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Belly laughing for better health

For Gail Roper, the oft-quoted maxim rings true: Laughter is the best medicine.

The Masterton local has started hosting laughter yoga classes at REAP Wairarapa’s Education Centre – dedicated to improving mental and physical health through yogic breathing and childlike play.

And, as the name suggests, no shortage of belly laughs.

To boost her own mental wellbeing, Roper began taking laughter yoga classes in Upper Hutt last year – and eventually trained as a laughter yoga leader to bring the practice to Wairarapa.

Laughter yoga, popularised in India in the 1990s, combines aerobic movement, stretching, pranayama [deep breathing], and “playful activities” designed to stimulate laughter.

The practice is based on research which posits that intentional [or faked] laughter releases the same “feel-good” hormonal response as natural laughter – with participants encouraged to laugh regardless of external stimuli, such as comedy.

In classes, faked laughter gives way to organic laughter: Producing various health benefits, from a strengthened core to better quality sleep.

Roper, a former mental health nurse, said laughter yoga encourages students to tap into their inner child – and be playful “for the sake of it”.

“Which is something adults aren’t encouraged to do,” she said.

“Children laugh about 300-400 times a day – whereas adults only laugh about 10 to 15 times a day. Now we’re grown up, it’s not often that we can have a real belly laugh out in public without someone looking at us strangely.

“Laughter yoga gives you that excuse to just be playful and expressive – and laugh without needing a reason.”

The practice of laughter yoga was founded in 1995 by family physician Dr Madan Kataria, who established outdoor “laughter clubs” in his hometown of Mumbai.

Eventually, the groups ran out of jokes and amusing stories – so, based on research that the body cannot tell the difference between genuine and faked laughter, Dr Kataria encouraged participants to laugh “without reason” for one minute.

Before long, laughter yoga had spread to more than 50 countries.

Roper said she was inspired to try laughter yoga after watching an interview with actor Robyn Malcolm – who shared that the practice had helped vastly improve her anxiety.

Unable to find laughter yoga groups nearby, Roper attended classes with Hutt-based instructor Clare Ludlam, and began her own leadership training in December.

Late last month, she received her leader’s certification from Laughter Yoga International.

“Having worked in mental health, I know there’s a lot of anxiety out there in Wairarapa – so I knew I had to bring laughter yoga over here.”

Roper said her classes involve high-energy activities, as well as relaxation exercises to help students wind down and “ground themselves”.

“We do things like running around the room, free dancing on the spot, putting on music and jumping around. It’s quite aerobic.

“There’s no telling jokes or humour. Just a lot of playfulness.”

As well helping mental health, thanks to the release of hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, laughter yoga has been correlated with improved immune response, better circulation, and stronger abdominal muscles.

Laughter yoga can also help with pain management by releasing endorphins [the body’s natural painkillers], and also helps release melatonin, responsible for the sleep cycle and circadian rhythm.

Roper said she has had “great feedback” on her classes so far – and her students are already beginning to notice the benefits.

“One said that after class, she’d had the best night’s sleep in a long time.”

    Laughter yoga classes are held every Monday [except public holidays] at 22 Dixon St, Masterton, from 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm. Classes are $5. If you wish to attend, please contact Gail Roper ahead of time: via email at [email protected], or text at 021 144 0721.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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