Laughter exercise is quite new to me. I’m the chair of Congleton U3A and I was thinking about the strap line, ‘learn, laugh, live.’ I knew that the ‘learn’ and ‘live’ aspects of that were certainly being reached by our U3A. I was less sure about the laughter – lots of our groups clearly have a giggle whilst chatting and doing their activities but I thought there were more things we should do to bring laughter into our lives.
Once doing some research, I was surprised about how much evidence there was about the health benefits of laughter. The more I investigated laughter exercise, the more I thought we should give it a go.
As Chair, I had never been convener of an interest group and I thought it was something I should try. I bought a couple of books about laughter yoga and started learning more about it. We had one taster session in the summer and it was a great success. Since then, we do thirty-minute laughter exercise sessions once a fortnight.
In our sessions, we capture the playfulness of being a child. It’s shown that children are much more open to laughing whilst playing and that it’s something we almost grow out of as we become adults. In the sessions, we allow ourselves to put aside inhibitions and laugh in this playful way. We have more eye contact, say traditional greetings and we practice smiling, which is the first step to releasing endorphins.
The exercise incorporates a lot of different things, such as stretching and clapping, but the key part is the breathing. For instance, we hold our breath and in releasing it, laugh. Some of the exercises are from the book and some are ones that we’ve developed ourselves.
I changed the name from laughter yoga as I found that when I talked to people about it, they thought the yoga was the main thing. The connection with the yoga is the breathing but it is the laughing that is the exercise. The purpose of this group is to laugh and for prolonged periods of time.
This is voluntary laughter – it’s not the natural laughter you might have when you find something funny and then recover from it. We help ourselves along with memories, anecdotes and mental exercises but, in order to reap the benefits, we are having to train ourselves to laugh and prolong that laughter.
It’s a really good work out, it gets the heart racing and feels as good as a gym session. I found that people wanted to stay longer and have a chat and a cup of tea. It’s quite an exposing experience and through doing the laughing exercise together, members formed bonds. There are lots of members that are going through quite hard times and the laughter exercise offers release from that.
As the sessions have gone on, the exercises have changed and become more collaborative. For instance, we do clapping exercises and, where at first people would have worked independently, now we press our palms together. We’ve developed a mental and physical contact with the other members of our group.
There’s been really positive feedback about the impact on wellbeing. People say to me, ‘I found myself driving along with a grin on my face.’ I guess like all things, when you practice it comes more naturally. People find that they laugh involuntarily more often now. There’s a real release from the laughter that boosts mood.
When I started the group, I was fully expecting people to say, ‘what a load of rubbish.’ In fact, only one member has said she doesn’t think it’s for her. Most of the members have found that they’ve got a lot more out of it than they expected and that it has had real benefits on their mental, psychological and physical health.
Photo: Members enjoying U3A National Conference 2017