A quadriplegic, Judith Snow cannot use her hands and feet. But she can laugh. And for two years now, every Saturday, come rain or shine or even Toronto's bone-chilling winter, Snow wheels herself to the basement of the Annette Street branch of Toronto Public Library. Once there, she is part of an eclectic group of men and women - who laugh, giggle, and chortle along with performing rhythmic breathing exercises. Welcome to Snow's class of Hasya Yoga or Laughter Yoga - as it is referred to in the West - which is gaining tremendous popularity in Canada.
From its origins as a five-member group in a local Mumbai park, Hasya Yoga - the brainchild of Mumbai doctor Madan Kataria - has grown into a worldwide movement, with over 5,000 clubs across the globe. Canada alone boasts of 50 such clubs. "We have been averaging between 10 to 20 people every week and by next year we will reach 30," says Denise Rackett, a filmmaker and also the founder of Toronto's High Park laughter club.
There are now about a dozen laughter clubs in Ontario province. According to Rackett, a total of 1,400 people - many of them in the 40 - 50 age group - have come to her weekly sessions since the classes commenced in 2005. "That says something in itself: People don't know where to go to laugh," she says. She found out about Hasya Yoga when she wearied of working full- time and wrote out on a piece of paper what she needed in her life. "I Googled the term, 'laugh', and came across Madan's work and found a group right here, in Toronto," she recalls. Rackett then signed up for a session and has been practicing it ever since. "I had forgotten how to laugh; Hasya Yoga brought laughter back into my life," she says.
Interestingly, while the first couple to introduce Hasya Yoga to Toronto was Indian, the current batch of leaders - such as Rackett - are multicultural, as are the participants.
Dr Kataria, who was recently in the city as part of his North American tour, devised Hasya Yoga a decade ago on the premise that people can laugh for 15 to 20 minutes without having to rely on a sense of humor or a joke. As laughing is contagious, says Kataria, fake laughter soon turns into a genuine one. "The brain cannot distinguish between real and fake laughter, so the body reacts in the same way to both," he says.
A typical session comprises initially fake laughter, combined with stretching and various breathing exercises. Some of the exercises - usually 45 seconds long - take the participants into a make-believe world, like the one where they drive an imaginary train engine. If anyone crashes into a fellow 'engine', they have to tender in an apology - which is followed by laughter.
There is logic behind these exercises. Explains Kataria, "These exercises revive the body and mind." Laughter, which is an intrinsic part of each exercise, increases blood circulation and expands blood vessels, which, in turn, energizes the body.
Hasya Yoga proponents also cite medical research on the benefits of laughing to bolster their arguments about its advantages. According to a 2005 study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, USA, laughing offers benefits similar to those gained during aerobic activities: it boosts the immune system, releases endorphins that serve as natural pain killers, tones facial muscles, increases blood flow and helps reduce stress and anxiety.
Medical benefits apart, there are auxiliary perks that keep people hooked to Hasya Yoga. Practitioner and freelance writer Jan Goodwin says she derives a lot of positive energy from the group as "we all use each other as catalysts".
The gentle exercises also ensure that people with chronic pain or disability can participate. Says Snow, "I have become incredibly healthier. My breathing is much better and I have become stronger." And that's why she doesn't miss a single session. While others sit on cushions and mats, Snow parks her wheelchair amidst them to chant the "ho, ho, ha, ha, ha" or the "Very good, very good... yeah! mantra followed by hearty laughter.
Laughing in a group also knits people socially. Snow says she has met people she would have never come in contact with otherwise. When Goodwin underwent surgery, it was her yoga mates that called on her regularly.
Interestingly, women, according to Rackett, constitute almost 70 to 80 per cent of instructors as well as attendees. "There is so much responsibility in our lives and we need a place to go to laugh freely and feel comfortable," she says.
According to Wendy Woods, instructor and corporate trainer, "Women are doing so many things and it (Hasya Yoga) is a way for them to take time out for themselves. Many make plans to come with friends from work and this is a way to connect. Laughter creates a common language and is a great way to break barriers." One a more personal note, she says that Hasya Yoga has "allowed me to feel more comfortable laughing and not be self-conscious".
For women whose cultural background curbs their free expression, including laughter, Hasya Yoga helps break down the barrier. Says Ananda Nair, a Hasya yoga leader, "When they come here, they laugh aloud because nobody is judging them." Adds Marjorie Moulin, Nair's yoga colleague: "It provides a very safe and non-threatening environment where they can be themselves." Rackett believes that Hasya Yoga could be a powerful tool to combat postpartum depression among women.
Another group of people that greatly benefits from this is new immigrants. "After every session, we sit and talk so it becomes a good place to network and help each other," says Nair. Mainly, it helps break the ice. According to Elsa Galan (project coordinator and outreach worker for Peel, a multicultural inter-agency group that works with immigrants), new immigrants "have to face many struggles and Hasya Yoga gives them an opportunity to relieve stress and meet other people". In fact, her organization is in the process of setting up a Hasya Yoga group.
Says Nadia Fralova, a computer programmer from Russia, "I lost my laughter back home and here I found it again." And her yoga mates chant - "Very good, very good... yeah!"