Laughter Yoga? Are you being funny?

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Hello, my name is Dawn Porter and I…

‘…started to wonder what this was all about. Why not just watch an episode of The Office and laugh for real? Why meet strangers in a room full of denim and no windows and pretend to laugh at them?’

As I entered the building in Uptown Manhattan a little old lady walked about three feet ahead of me. I crept in front of her and opened the door, she didn’t look up, she didn’t say thank you, but just walked on with a face completely void of expression. Once in the elevator she pressed the button for floor 11. ‘No’ I thought ‘She can’t be’…

She was.

I had been tempted to Laughter Yoga by the hope of achieving a ‘natural euphoric state of hearty laughter’. I love to laugh, and fully believe in its benefits for good health. If this did what it said it did, then I may have found my ultimate therapy. I was excited.

We were welcomed by a middle aged Indian man wearing a grey jumper with Live, Love, Laugh written across it – he was to take the class. There were around 25 of us in what appeared to be a textile design studio. Unfinished pairs of jeans and fabric samples surrounded us, the room was warm, there were no windows and the doors leading onto the landing of the communal 11th floor were glass. I felt self conscious of people passing by.

As everyone gathered in a large circle I took a moment to observe the group. It was an eclectic mix of ethnicities with people of every age. Oddly quite a few were old ladies. The little one with whom I had arrived, had now transformed into an all singing, all dancing party queen. While another looked like she had just torn out of an intravenous drip. She was painfully thin, with Elastoplasts hanging off her exceptionally frail arms, which she insisted on waving in the air far more than anyone else was comfortable with. There was also a tall lady in a hat, whose facial features were perfectly round as though she was made up of individual balls – one for her nose, two for each cheek, another for he chin. And there were two young Japanese girls who held hands continually, as though seeking the security of each other. They couldn’t have looked any less enthused by the idea of Laughter Yoga. This was a group who mostly knew each other, but out of the 25 I would estimate that around 8 of us were first timers.

There were quite a few men, again a mix of ages and types. One being around sixty, he was tall with dark hair and a big moustache, he wore a suit, and seemed nice. Another was young, good looking and smartly dressed with an unwavering smile, while another had a big pointy nose, grey hair and a somber face that looked like raising a smile might hurt. Among the group was also a very beautiful Chinese girl in a smart outfit, a Mexican woman who liked clapping, and large black lady who laughed so loudly it made me jump but was nice to hear, and many more characters so varied and remarkable that to describe them in full would take pages. Let it just be said that all sorts of people go to Laughter Yoga. There is no specific identifiable type.

We began by doing duck arms as we said ‘Ho Ho’ followed by three claps to a ‘Ha Ha Ha’. The instruction was to do this whilst walking around and fixing eye contact with every body one by one.  It was awkward. Very.

The leader, let’s call him Uncle Albert, was bossy and overbearing. He laughed on demand, which I found suspicious. He could turn it on and off like switching a light. One minute he was laughing, the next he was talking. On, off, on, off. For me this felt wrong. For me real laughter is natural reflex impossible to stop? The flakiness of Laughter Yoga was starting to bother me, and my hope of genuine belly laughs or even real humor was fading very fast. This was not the cathartic yogic experience I had hoped for. It was more like a really bad acting class for seven year olds.

‘Pretend to drive a car, get to an imaginary red light, BURST OUT FAKE LAUGHING. Shoot an imaginary bowling ball, strike, BURST OUT FAKE LAUGHING. Sing in someone’s face, they tell you its awful, BURST OUT FAKE LAUGHING. Pretend to tell someone off, BURST OUT FAKE LAUGHING. Pretend to tell someone a joke in gobbledygook language, BURST OUT FAKE LAUGHING’.

We were laughing at nothing. Surely the key to making people laugh should be to do something funny? Nothing was funny. There were no jokes, there was nothing entertaining, just silly games and lots of people fooling themselves that this was real meaningful happiness. I found it really sad. Not funny at all.

I started to wonder what this was all about. Why not just watch an episode of The Office and laugh for real? Why meet strangers in a room full of denim and no windows and pretend to laugh at them? I tried to be understanding of the fact that for some this might be their only opportunity to laugh, and to remind myself of what value I thought this class might have and just what it might be doing for other people, but the ridiculousness of it all was all too consuming.

After forty minutes the lights went off and we lay down on the floor. This being our opportunity to give into abandon and laugh like we had never laughed before. Giving it one last chance I tried. I tried so hard. People around me were howling, roaring with laughter that could have been real or fake. I have no idea. All I know is that mine was fake, and my cheeks hurt from pretending, and my brain hurt from the still clammy air, and the clock wasn’t moving fast enough.

After this we stood up. Uncle Albert came back down to earth and told us to walk around the room and hug each other one by one, then of course, because this was Laughter Yoga, to laugh in each others faces. I didn’t want to. I hadn’t bonded with these people enough to find a hug comfortable, and being laughed at quite aggressively was definitely beginning to grate on me.

Finally we were finished.

‘So, do you think we are batty, or did you like it?’ asked Uncle Albert as I was leaving the room.  I chose to pretend I didn’t hear, and I left.

Yes, I did think they were batty, but who was I to tell them they were wrong. After all, they were the ones laughing, not me.

LAUGHTER YOGA New York City takes place every Wednesday evening at5.30pm. 1430 Broadway, Suite 1107. The class is free.