.
Berry is a teacher of laughter yoga, a series of role-playing exercises and relaxation routines that allow people to laugh out loud without trying to crack jokes. She even has an arresting motto for newcomers who don't think they can force their way to authentic guffaws: "You fake it until you make it."
"You don't need to have a sense of humor to laugh," Berry told about 50 participants, mostly newcomers, at a laughter yoga session at Suburban Hospital on Dec. 9.
Berry's routine consists of four components: laughter, clapping, breathing and "childlike playfulness." The exercises range from simply waving one's arms back and forth while chanting "Ho ho, ha ha ha!" to multi-step routines that incorporate laughter into physical imitations of morning routines. When participants mime spreading shaving cream on their faces, they giggle and pretend to smear the stuff on their neighbor's cheeks. They even mock the laughter of co-workers.
At one point, Berry stands on the stage, divides the group into three laughing styles of "Ho!" "Ha!" and "Hee!" and, just like a comedic Kurt Mazur at the New York Philharmonic, waves her arms rhythmically over the crowd and prompts different cadences and patterns of laughter.
The group then moves from the orchestral to the downright absurd, donning piratical hats, wigs and Hawaiian leis and forming a conga line that parades down the aisles and through the seats for more than five minutes to the strains of "Celebration." Participants are told to stomp on imaginary everyday problems and cackle derisively. Every routine is punctuated by Berry's infectious laughter.
Veterans of laughter yoga are particularly bold, bellowing out grotesque and twisted forms of merriment that in turn draw out the laughter of more cautious participants, creating a mutually reinforcing echo chamber. At one point, Berry flubs a line in her yoga rap song, sending people off on a new round of laughter.
"It's crazy, isn't it?" Iris Andris of Bethesda whispered in the middle of the recurring "Ho ho, ha ha ha!" chant.
Only the 15-minute deep-breathing and body-awareness routines at the end of the session recall typical yoga. But Berry touts the various health benefits of the practice, which was started by an Indian doctor in the mid-1990s. Ten minutes of sustained laughter, she claims, is the cardiovascular equivalent of 30 minutes on the exercise bike and boosts endorphin levels.
She leads laughter yoga exercises for a wide variety of groups, from University of Maryland students to corporations looking for creative team-building exercises.
Berry, whose business is called LaughingRx Yoga, got interested in laughter yoga during a bout with cancer eight years ago. During her recovery, when friends asked her if she wanted anything, she said she asked for things that made her laugh, like the movie "My Cousin Vinny." The practice is also supposed to help people with allergies and asthma.
"I was looking for an alternative way to heal myself," she said.
Andris said when she first heard about laughter yoga, she was skeptical. But after the one-and-a-half hour session, she felt relaxed and felt as if she had been through a real workout. She was also impressed with Berry's ability to overcome much of the group's initial timidity.
"It was amazing watching her bring us all together," she said.
Rockville resident Zohreh Movahed had done laughter yoga before, when her sister-in-law, an employee at the National Institutes of Health, told her about it. She said she was happy to laugh without worrying about offending people.
"When people start laughing, you realize you're not alone," she said.