Held once, sometimes twice a week, you can find these unlikely workshops in parks, cultural centers, or in basements arranged for the occasion. "Ha, ha, hee, hee, hee," participants repeat out loud while running around and clapping their hands. They then practice laughter at different volumes: from the mute one — "the one you can perform at home when everybody else is asleep" — all the way up to the guffaw.
There are five participants this day. Diana, 52, has a master's degree in economics and left a corporate job a year ago. Tomek, 31, has a T-shirt with the words "I don't see any obstacles" written on it, and holds a white cane in his hand. Then there is Anna, 38, a freelance graphic designer and ski instructor, and Henryka, who is 65 and retired. Finally, there is Barbara, is a 38-year-old State Treasury Board official.
After a short break from laughter, the workshop focuses on case studies. How do you laugh in public transportation? In an elevator? These are difficult situations — laughing in public places tends to shock Polish people. The five participants eventually move on to imitating animals: hens laying eggs, cows needing to be milked, penguins, and — this last one looks really insane — wild horses running through a prairie.
They can't stop laughing. Some laugh while pointing parts of their bodies that are painful due to so much laughter. Others split their sides because they forgot about something or were mistaken. They compare their bills to see who has the highest, and then joke about it by pulling out their empty pockets.
It is your choice if you prefer to cry.
"Ha, ha, ha, hee, hee, hee!" — Photo: Laughter Yoga Facebook group
"Laughter yoga was invented 19 years ago by the Indian physician Madan Kataria," said Diana, the founder of Good Life Academy and a pioneer of laughter yoga in Poland. Reading extensively about the benefits of laughter, Doctor Kataria realized that people around him did not laugh much. He decided to gather a group whose members would meet, tell jokes and laugh together. That same day, he went to a park and tried to convince about 200 people to join him. Four agreed.
They started to meet everyday. Shortly, the group gained participants. They had fun but at some point, the fun was over. They ran out of jokes. That was the moment when Kataria started looking for an alternative. Conducting more research, the doctor discovered that our mind doesn't make any difference between a natural laugh and an artificial one. “This is how it all began”, Diana said.
“When I first heard of the laughter yoga, I thought it was artificial,” said Barbara, one of the participants. “After all, people laugh when they have a reason for it.”
She changed her mind after going on parental leave. "Someone thinking he or she isn't ready to start a family is completely right," she said while laughing. Staying at home and trying to become a perfect mother overwhelmed her. “I wanted everything to be under control,” Barbara recalled.
Gradually, she stopped laughing. “I would watch a comedy and my mind would register the funny jokes, but I would have no reaction whatsoever.” She fell into depression and blamed everyone and everything around her for it.
On one cloudy day, even though she was upset, she forced herself to play with her son. "I was saying 'ha, ha, hee, hee' and he reacted with a pure, natural laughter."
They kept going, working each other up. After a while, Barbara found herself sincerely laughing. That evening, she looked for information about laughter yoga online, and signed up for workshops.
“Laughing oxygenates your body, it shifts your energy and opens you up,” Diana said. People, she said, lose their ability to laugh as they are too much "in their head" and are afraid of losing control. "But when they do, they are relieved. Even if it ends up in tears."
I decided to run the gauntlet and try it on myself. I was so ashamed — I had to pretend I was a cow.
“You are a serious man. You are a husband and a father. It is a serious job that you have. You have a mortgage,” I told myself. Torn between my thoughts, I tried to forget who I was, who I thought I was. I threw myself from the heights of my ego into a black hole of denial. A while after, I was milking some elderly lady.
It all lasted less than an hour and, yes, I felt relieved — relieved that it was over. But when I walked out of the workshop, I realized that the street looked different. A red bus stopped nearby and people inside looked so serious that I could not help but to burst into laughter. It became even worse when an elderly lady came by with a dog. You see, it was a very fat, and a very funny dog.
I got on the subway and thought I should try laughing in public. “Start laughing,” I repeated to myself in vain. "Laugh, damnit. Laugh!" The situation somehow became funny, so I finally started laughing. I laughed for three smiles and got one really bad look. I became too stressed and left the train at the next stop.
Everyone from the workshop exercises at home to not stay out of practice. The second thing Henryka, another participant, does in the morning after drinking her coffee is laughing. “It gives me vitality, and the world outside me seems nicer,” she said.
Diana laughs at red lights. Barbara has a morning exercise she really needs: She points at her reflection in the bathroom mirror and laughs at herself.
She told me how she recently forgot her credit card while shopping. When the sales person ran after her to give it back, her first reaction was to laugh. "Not so long ago, I would have thought 'God, how could I?’" Barbara said. "I would torment myself all day long with these 'what if' thoughts. Now, I just laugh."