What’s all that laughing at the Vinton Library?

Instructor Kyle Edgell (left) leads a Laughter Yoga session at the Vinton Public Library on January 11.

According to Laugher Yoga instructor Kyle Edgell, babies laugh 400 times every day— adults not so much, more like 15 times a day.

Edgell and Leslie Santapaul hosted a Laughter Yoga class at the Vinton Library on January 13.

Laughter Yoga received its name not because it involves standard yoga poses, but because it combines yogic breathing with laughter and relaxation exercises and results in stress release and anxiety relief. More oxygen enters the body and eventually nourishes the brain. “Happy chemicals” are released. Done strenuously enough, laughter becomes an aerobic workout.

Research has scientifically demonstrated that Laughter Yoga practice lowers cortisol and adrenaline, which turn on stress in the body, while lowering blood pressure and blood sugar. It also triggers the release of brain-soothing endorphins and serotonin, increases the number of infection-fighting T-cells, is oxygenating— and improves your abs. It stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning.

“Stress constricts blood vessels; laughter opens them,” Edgell said.

Santapaul explained to participants that laughter gives an “all clear” signal to the body with the subsequent release of nervous tension, telling the body that “everything is okay.”

Laughing even burns calories.

Santapaul and Edgell say that Laughter Yoga is practiced worldwide. It was developed in India in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor, supported by his wife, Madhuri Kataria, a yoga teacher, initially with just five people. Now in 2018, there are 6,000 Laughter Clubs in 105 countries.

Some practitioners of Laughter Yoga see it as a “form of social medicine spreading social health to the world.”

In a Laughter Yoga session, you learn to laugh for no apparent reason while sitting in a group, making direct eye contact with others in the group. The initial fake laughter soon becomes contagious (like a yawn), if you are willing to participate with childlike playfulness. You are asked to “check your coolness at the door.”

The instructors say that laughter, whether simulated or real (the body cannot differentiate), provides the same health benefits, if done with enthusiasm.

Many Laughter Yoga programs involve just laughing randomly without jokes or comedy— simulating laughter through laughter exercises or playing freestyle laughter games. There are even laughter meditations available on YouTube.

Edgell and Santapaul have chosen to elicit laughter by designing fun-filled scenarios.

At the Vinton Library session, they started out with what seemed to be a traditional meditation; it quickly blossomed into the opening song for the “Gilligan’s Island” sitcom. Participants were soon singing and giggling along to “the Professor and Mary Ann.”

As the class continued, members of the group were asked to picture themselves as children about to embark on an adventure at sea, boarding a ship which became a pirate ship with pirate mirth (Arrr, Arrr), climbing the sails, and then snorkeling in the ocean— with lots of different varieties of laughter thrown into the mix— from snickering to chortling to guffawing.There was intermittent clapping with “very good, very good” followed by “yay” with hands raised in the air. It may sound silly, but it was a lot of fun— a way to forget your problems for a brief time.

Laughter Yoga sessions started at the South County branch of the Roanoke County Library several months ago; the library system is now promoting Laughter Yoga at its different locations.

Santapaul first learned about Laughter Yoga at the Floyd County Yoga Jam several months ago and immediately became an enthusiast. She lost her husband in recent years and needed a reason to laugh. She spent a three-day weekend at Yogaville (located in Buckingham, Va.) to become certified to teach Laughter Yoga.

There is a scientific basis for the extolled benefits of Laugher Yoga. In his book “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient,” author and “Saturday Review” editor Norman Cousins recounts the healing power of humor in his own life. Diagnosed with a debilitating illness, which left him bedridden, and with a gloomy prognosis, he checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel where he watched funny movies and episodes of “Candid Camera” while taking high doses of Vitamin C.

He completed research on the biochemistry of human emotions, which he long believed were the key to human beings’ success in fighting illness.

Dr. Lee Berk has studied the therapeutic benefits of laughter on the immune system and noted that the physiological response of the body to belly laughter is the opposite of what is seen in classical stress. He has further determined that there is a general increase in the immune system after exposure to humor. Stress hormones including epinephrine and dopamine decrease with both anticipation of and exposure to humor. Laughter is also a powerful distraction from pain. He adds that in addition, laughter is free and has no known negative side effects.

“The best clinicians understand that there is an intrinsic physiological intervention brought about by positive emotions such as mirthful laughter, optimism and hope,” said Berk. “Lifestyle choices have a significant impact on health and disease.”

Another researcher compares belly laughter to “internal jogging.”

Participants in Laughter Yoga sessions learn to create memories of laughter that become a trigger they can call on in times of stress and anxiety. Best practice is to incorporate laughter into your life on a regular basis. Santapaul says she laughs while she is driving; Edgell while walking her dogs; another while taking showers.

Edgell, who is also a well-known caricaturist, is developing a Laughter Yoga program for the Rescue Mission where she volunteers, working with individuals with drug addictions, especially opioid addiction, and staff members. She has asked that a graduate student from Virginia Tech evaluate the results of the program

The group at the Vinton Library brainstormed some future class scenarios involving “I Love Lucy,” “Mr. Ed,” and “Green Acres” sitcoms, along with the movies “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

The session concluded with a true yogic meditation led by Edgell.

Laughter Yoga classes will continue at the Vinton Library on the second Saturday of every month. The next session is scheduled for February 10 at 11 a.m. No yoga clothes or yoga mats are needed. Anyone can successfully participate regardless of physical limitations or age.

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