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Is laughter really the best medicine?
This group thinks so

I'm sitting in a clubhouse at a midtown apartment complex, watching seven people stretch their faces and fingers as they roar like lions. Eyes are popping; tongues are hanging; expressions are exaggerated. Instead of a typical lion roar, each person is simulating laughter, with loud exclamations of HA! and HEE! and HO!

This isn't an improvisational group or a creative anger-management seminar. These animated participants are part of the Tucson Laughter Club (tucsonlaughterclub.org). They gather on the 13th of the month and laugh themselves silly.

A laughter club isn't a bunch of people sitting around telling jokes. Instead, there are actual exercises to perform, facilitated by a group leader.

They all practice what is called laughter yoga, a combination of yoga breathing and laughing that provides physiological and psychological benefits.

So when the members of the Tucson Laughter Club exclaim HA! repeatedly while walking like penguins, quacking like ducks or pretending they have ice down their shirts, this simulation of laughter provides the same health benefits as a good, natural guffaw.

Laughter yoga was created by Dr. Madan Kataria in Mumbai, India on March 13, 1995. Five people gathered in a park to form a laugher club. At first, they told funny stories, but weeks later, Kataria decided to have the group act out laughter with role plays and other exercises. Through his research, he realized that the body can't differentiate between acted and real laughter.

"A laughter-yoga class focuses ... on the health benefits of laughter, with breathing and stretching exercises," explains Tucson Laughter Club co-founder Tony Pearson. "At the end (of a class), many groups do a relaxation period where they think of peaceful things and try to breathe deeply in a meditative state." Laughter-yoga classes are offered at various venues, including the Lotus Massage and Wellness Center (2850 E. Grant Road). Curves at 2816 N. Campbell Ave. hosts a laughter-yoga club the first and third Sunday of each month.

According to Pearson, his club offers a different spin on laughter yoga. Instead of only focusing only on the health benefits, they focus also on the social benefits.

"What we found is that we don't have the most athletic people. ... We have done events in nursing homes and hospitals with people in wheelchairs and with oxygen tanks," he says, saying that the club welcomes people of all ages.

Pearson says he started Tucson Laughter Club with three other people in 2004. "This was in support of friends we had who had gone to Iraq and Afghanistan. We were making videos to cheer them up."

After his friends came home, Pearson continued the club, because he thinks it has value and is good exercise. Others agree; the group has 180 people on their mailing list. Monthly laughfests, as they are called, have between five to 20 people in attendance. Approximately 75 people turned out on World Laughter Day in May.

On this slow summer evening in July, five members are present, while Pearson and club president Vanetta Gibbs preside. Both Pearson and Gibbs are certified laughter leaders, which means they've learned how to run a group, can teach about 40 laughter-yoga exercises, and even know how to be on the lookout if someone has a health problem from laughing too much. But how do they get someone to pretend they are walking on a hot sidewalk in bare feet exclaiming "HA HA HOT?"

"We try to make people feel comfortable," says Pearson. "Even if they don't participate, they can enjoy everyone else participating, and that may bring a smile to their face."

Both Pearson and Gibbs report that participants feel better afterward. Gibbs says she has benefitted in a variety of ways, including increased self-esteem and self-confidence.

"It really helps me emotionally and health-wise. (After my first laughfest), that night, I slept the best. That's usually the effect it has on people. ... I suffered from allergies. That has been reduced greatly by my just laughing. ... After a laughfest, I am happier, more relieved and less stressed."

There's a universal thread that runs through all of this, too. According to Laughter Yoga International, there's an estimated 6,000 social-laughter clubs in 60 countries.

Back at the Tucson Laughter Club, the chuckles subside, and the members gather to go home. All participants seem a bit lighter and refreshed after taking the time to laugh.

In this age of brief text messages and 140-character tweets, it's a good thing there's no shortcut to laughter.

More by Irene Messina

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