ATHENS — Huddled in a nondescript basement in central Athens, a group of wildly diverse strangers work up a sweat.
They drop their heads forward, relax their shoulder muscles and start up an exercise routine, raising their hands, gently, to the sky.
They breathe in. They breathe out. And then, they unleash a burst of gut-busting, side-splitting, tear-jerking laughter that has their heads whipping back up; their bodies wobbling like giant Jack-in-the-Box surprises.
Although it was amusing, I loathed every second of it. It seemed strikingly silly and utterly awkward, making me wondering whether my compatriots were going mad.
They aren’t, though; quite the contrary, in fact.
Three years into a crippling recession that has reduced incomes here by as much as 60 percent, increased the number of suicides by 40 percent and forced 1.3 million people onto growing unemployment lines, Greeks are grappling with ways to remain sane. And while the country’s financial crisis is no laughing matter, many of them are turning to what some call a free cure to just about any ailment: laughter.
Take Dionyssis Kalinikos, for example.
At age 27, the rotund accountant is broke. He has clocked more time off work than on the job. He has had to move back home with his parents. And while cheerful and optimistic by nature, he says he felt compelled to find a place to vent. A jaw-dropping 60 percent of Greeks his age remain jobless as a result of the lingering crisis here.
“A friend of mine and I were looking for activities to do without having to pay the cost of enrollment fees,” he tells me. “We checked into the Athens laughter club about a year ago, and ever since my life has changed.”
“As soon as I see myself sinking in despair,” he explains, adjusting his tight Mr. America T-shirt, “I crack even the tiniest of smiles, and that helps a feel-good emotion kick in, wiping out any and every shred of negativity.”
Pioneered by a physician in India just under a decade ago, laughter yoga has taken much of the world by storm, making its way even into repressive countries such as Iran, where Tehran’s city council has set up classes in a seemingly Orwellian attempt to combat widespread discontent there.
Greece, though, is different. At any other point in time, psychologists say, the blockbuster trend would have bombed in a country known for its sun-kissed, mirthful and free-spirited folk. Instead, laughter clubs are sprouting here like Tupperware parties, in part, perhaps, because of their non-centralized direction; just about anyone, trained or not, can become a laughing guru within a session or two.
Among them is Ritsa, a 51-year-old former banker who lost her job of 29 years at the height of the Greek financial crisis.
“True and heart-felt laughter have vanished from our lives,” she told me. “Misery and depression are sweeping across our society. Even those who are not directly affected, ache and feel depressed the minute they turn on the radio or television to listen to the news.”
On one such damp and dreary day, and as the directors of a state retirement home came to enlist their laugh-less elderly residents in the program, I too decided to give this new rendition of yoga a go.
“Are you pregnant?” Ritsa asked me. “Do you have a bad hernia? Or, do you suffer from hemorrhoids?”
“No,” I whispered.
The class instantly got underway. And as Ritsa reiterated the rules for newcomers, I backed up against a brick wall, listening to her explain how laughter yoga includes no traces of traditional humor, no jokes, no amusing stories. Rather, she said, it was serious stuff, with the focus on simple improvised exercises intended to get the laughter rolling, hands clapping and voices chanting “ Ho ho ha ha ha.”
For the next 45 minutes, members pranced around the concrete floor, flapping their arms, giggling like chicken or turkeys. Then they stuck out their tongues and thundered out “lion laughs.” Then they rode imaginary giggle bikes. And then, they took to deep breathing exercises, exhaling every ounce of air from their chests — a drill that had many clutching their stomachs and others crouching over their knees as if they had had a bad chili dog or too much tandoori chicken for supper.
Not surprisingly, the most popular exercises are those linked most closely to the reality of Greece’s crisis.
In one improvised routine, for example, members are taught to laugh at the sight of an electricity bill or the kind of tax notice that Greeks have been repeatedly served in recent years as part of new austerity measures intended to make up for decades of profligate spending by the state.
In another exercise, members point to their penniless pockets, faking clamorous chortles in a bid to overcome despair over their impoverished state.
The goal, as Ritsa says, “is to take these exercises into daily life, into reality, so that if and when your pockets are dry and empty, or you can’t pay the bill, you cope with the situation better.”
“If that isn’t needed here today, what is?” she quips.
Just how healthy laughter yoga really is remains unclear. Many critics laugh at the very thought that it can help cure Greece’s problems. Still, proof or no proof, the stress-busting fad is no joke here. Not, at least, for new fans like Dionyssis.
“Learning to laugh off my problems,” he says, “has been the best antidote to the crisis.”