Yoga might seem intimidating to you, with all the bodily twists and turns. But there is a new kind of yoga that doesn't involve any downward dogs or cobra stances. It's called Laughter Yoga, and it's a global movement. I kid you not. It's based on the idea that laughter allows more oxygen into the body and brain, creating healthy effects.
Caroline Sheehan, a 24-year-old PWD and ardent yoga practitioner, recently introduced Laughter Yoga to a group of ladies in the ACT1 Diabetes support group in New York City. After hearing about this unique yoga session in the diabetes community, I simply had to learn more about what Laughter Yoga can do, specifically for us PWDs.
A Guest Post by Caroline Sheehan, self-titled "Diabetic Do-Gooder"
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It's a Monday night in Manhattan, and people are gathered for yoga class. Some are dressed in sweatpants, others in business attire. They begin class by clapping and chanting "Ho ho, ha ha ha!" They drive around invisible motorcycles while laughing. They pretend to be hulking, guffawing sumo wrestlers. They simulate arguing with each other as they laugh... and then they waddle around like penguins.
"Hold up!" you're thinking. "This is YOGA?"
It is, but not the pretzel-twisting, sweat-drenching, ommm-muttering type that most people think of when they hear the word "yoga." This is Laughter Yoga, brainchild of a medical doctor from India named Madan Kataria. He developed a way to make people laugh more by eschewing jokes in favor of laughter exercises, deep breathing, laughter meditation, and relaxation. In the fifteen years since laughter yoga began, it has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. (Watch the John Cleese video if you need some visuals.)
So why laugh? Studies have shown that laughter decreases cortisol, boosts endorphins, and increases immunoglobulin-A, a key chemical in the immune system arsenal. Laughter has also been shown to improve blood flow, which scientists speculate can lower risk of cardiovascular disease. People have also attested that laughter can strengthen social bonds, ease significant pain, dispel grief, clear airways for asthmatics, relieve stress, and bring a deep sense of peace.
I first heard about Laughter Yoga in 2009, when my college's mental health awareness group sponsored a session. I went in intrigued, and came out amazed. My face and abs hurt from laughing so hard; I was both exhausted and exhilarated. I became certified as a Laughter Yoga leader shortly after, and upon moving to New York City I started both attending and leading sessions regularly.
Laughter Yoga isn't for everyone, but it's been an absolute gift for me. I've learned to laugh away the pain of stubbed toes and fingersticks. I've seen a room full of rambunctious elementary schoolers with ADHD laugh themselves to exhaustion, and seniors with dementia open up and laugh for the first time in weeks. Laughter Yoga has also been a remarkably powerful force in my diabetes management. The activity itself doesn't lower my blood sugar — although one study found lower post-prandial blood sugars among Type 2 diabetics who attended a comedy show compared to those who sat through a boring lecture. For me, laughter helps in a few different ways:
• I laugh when infusion set needles sting extra hard. It's totally fake, short barks of HA HA HA, but it snuffs out the pain better than my previous reaction of choice (which involved a lot of hissing and obscenities).
• I laugh at frustrating blood sugars. A few laughter yoga exercises teach us to let go and laugh about things outside our control — e.g., the bus leaving without you, a broken vase, the stock market, etc. After learning to snicker on the subway platform instead of getting exasperated at slow trains, I got to thinking about what else in my life is outside my control that I get unnecessarily stressed about. And after a day of infuriating BG readings, I thought: Just laugh. I forced a "ha." Then, a chuckle. I made myself laugh until the anger began to dissipate — and then, I was pleasantly surprised to discover, it was hard to make myself stop. I cannot rearrange the past and change that number on my meter, just as I have no power to make the trains come faster. What good will come of twisting myself up in knots of fury? I take note of my blood sugar and adjust for the future, of course. I can still be peeved about it. But now, I laugh more — and I really do feel calmer about the rollercoasters.
• Laughter yoga teaches me to cope with greater stresses as well. I have made myself laugh while paying $360 at the pharmacy for supplies, at lost sleep from 2 AM low blood sugars, and when I had 3 ultrasounds in one day because my kidneys were going awry. One of the guiding principles of Laughter Yoga is "fake it 'til you make it." There are no jokes in Laughter Yoga, no stand-up, no comedy. Everyone starts off with fake laughter until, through silliness and eye contact and the pure contagion of laughter, you start laughing for real. Many people report feeling happier at the end of the session than the beginning. One session leader I know describes it as "body-mind" medicine. We don't laugh as a response to hearing something funny or being happy. We laugh first — and then feel happiness. It's because of this that I can laugh at diabetes. Of course there are times when I think, "This sucks so much that I REFUSE to laugh about it right now"....but it never fails to relax me and rejigger my perspective when I do.
I'm not suggesting that we all stop worrying about our blood sugars, or that we shouldn't take diabetes seriously. But we live with this disease every single day, and we're going to keep living with it — and dealing with its daily hassles — for years to come. Given that... aren't we going to drive ourselves crazy if we don't laugh about it? Martin at Diabetically Speaking recently wrote a moving post about diabetes burnout and quoted Bill Cosby: "Once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it." Laughing at diabetes, even when it isn't funny, helps me to live with it and keep on going.
Laughing at diabetes also gets me in Time magazine. Check out the scan, courtesy of the official Laughter Yoga website, and you can spot me in the bottom row, second from right (along with two other pics, but they're a bit trickier). Ha ha HA!
If you'd like to try Laughter Yoga for yourself, go to the official LY website and click on "Find Clubs" or "Find Leaders" to search by geographic location. For NYC residents, I can vouch for the fabulous-ness of two laughter clubs: Monday nights at 7:30 with Dr. Alex Eingorn, and Wednesday evenings at 5:30 with Vishwa Prakash. I can also vouch for the fabulous-ness of my future Brooklyn laughter club... once I find a space to hold it in.
Wow, Caroline. Thank you for bringing the fabulous-ness. And the smiles.