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Laughing it off

Consider this: Snoop Dogg walks down the street carrying an umbrella. Stunned, you ask him – “Hey Snoop, what’s with the umbrella?” Snoop answers: “Fo’ drizzle!”

The jury is still out on whether bad jokes are good for you, but if you laughed just then, your body filled up with oxygen, T-cells, and endorphins—which in turn will help to reduce stress, boost the immune system, and even relieve pain. No matter your sense of humour, doctors now agree: taking time to laugh can be very good for your health. As research from California to India has piled up over the past 30 years, hospitals have incorporated laughter therapies into their healing programs. At the Jewish General Hospital’s Hope & Cope wellness centre, cancer patients can take part in holistic activities such as art therapy, qi gong, and laughter yoga sessions, free for any cancer patient in Montreal.

Laughter yoga lies somewhere between a typical yoga class and a comedy sketch. There is breathing, but no real poses; there is laughter, but no real jokes. Laughter yoga is self-induced group laughter therapy, without the crutch of using humour that can often divide or insult.

“Some jokes can be hurtful. Laughter without jokes is something that is on everybody’s level,” says Tracy Shafter, the laughter leader at Hope & Cope.

The session begins with patients introducing themselves using both a name and a belly laugh. Shafter then asks the group to tug on invisible strings at either side of their mouths, creating a smile; they then move around the room, shaking hands and cracking laughs at each other.

Other exercises include pretending to speak gibberish on the phone or drinking up a fake martini, while heaving big, breathy laughs. Shafter takes time between each round to lead a few Santa Claus-style “Haha, ho-ho-ho” laughs while clapping, to stimulate the nerves in the hands and to work the abs; she also leads more soothing breathing techniques. In the last exercise Shafter asks people to lie on a mat and laugh for as hard and as long as possible.

If it sounds ridiculous, that’s why the techniques work.

“The first time I tried it, it was so silly that it made me laugh for real,” says Johane Chateauvert, a cancer patient who began laughter yoga, among other Hope & Cope therapies, as a way to reintroduce balance and energy into her life.

“It helps let things out, some of the stress. Plus it’s really good work for your abs,” she says.

Another patient said that after 50 radiation treatments and recent news of the death of a son’s friend to cancer, the laughter yoga made her feel “much, much better.”

The laughter therapy offered at Hope & Cope is based on techniques developed by Madan Kataria, a GP and yoga student who decided to begin a laughter club in a Mumbai park one morning in 1995. Kataria’s group began telling each other jokes, but after a few days participants ran out of jokes, especially appropriate ones. Determined to keep the club going, Kataria developed laughter exercises based on yogic breathing that focused on the health benefits of laughter. The practice has since spread beyond India to 40 countries.

Catherine Lawrence, a laughter specialist based in Toronto who was diagnosed with a rare lung disease, says that she uses laughter to boost oxygen to her lungs.

“If I’m flying, when oxygen is lower, I’ll usually start to have a headache. I’ll either just start laughing or get a book out and pretend I read something funny,” Lawrence says. “I always measure a higher oxygen level afterward.”

The laughter movement unites healing with holistic wellness, a popular concept now offered in many workplaces. Carol Ann Fried, a motivational speaker based in Vancouver who works frequently with the federal government, talks often on the physical and emotional benefits of laughter.

“Our circulation increases, our respiration increases, and when we laugh emotional pain is released. That’s why we feel better emotionally. Physically too, we’re able to let go of things,” she says.

Shafter, whose mother died of cancer 12 years ago, is sensitive to the patients’ varying levels of health, and she reminds patients to do only what their body can support. Some did laughter exercises while sitting down, but all laughed heartily, and all left smiling and cheery-eyed.

“Patients can feel very alone with their diagnosis. This brings people together,” Shafter says.

For more about laughter yoga in Montreal, visit healariouslaughter.com or contact the Hope & Cope Centre at 514-340-8255.

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