Laughter-yoga buoys India's seniors

Mumbai seniors meet in 'Laughter Heaven' for daily yoga sessions.

One morning after my run in Mumbai, the guard at Jogger's Park, who I'm now convinced was playing a prank on me, told me that I should stop by "Seniors Park" to check out the goings-on.

Ever eager to discover something new about Mumbai sports life, I walked less than a quarter-mile down the gray-and-red-brick-paved road, unsure of what awaited me. I arrived at an unexpected plot of trees and grass in the middle of what is essentially a parking lot. A red metal fence marks the perimeter.

The gate was open, and around the entrance were sculpted faces, shaped from yellow iron bars, with the words "HA HO" written around them. Strange, I thought, but I kept moving forward, walking slowly through the entrance as the sound of laughter was carried to me on the breeze.

Awista Ayub

Laughter-yoga helps seniors feel good by providing community and friendships as well as happy, healthy exercise.

Peeking inside, I saw a group of seniors. The women were dressed in traditional, beautifully patterned long shirts and flowing pants called salwar kameez; the men were wearing trousers and collared shirts. I looked curiously to my right at the engraved, dark-gray marble slab sitting just inside the fenced-off area. It read, "Laughter Heaven."

Before I could make sense of those two words, a woman latched onto my arm from behind and "asked" if I would be joining them for the day. Despite my polite, "No, no, I was just walking by," soon enough, I found myself inside the park and attending my first session of laughter-yoga.

Every morning at 6:30, a group of Mumbai locals meet here to begin their day with the practice. The poses are simple: hand-holds in the air; very few, if any, leg lifts. Nothing too rigorous or unusual. But the sounds are different. Imagine the music of more than 100 men and women laughing from the depths of their bellies while stretching their arms and legs during a series of exercises.

As I awkwardly worked through the remaining 20 minutes of the one-hour session I'd been coerced into, I looked around and noticed, that in my early 30s, I was the youngest laughter-yogi by a good 30 years. I also noticed that all of the attention was on me, the newcomer, and the others were determined that I not run off before session's end. (Yes, I did consider my escape options.)

But I left intrigued by what I had stumbled upon. Months later, I decided to pay another visit to Laughter Heaven to discover more about the exercises and about the history of laughter-yoga.

I learned that laughter-yoga is a phenomenon that started in Mumbai and has spread to more 60 countries around the world. In India alone, there are some 6,000 dedicated laughter-yoga club spaces, from large cities like Mumbai to smaller villages.

Laughter-yoga was created in 1995 by a Mumbai-based physician, Madan Kataria, who had intensely studied the health benefits derived from laughter. Kataria took to the streets eager to share his belief in the power of laughter to relieve, or even cure, certain diseases and illnesses, and created a following. From there, he started the first laughter-yoga session, and soon hundreds and then thousands of laughter-yogis joined him from around the world.

While most yoga classes have standard poses and certified instructors, laughter-yoga has neither. There is no formal structure to a session, which is led by someone chosen by the group, and other members may share exercises.

Laughter-yoga is popular with seniors, but has few young adherents.

"They are so busy in their own lives," Usha Ghanshani, 65, and a member of Laughter Heaven for 10 years, said of young people. "They don't want to get up early, but once they come, I'm sure they will like it."

Many of those who attend Laughter Heaven have been members since it was founded in 1999. Beyond the exercises, they come for the friendships, new and old, that they have made there.

"The old people are not that much in demand," said Ghanshani. "More than yoga it's a group, and everyone is very friendly and nice and very caring."

Given the age of the participants, many have faced health issues in the past, and have been encouraged by friends and physicians to try laughter-yoga.

"Even if you feel that it is a forced laughter, your body does not recognize that. As long as your laughter is wholehearted, your body accepts it as a laughing situation," said Mahes Wari, 73, a founding member of Laughter Heaven who has practiced laughter-yoga for 16 years.

"I found that my health has improved," Wari said. "After a bypass, I have not had any bother after that. Normally, people say, 'You've had your bypass, 10 years back you go for another one,' and that happens with most of the people, and today, I'm perfect, no problem."

Though there is no definitive study proving that laughter-yoga can cure severe ailments, many laughter-yogis are convinced.

Later, Wari pointed out other members of the club, listing their ailments and recounting how laughter-yoga had helped them overcome ailments such as depression and hypertension.

While laughter-yoga has legions of followers, some people aren't thrilled to have a laughter-yoga club nearby. Next door to Laughter Heaven now is a tall apartment building whose residents have complained that the noise from the sessions wakes them up. Eventually, authorities were called, and the members were ordered to cease laughing.

"We tried to make less noise and tried to accommodate each other. Suppose you live near a railway station, what do you do?" said Ghanshani.

Perhaps more than the curative laughter, members value the friendships they've forged and the sense of community that now exists among a people who often feel cut off from a culture that once prided itself on strong families.

Laughter Heaven is quieter today, yet the members still find it worthwhile to come every morning.

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