I first discovered laughter yoga when I was seven years old.
It was a Saturday morning and my brother Greg and I were at our Grandparents’ house in Liverpool, sat on the cold, concrete floor of their backyard looking for a new game to play when we challenged each other to a laugh-off.
The rules were simple:
We’d take it in turns to fake laugh, starting with one “ha” each, then every reciprocated chortle was increased in length by one “ha” at a time. Every giggle had to be different and ridiculously ridiculous – the whole point was to make your opponent burst into a fit of real laughter before you did.
And so it went on in different voices and different accents, accompanied by deranged facial expressions, until the loser keeled over in hysterics and the winner inadvertently joined in.
That endorphin-inducing technique kept us entertained, and our parents no doubt tormented, for hours and hours on end as we traversed la France from nord to sud with a car full of camping gear every summer.
It was a pretty insightful game to invent at such a young age and it wasn’t until twenty six years later that I discovered laughter yoga is actually a real thing.
DEADLOCKS & DREADLOCKS
After five weeks of managing an ever-evolving team of females living under one roof, my people management patience was maxed out, so I turned my David Brentness up a notch.
Instead of a 9am morning meeting, I decided to get us all psyched for life by attending Saffia’s laughter yoga class in Nong Buak Hard Park at the bottom left corner of the Chiang Mai’s old town.
For a team who are used to taking no more than five steps from their beds to their beanbag coffee table office for nine in the morning, getting into a taxi for 8.30am was a bit of a challenge, but seven hundred yawns later were at the park and stood on a bamboo mat with a bunch of strangers waiting for the session to start.
Helmut, a somewhat eccentric man in his maybe early forties with blue eyes, rosy cheeks and whispy dark blonde hair was ranting and raving in his thick Austrian accent.
It turned out that the crowd of people sat on white plastic chairs in a circle next to the fountain were having an Alcoholics Anonymous session and had asked us to move to another spot.
We moved our mats across the thick Thai grass and as his rant continued, we were approached by a really humble-looking man in a pale blue short-sleeved shirt with his hands in prayer.
He’d walked over from the AA meeting just to thank us for kindly moving, apologised for the inconvenience and said we’d just helped to save lives of their former alcoholic members by letting them continue with their talk in peace.
He wished us a wonderful yoga practice and bid us farewell, then just as he was about to turn away, Helmut leaps out from amongst our lycra clad gang and pipes up once more.
Oh I have to admit, he said in his Österreichischer Akzent… I was just talking facking sheet about you and I was wrong my friend. For that I am sorry.
It was a bloodless standoff on the long green grass of Nong Buak Hard; the Alcoholics Anonymous vs the Laughter Yogis, and after holding their serene stares for a couple of seconds, they smiled, shook hands, then held hands, bowed heads and parted ways.
When you’re waving whiteflags on the moral battlefield before 9am you can’t help but wonder what on earth the rest of the day will have in store, and it turned out that bizarre little episode was only a sign of things to come.
LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE
We settled our mats on new turf and sat cross-legged in a circle while Saffia introduced the session.
One guy in the corner was in a foul mood complaining he couldn’t hear and another girl was yawning dramatically saying she’s heard it all before and was bored. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such rudeness, or perhaps I have but this was being magnified by the fact we were about to embark on a supposedly happy journey together.
What is wrong with these people, I thought, isn’t this supposed to be fun?
Anyway, it turns out Indian physician Madan Kataria takes formal credit for the game my brother and I conjured up twenty-six years ago after realising the physical and mental benefits of laughter and wanting to prescribe it to his patients.
He set up the first Laughter Yoga in Mumbai, India in 1995 and it’s now practised in 65 countries worldwide.
Laughter Yoga is the kind of thing that cynical, lemming-like sceptics would love to roll their eyes at, but feeling is believing and I know from within that we can create physiological happiness if we fake it first.
So I stood there under the shade of a coconut palm more than ready for a manufactured chuckle.
GRANDMA & GIGGLES
We had to introduce ourselves, tell an interesting fact and do a silly laugh that everybody else had to copy and after about nine introductions, it was my turn.
I was Laurie from Liverpool in my bright multi-coloured 70s clown ensemble and round pink John Lennon sunglasses, hailing from fourth friendliest city in the world and my chosen laugh was a a high pitched jump-wiggle-giggle.
Our rabid howling had attracted some attention and photographs were being taken from all angles, but there was one woman in particular who caught my attention.
A little Thai Grandma in her seventies, with short dyed red hair wearing navy co-ords and a big smile had got very excited by the cackling kerfuffle. She and her husband had watched us from afar edging their way closer and closer, before perching on a bench just a few feet away to watch our show.
We’d been given our first task – to weave in and out of each other pretending we were stepping on hot coals and making monkey-like ooh ooh aah aahs, letting the laughter ripple out of us whenever we felt the need.
So off we went, high-knee prancing around like lunatics, crashing into each other and making ape noises…and there…smack bang in the midst of all this dancing delirium…was our little Thai Grandma.
She had absolutely no clue what was going on, she definitely couldn’t speak a word of English, she was a foot or two shorter than most of us and getting knocked about the bamboo mats by knees and elbows, but she looked quite literally like the happiest person alive.
Next we had to weave in and out of each other shaking hands and pretending to be electrocuted.
Thai Grandma remained standing there in the centre aimlessly grinning at us, loving life more than life itself, as we danced our way around the group, throwing serious shapes into our best improv performance of slapstick comedy.
Very good, very good, yaaaayyy!
After thirty minutes of activities, I’d laughed so much that I that I felt physically sick.
They’d been fun and did make us laugh, but it was the random Thai Grandma and the cheesy mantra clapping that really set me off into an uncontrollable state of hysteria.
I was drained, fatigued, had sore abs and was dangerously lightheaded with a severe headache, so it was perfect that we finished the session off with a long and relaxing yoga nidra.
I lay there sandwiched closely between my new adopted sisters, letting the last of the laughter escape my lips and just before I closed my eyes, I looked up and saw a sparkling tree. The pond waters below were reflecting up against the leaves and shimmering with Mother Nature’s glitter.
Our euphoric highs began to dissipate, my stomach began to settle and my head began to clear, but my smile wouldn’t rest – I couldn’t stop it even if I tried. Endolphins were swimming around my veins, riding the waves of joy.
Laughter Yoga – another hobby to add to my never-ending list.