Laughing Matters

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In the mid-1600s, the French philosopher Rene Descartes succeeded in severing the connection between body and mind by formulating the construct of The Mind, which was smart and had thoughts; and The Body, which was separate and the most we poor powerless creatures could do with it was to apply poultices, give it pills, and hope for the best.

The Cartesian view flourishes today, thanks to the difficulty of peeling ourselves away from long-held beliefs. And some thanks to drug companies, but that’s for a different column.

Pop-psych articles offer easy solutions to problems that have vexed us for millennia. The mind-body connection is much written about, and countless books appear on the self-help aisle with varying themes on how to fuse body and mind back together again. The problem is that we’ve been racing down a different track, and it’s not an easy matter to stop this locomotive that’s been going full steam ahead for centuries. It adds to our stress when there’s one more thing we can’t get right.

So with all of that in mind, I can’t help myself: here is yet another piece in the puzzle of how to re-link psyche and soma. With a nod to the difficulty involved in changing the way we think and behave, I have to talk about Laugh Yoga.

I came across the work of Dr. Madan Kataria while reading about the effect of laughter on the immune system. We all know that laughter lowers the stress hormone cortisol and boosts immunity – actually increasing the numbers of helper T-cells that fight disease. A good belly laugh will leave your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes.

In studies of patients with depression, a group assigned to “simulate laughter,” (that is, to laugh even though there was no feeling of wanting to laugh) described themselves as less depressed after a week of simulated laughter.

It’s long been recognized that smiling and laughter trigger endorphins, exerting a pain relieving effect. A good chuckle protects the heart by increasing blood flow and reducing cortisol. These facts sparked the idea for Laughter Yoga.

Dr. Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, says that without relying on humor, jokes or comedy, laughter can be simulated as a body exercise in a group and will become contagious laughter. The body-mind cannot discern a difference between laughter that is brought on intentionally and that which arises unexpectedly from funny experiences, so either way, levels of epinephrine and other stress hormones are decreased, and there is reduced activation of our stress arousal systems.

The quite happy-looking doctor says that one of the prime objectives of Laughter Yoga (as is also true with yoga yoga) is to re-learn how to move the diaphragm, and to shift our awareness of breathing from the chest to deep abdominal breathing. He points our attention to the way our lungs more fully exhale during a good guffaw, causing us to breathe more deeply, and filling us with more oxygen-rich air.

I am lucky – my office partner is a woman who, if she hadn’t devoted herself to working with kids, would be a stand-up comic. On work days, we fit in our chat time on the way to and from the restroom, or during lunch breaks, and a laugh track plays the entire time. It’s a great way to work the abs, but even if I didn’t work with a funny person, I’d find a way to get those laughs in.

Find your own ways – go to YouTube and watch “Who’s on First?” Google snippets of the funniest movies you can remember. Read Sugar Mama. Check out Laughter Yoga. Smile for no reason, and see what happens.

When WAS the last time you had a belly laugh?

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