The Journal News
DOBBS FERRY - Inside the Chabad Synagogue on a recent Wednesday night, Simeon Darwick encourages a small group of believers to produce what he calls an innate - but little practiced - sound within them all.
With a bit of prompting, laughter, in all its forms, suddenly reverberates throughout the sanctuary. From soft, childlike giggles to loud, infectious guffaws, the merriment is inescapable.
"Laughing is the greatest thing. It's contagious. It crosses all boundaries, religions, sects and genders. There's nothing it can't break through," said Darwick, a holistic health counselor from Hartsdale. "If it's not programmed nowadays in the society we live in, people don't spontaneously laugh."
In December, Darwick, who runs Life Integrated Foods, began teaching "laughter yoga" at Chabad, a relatively new technique now gaining a following in the Lower Hudson Valley. The 45-minute class, also known as the Laughter Club, blends quick laughing exercises with gentle stretching and yoga breathing. The combination is hailed as simultaneously energizing and relaxing.
Along with the enjoyment participants say they experience from a good, hearty chuckling session, research has shown that laughter has tremendous therapeutic value.
"I don't think about pain when you do this," said Bea Gottlieb of Hartsdale, 84, who suffers from arthritis and walks with a cane. "You just feel happy and alert."
"You generate healthful chemicals," chimed in Joel Ross, 58, a retired medical researcher from Ardsley. "There's no reason to go through life sour - might as well laugh."
Indeed, studies have indicated that laughter is a natural healer with several health benefits, including reducing stress, boosting the immune system and increasing the supply of oxygen to the body.
"Stress is the No. 1 killer. It affects your heart. It's bad for your immunity," said Dr. Kishore Ranade, a neurologist at Putnam Hospital Center and clinical assistant professor of neurology at New York Medical College in Valhalla. "One of the ways to relieve stress is to laugh."
Ranade further explained that laughter jogs the internal organs, producing an aerobic activity that stimulates the heart and circulation. One minute of laugher is reportedly equivalent to 10 minutes of jogging or rowing.
Deep belly laughter clears out the lungs, allowing more oxygen into the body, Ranade continued. Laughter also raises the antibodies immunoglobulin A - strengthening the immune system - and releases endorphins, a natural pain killer, he said.
"Anecdotally, happy people don't get sick," he said. "Positive emotion does have a beneficial effect on your immune system."
Laughter yoga, or hasya yoga, was founded by Dr. Madan Kataria in 1995. Kataria, a physician from India and a student of yoga, was writing about laughter for a medical journal when he came up with the concept. Today, there are more than 5,000 laughter clubs in more than 50 countries worldwide.
Chun Kim-Levin of Mahopac, a longtime hatha yoga instructor, became certified in laugh yoga in April. She was trained by Kataria in Niagara Falls. She leads a laughter club session on Fridays at the Mahopac Public Library, and has offered the program at senior centers and women's shelters. In December, she gave an introductory class to a dozen people at the Brewster Public Library and expects to return there regularly.
"In ordinary settings we look for reasons to laugh," said Kim-Levin, who offers several therapies through her LifeSpring Holistic Services. "When we laugh without any reason, then everything suddenly can seem funny."
In Mahopac, she begins the class with enthusiastic clapping while repeating the phrase "HO HO HA HA." She moves into a series of laughter exercises, such as the "lion" laughter that works to release tension in the thyroid gland, she said. There's the greeting laughter, shaking hands or bowing while chortling, and bicycle laughter, air peddling to a vigorous har-de-har-har. Each of the exercises lasts about 20 seconds and is followed by stretching and breathing.
Typically, what starts out as forced, simulated laughter usually turns into genuine, uncontainable laughter.
Liz Benediktson said that since taking the class, she has noticed that her muscles are looser and that she is more flexible.
"I couldn't imagine life without it," said Benediktson, 57, a library clerk from Mahopac. "It opened up my heart."
For Marcia Allen, laughter yoga has made day-to-day challenges easier to deal with.
"It leaves me feeling light and free," said Allen, a retiree from Yorktown. "I think I laugh more."
Dr. G.J. Peister, a nonpracticing psychiatrist from Suffern, began teaching laughter yoga on Wednesday nights at the Peace through Play Nursery School in Chestnut Ridge in November. She too became certified by Kataria last year. Peister offers laughter yoga through her Dr. Wellbeing program.
Personally, she said, the practice has improved her digestion and her overall outlook on life. Stored negative energy, she emphasized, is released with laughter.
"The thing about laughter is that it's always been tied to humor," Peister said. "But what laugh yoga does is say do it (laugh) because we can do it. You can learn to laugh for no reason whatsoever."