I was not in a light mood the damp Monday afternoon when I headed over to the Om Shala Yoga Center in Arcata to attend my first laughter yoga session. It was two days after the Paris attacks, and the troubles of the world, not to mention my own private worries, hovered over me. That line by Wordsworth, "The world is too much with us," echoed in my mind. At least it's only 45 minutes, I thought. Maybe it will be canceled for lack of people. Global problems aside, I was skeptical. I had done the group exercise where you form a chain on the floor with your head on the next person's belly. One person's belly laugh triggers the next person's and so on, until you become one big floppy, amoebic mass of rolling laughter. That's the theory, anyway. To me, it had felt contrived.
Inside the dimly lit center, instructor Ferryn Caldwell signed me in and gave me a waiver and release form to fill out. I had never thought of laughter as a liability, but we do live in California, after all. I handed her the form, then wandered around the empty room, pausing at the window and staring out at the low-hanging clouds and the alley below. I watched as a guy in a hooded sweatshirt and dark baggy pants sauntered down the alley, turned to face a chain-link fence and peed.
Hearing a clamor of voices, I turned to see a troop of young women bouncing in, all fresh-faced and smiling. "HSU?" I asked one. "Nope, we're friends at Arcata High," she said. Soon we were eight: a lithe woman in her 50s who turned out to be the meta-instructor who had trained many of the local Humboldt Laughter Yoga facilitators, the five high schoolers, Caldwell and me.
We gathered in a circle and, without any preamble, Caldwell led us in our first stretching exercise. We bent down to the ground and then stretched our arms skyward, punctuating our swoops with what she called "unconditional" laughter — meaning laughter that occurs without a trigger. It's the way babies laugh, I suppose. Babies don't need a joke or comedy to stimulate their laughter; they just gurgle and giggle.
She led us in a series of exercises. We sashayed around the room, hopping and skipping, whooping and laughing. We started to shake hands but then leapt back and shrieked as though we had had an electric shock.
We role-played different styles of laughter: laughing the way a baby would, a shy laugh, an evil laugh. One of the Arcata High School girls suggested "high-class" laughing, and we sneered at each other with haughty looks. When I suggested flirty laughter, we giggled coquettishly. We pretended we were dogs. We laughed in silence and argued in gibberish. In between each set, we walked around skipping, clapping and chanting, "Ho, ho, ha, ha, ha!"
We didn't practice "yoga." No downward dogs, sun salutations or twists. Just lots of playful movement and snickers, chortles and guffaws.
At times I had to "work" at the role-playing, the skeptic in me still eye-rolling secretly. (Next time, I'll co-opt my skepticism by suggesting "cynical" laughter.) But as the momentum in our little group built, my skepticism faded. Something touched me about being with a bunch of people who were just being silly, forgetting the pain of the world.
All that laughing felt more active than I expected, but according to the book Laughter for the Health of It, by hypnotherapists Dave Berman (a former Arcata resident) and Kelley T. Woods, laughter is fundamentally a physical action. Our muscles stretch, our abs contract, our pulse goes up and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues. Not only is laughing a light cardio workout, they go on to say, it has emotional benefits. Whenever we laugh, the body produces dopamine and other "happy" endorphins — whether we're laughing at something we find funny or for no reason at all.
According to the book, laughing yoga began in India in 1995, where a Mumbai physician named Madan Kataria founded the organization Laughter Yoga International. Since then, the movement has gone global and now boasts about 10,000 laughter clubs in more than 100 countries, which includes a few in Humboldt County.
In our final exercise, Caldwell had us lie on the floor and do the belly laugh chain. Uh-oh, I thought. But this time, maybe because I had been loosening up for 45 minutes, I enjoyed it and my laughter bubbled up from deep below.
The next day my spirits were lighter, my voice was hoarse and my stomach was sore. Maybe a bout of "serious" laughter really is a workout.
While Om Shala no longer offers laughter yoga, you can find meetings here:
Church of the Joyful Healer, 1944 Central Ave. McKinleyville
Wednesday 9 to 9:45 a.m.
Humboldt State University, 1 Harpst St., Arcata
Fridays at noon on the Art Quad
For more information, check out Humboldt Laughter Yoga on Facebook.
Louisa Rogers hopes she'll die laughing.