At Laughter Yoga classes across the Twin Cities, joy takes over when what starts as forced laughter turns real.
Two years ago, Jody Ross was suffering from fibromyalgia-related pain, sleep apnea, chronic fatigue and mood disorders.
In a last-ditch attempt to find relief, she made a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
There, she happened across a laughter yoga seminar in progress and cajoled her way in. After an hour of deep belly laughing, Ross was elated.
"It was winter, and I left feeling really light," she said. "I called a friend and said, 'I have to do this thing.'"
Within weeks, she was trained at the Iowa School of Laughter, and today she's a Laughter Yoga leader and teacher, and the only Laughter Life Coach in the Upper Midwest. On a personal level, she's also pain-free (unless you count some aches when she goes roller-skating for hours with her 7-year-old daughter).
A typical session starts with participants standing in a circle, each greeted with laughter as they introduce themselves. At a recent session, one new laugher could barely say her name through laughter-induced tears.
Ross led the group through a short series of stretches, all accompanied by chuckling and light laughter, and then started some laughing and breathing exercises. "Pretend you're falling off a cliff into Jell-O, and laughter is holding you from falling in," she says. Or, "Dip your wand in bubbles and blow laughter bubbles in everyone's faces."
It's impossible to tell whether participants are forcing their laughter or not; for most, it seems to start as fake laughter and soon becomes contagious and turns real.
The session continues with laughter meditation, or about 5 to 10 minutes of pure laughter, and concludes with relaxation.
"The theory is that you take an active role in your joyfulness," said Molly Dworsky, a Laughter Yoga instructor in Minneapolis. "Instead of being a passive laugher, we reverse the process and move the body to laugh, to change the mind and provide a better outlook."
Dworsky, a student at the University of Minnesota, went through the training on a whim with her best friend. "We basically thought it was crazy and that everyone doing it was crazy and that we were crazy -- but we loved it at the same time."
In addition to the physical benefits, Dworsky points out one aspect that often gets overlooked:
"It's a peace movement," she said. "Laughter is the universal language. There's no pressure at laughter yoga except to being open to being a little kid. It's inherently peaceful."
Laughter Yoga is offered in several Twin Cities locations. Ross' group, called Lake Harriet Free Laughing Club, meets on Monday nights and is the longest running one in the area. A few other groups meet weekly or biweekly, and community education classes are occasionally offered.
Because the benefits appear wide-ranging, perhaps from heightened oxygen levels during sessions, Laughter Yoga Leaders also work with specific populations: the elderly, in schools, in businesses as part of morale- or team-building workshops. Ross' area of interest is healing dementia, and she works with seniors and Alzheimer's patients.
Dr. Madan Kataria is credited with starting the first laughter club in India in 1995. When he realized that the body gets the same benefits from laughter whether it's real or forced, he encouraged participants to laugh for no reason. It worked. Today, his website counts over 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries. The yoga piece comes from combining yogic breathing with laughter.
When Ross first told friend Erv Chorn about Laughter Yoga, he was apprehensive, but wanted to support anything that might help his friend.
"I thought it was stupid," he said. "C'mon! Laughing for no reason? No jokes?"
But the night after trying it, he slept soundly, and he's been a regular ever since.
For Ross, Laughter Yoga changed her life. She no longer uses drugs for pain or sleep. She practices good nutrition, she prays and meditates, and seeks medical help when needed.
"I can still live," she said. "It's a miracle. Most of us give up. Faith and laughter gave me an open mind and buoyancy to keep seeking."
Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Twin Cities freelance writer.