In This Yoga Class, Relaxation Is a Laughing Matter

Ben Bashiri, left, Zohreh Movahed, Ben Movahed and Helen Yousefi take a laughter yoga class last week at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.
Ben Bashiri, left, Zohreh Movahed, Ben Movahed and Helen Yousefi take a laughter yoga class last week at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. (By Laurie Dewitt -- The Gazette)
By Andrew Ujifusa
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

The inventors of yoga thousands of years ago probably did not envision plastic camouflage helmets, conga lines or Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" as part of the practice. But Nira Berry doesn't particularly care. In fact, she probably would laugh them off.

Berry teaches laughter yoga, a series of role-playing exercises and relaxation routines that allow people to laugh out loud without trying to crack jokes. She has a motto for newcomers who don't think they can force their way into authentic guffaws: "You fake it until you make it."

"You don't need to have a sense of humor to laugh," Berry told about 50 participants, mostly newcomers, at a laughter yoga session last week at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.

Berry's routine has four components: laughter, clapping, breathing and "childlike playfulness." The exercises range from waving one's arms back and forth while chanting "Ho ho, ha ha ha!" to multistep routines that incorporate laughter into physical imitations of certain routines.

When participants mime spreading shaving cream on their faces, they giggle and pretend to smear the stuff on their neighbor's cheeks. They also mimic co-workers' laughter.

At one point, Berry stands on the stage, divides the group into three laughing styles of "Ho!" "Ha!" and "Hee!" and, like a symphony conductor, waves her arms rhythmically over the crowd, prompting varying cadences and patterns of laughter.

The group moves from the orchestral to the absurd, donning pirate hats, wigs and Hawaiian leis and forming a conga line that parades down the aisles for more than five minutes to the strains of "Celebration." Participants are told to imagine they are stomping on everyday problems and cackle. Every routine is punctuated by Berry's laughter.

Laughter yoga veterans can be bold, bellowing out twisted forms of merriment that draw more cautious participants into the laughter. At one point, Berry flubs a line in her yoga rap song, setting off a new round of laughter.

"It's crazy, isn't it?" Iris Andris of Bethesda whispered in the middle of the recurring "Ho ho, ha ha ha!" chant.

Only the 15-minute deep-breathing and body-awareness routines at the end of the session recall typical yoga. But Berry touts the health benefits of laughter yoga, which was started by an Indian doctor in the mid-1990s. Ten minutes of sustained laughter, she says, boost endorphin levels and are the cardiovascular equivalent of 30 minutes on a bike.

She leads laughter yoga exercises for a variety of groups, including University of Maryland students and corporate executives looking for creative team-building exercises.

Berry, whose business is called LaughingRx Yoga, said she became interested in laughter yoga during a bout with cancer eight years ago. During her recovery, when friends asked whether she wanted anything, she said she asked for things that made her laugh, including the movie "My Cousin Vinny." The practice is also said to help people with allergies and asthma.

"I was looking for an alternative way to heal myself," she said.

Andris said she was skeptical when she first heard about laughter yoga. But after a 90-minute session, she said she was relaxed and felt as if she had been through a workout. She said she was also impressed with Berry's ability to get the group to overcome much of its initial timidity.

"It was amazing watching her bring us all together," she said.

Rockville resident Zohreh Movahed had done laughter yoga before, when her sister-in-law, an employee at the National Institutes of Health, told her about it. She said she was happy to laugh without worrying about offending people.

"When people start laughing, you realize you're not alone," she said.

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