Shelley Nessman (standing left) with other laughter yoga facilitators
You & Me BC
December 5th, 2021
In the 1st of a 3-part series on humour therapy in BC, we look at laughter yoga - an unconventional yet effective way to beat the blues!
For Shelley Nessman, it started with a rubber chicken.
Nessman was attending an educational retreat with a family support group—not there to laugh, but to focus on serious and sometimes very uncomfortable issues.
But one morning at breakfast something unexpected happened. A member of the group suddenly smiled and directed Nessman's attention across the room; walking past them was a man — one with a rubber chicken tied to his head.
Curious to meet the type of person who would do this, Shelley introduced herself and learned that he was participating in a laughter yoga retreat held by the founder of laughter yoga, Dr. Madan Kataria.
They got to talking, and when he offered to lead Shelley’s group through a half hour laughter yoga session, she jumped at the opportunity.
The result was life-changing.
“Everyone just transformed. People who were dealing with some difficult things had the weight drop off their shoulders and became light-hearted and happy. I loved it."
Nessman didn’t look back. She ‘got lost’ in laughter yoga and has facilitated classes across BC for the last 7 years.
DID YOU KNOW: Children laugh over 300 times a day. Adults? Only 15-30.
THE LAUGHTER GAMES
Despite the yoga moniker, laughter yoga doesn’t usually involve traditional yoga poses. Instead, classes focus on a range of laughter games involving simulated laughter - which inevitably turns into the real thing.
In one game, each participant does their funniest face, to which the group offers their biggest laughs. In another, participants are given an animal, and using mews, woofs, snorts, and roars do their best to impersonate its laugh.
Then there’s argument laughter, in which participants square off and debate using only laughter and gestures.
A laughter yoga session
Each session ends with laughter yoga’s version of the cool down, the laugh down, in which everyone lays on their back, eyes closed, and just lets the laughter come.
While this all sounds like great fun, Shelley’s quick to stress that laughter yoga should be thought of first as a health and wellness practice, not as entertainment.
“Sometimes people think it’s entertainment, and it’s certainly very fun, but first and foremost it’s a health practice just like yoga or tai chi, bringing together breathing, movement, and eye contact.”
“Traditional yoga’s quiet and retreating, while laughter yoga’s the opposite, but the outcomes are the same; by the end people are calmer, happier, and healthier.”
Traditional yoga's quiet and retreating...laughter yoga's the opposite, but the outcomes are the same: calmer, happier, and healthier
And she’s right: laughter’s been incorporated into care plans for people with various physical and mental health conditions, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and chronic pain.
It also helped Shelley deal with her own bouts with depression, which she hasn’t experienced since becoming a laughter yoga facilitator 7 years ago.
DID YOU KNOW: The study of laughter's called gelotology
Although the scientific study of laughter is relatively new, the evidence is clear that laughing really does pay off, and here’s how:
Laughter, whether real or simulated, triggers the brain to release endorphins - hormones which diminish pain and increase pleasant sensations.
Hearing and seeing others laugh also actives our mirror neurons, which fire when we see others perform an action or experience an emotion, and cause us to feel the same way.
That’s why laughter yoga works, and works best as a collective experience. Although the pandemic put a halt to most in-person classes, British Columbians have continued laughing together through virtual laughter sessions.
Laughter yoga's something you can do alone too, as shown by laughter yoga founder Dr. Kataria in one of Shelley's favourite videos
Anyone interested in giving it a shot can find a list of clubs and classes throughout BC by using Laughter Yoga University’s search tool, or by visiting Laughter Yoga Canada if you’re in the Lower Mainland.
But if groups aren’t your thing, or you don’t have time for another commitment, there are plenty of other ways to start laughing more.
“Find out what makes you laugh, whether that’s watching a funny movie or being with friends, and do more of it. And whatever you’re up to, even if you’re by yourself reading this, just start laughing!”
Give it a try – it might change your life.
To get in touch with Spencer van Vloten, editor of You & Me BC, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org