MIDDLEBURY—A group of elderly women mingled in the late afternoon sunlight, all giggling heartily behind hands raised to cover their mouths.
They were engaging in something called “naughty laughter,” in which they playfully scolded each other while laughing.
It was an exercise in the second of six laughter yoga classes held this summer at Middlebury Commons Senior Housing.
Mia Brown and Stacy Norford teach the free classes in Middlebury. Both are completing a year of AmeriCorps service for the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, which offers a variety of support services throughout Addison, Chittenden and Franklin and Grand Isle counties. The organization’s focus is helping the elderly stay in their own homes and maintain independence.
Brown, Norford and three other AmeriCorps members coordinate volunteers and run healthy aging programs. Recently, these programs have expanded to include laughter yoga.
“We met some other laughter yoga instructors who were willing to do sessions for seniors,” said Brown.
The instructors began running laughter yoga classes across the region starting about six months ago, and demand for the classes quickly grew. When Brown and Norford discovered that they themselves could be trained in laughter yoga, they and the three other AmeriCorps members signed up for a two-day instructor class. In the class, they learned about the history of laughter yoga, the health benefits, and all of the exercises they would need to use to run a session.
The training allowed the CVAA to offer more classes in the Champlain Valley, and to provide the service free of charge. Most of the classes are one-time meetings, but they decided to do a six-session series in Middlebury.
“It always makes me feel better,” said Brown of her experiences with laughter yoga.
WHAT IS LAUGHTER YOGA
One recent Friday afternoon at the Commons, the class began with a series of exercises where participants were told to laugh, even if it was fake. In each exercise, the laughter seemed forced to begin with, but by the end of each exercise most of the nine seniors taking part were genuinely laughing.
The class included exercises like “laughter cream,” in which participants walked around the room spreading imaginary cream on themselves and laughing. After each exercise the group joined in a chant.
“Ho, ho, ha ha ha. Ho, ho, ha ha ha. Ho, ho, ha ha ha. Yay!”
Laughter yoga sessions also typically include breathing and relaxation exercises, incorporating practices of yogic breathing, or Pranyama. The practice of laughter yoga is fairly new, having begun in Mumbai, India, in 1995. Dr. Madan Kataria, while doing research on the health benefits of laughter, invited several friends to join him in a park so that they could all laugh together. Fourteen years later, Kataria’s Web site, www.laughteryoga.org, boasts that the practice has more than 6,000 laughing clubs in 60 countries.
According to the Web site, studies have proven that laughter (even fake laughter) boosts the immune system and increases circulation by increasing oxygen to the blood. Laughter also releases endorphins, which elevate one’s mood. The practice of laughter yoga also provides a low-impact form of aerobic exercise.
“Tone those ab muscles,” Brown called out between exercises, as Norford laughed.
Brown and Norford emphasized their message of “no new pain, no strain,” reminding participants to do only what would not exacerbate any medical condition. The class was suited to a range of physical states — some of the exercises involved mingling with the other participants, but those walking took care not to bump the two women in wheelchairs. And everyone was able to laugh, regardless of their condition.
“I had both my knees done, and a hip operation,” said Ellie Noyes, 86, smiling from her wheelchair. “But this is good for me.”
She, along with most of the other participants, had participated in the previous week’s class as well. All said that they would be back at the same time next Friday.
“I always like it when someone is sitting at a table and you look over, and they’re laughing, too,” said Norford.
And indeed, onlookers and people passing through the common room all paused for a chuckle when they saw the group laughing. Even the man in the corner immersed in his jigsaw puzzle seemed to be laughing along.
“Everybody joins in the laughing,” said Agnes Novak, who is 89. “I can go home now and laugh at myself.”