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Arts & Life

Laughter Yoga Taps Into Funny Bone For Improved Mental, Physical Health

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Stacy Nick
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KUNC
Kelly Kappus and Irene Vallee participate in the Fort Collins Laughter Club.

The Thursday night yoga class at the Fort Collins Senior Center starts out pretty easy. Breathe in. Breathe out. You know the drill.

But after that, it’s a real gut buster.

“I think some people get hung up first of all on the yoga part,” joked instructor Mary Dravis-Parrish.

There’s more to it. She teaches what’s called laughter yoga.

“They come ready with mats and things like that, not really quite sure if we’re going to be doing poses or what that is,” Dravis-Parrish said.

Fort Collins resident Hannah Mahady is new to class, and she looks a little unsure.

“I tried it at home and I was like I don’t know if I can keep laughing for an hour, but I’m going to sure try,” Mahady said. “I have heard that laughter is very good for you so I’m hoping to feel better and -- I don’t know what else to expect. It will be interesting.”

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Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
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KUNC
Mike Abramovich and Hannah Mahady practice laughter yoga at the Fort Collins Senior Center.

Laughter Yoga was invented by Doctor Madan Kataria in India in the '90s. It started as just a way to have fun, but it turns out that old adage about laughter and medicine -- well, it’s no joke, said Dravis-Parrish, a certified Laughter Yoga instructor.

“Our bodies don’t know the difference between fake laughter and real laughter,” she said. “But the benefits of sustained laughter is what the research has shown contributes to our wellness.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EGTETc5oFU

There are lots of studies citing laughter’s potential benefits -- from lowering your risk of heart attack to relieving pain. The general consensus is that just 15 minutes of laughter -- real or fake -- does three things: It enhances oxygen intake; increases endorphin levels; and lowers cortisol levels.

Mike Abramovich, 86, has been doing laughter yoga for three years and said he’s seen the benefits.

“I used to have COPD,” Abramovich said. “And I say used to.”

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a progressive lung disease that makes breathing difficult.

He isn’t saying his breathing problems were cured by laughter yoga. Exercise and medication did its part. But Abramovich does credit it with helping. That’s why he’s a big believer in the therapy and why he brought his neighbor, Hannah Mahady, to the class, to show her the benefits of a little levity.

The class does a variety of prolonged laughs of various styles from hushed giggles to full-on cackles. A roomful of people laughing at nothing particularly funny does look ridiculous. It also looks like everyone is having a lot of fun. Interspersed in all those pretend chuckles are some genuine ones.

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Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
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KUNC
Instructor Mary Dravis-Parrish leads her class through 45 minutes of laughter yoga. The goal is to improve physical and emotional health.

“(It was) difficult for me too because you have to make yourself be silly,” instructor Mary Dravis-Parrish said. “And when we can laugh at ourselves being silly, it makes us laugh at ourselves in real life.”

That leads to laughter yoga’s other proclaimed benefit: emotional well-being. It’s something Dravis-Parrish experienced first-hand, discovering laughter yoga while dealing with the suicide of her son.

“I do find that I can laugh at a lot of different things in life now that most people might think I’m kind of crazy to laugh at,” she said. “But I know that if I put the laughter into it -- it’s not that I’m disrespecting it -- it’s that I’m putting a different energy into it to allow different movement through it. Rather than the doom and gloom and oh, I feel so sorry for myself… If I laugh about it, I feel better.”

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