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Laughter meditation helps the humor-deprived let loose

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Laraaji Nadananda, a former stand-up comedian, is touring the country to teach the art of laughter meditation. (Sami Siva/courtesy of Laraaji Nadananda)

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During his workshops, Laraaji Nadananda explores the connection between robust laughter release and meditation. (Sami Siva/courtesy of Laraaji Nadananda)

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Laraaji Nadananda teaches his students to vibrate all their organs with laughter. (Sami Siva/courtesy of Laraaji Nadananda)

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Laraaji Nadananda, a former stand-up comedian, is on a national tour to teach the art of laughter meditation. ***Please note small file size of 1600 pixels by 1200 pixels*** (Courtesy of Laraaji Nadananda)

A substitute teacher was doubled over, giggling on the ground like a schoolgirl. Next to her, a college student flopped around, chuckling like Santa Claus on speed.

Across the room, a lawyer laughed uncontrollably. An artist pounded the carpet with his palm. Even an elderly woman, who had dropped her cane and her guard, was on her back, waving her legs in a fit of hysterical laughter.

As the contagious chuckling spread, the only person left standing was Laraaji Nadananda, laughter guru and proud maestro of the cacophonous chorus under way inside the small classroom at the Integral Yoga Institute in downtown Manhattan.

“I find that laughter is a fairly easy subject,” Nadananda said, flashing his big smile. “It makes people’s faces softer, their body language is more open, they’re bubbly, bright and approachable.”

Proponents of New Age therapies promote the psychic benefits of alternative medicines like vibrational healing, acupuncture and hypnosis, but Nadananda, a former stand-up comedian, is convinced that the real key to inner peace lies in laughter.

His two-hour workshops mix gong music with extended laughter exercises intended to foster relaxation and help the humor-deprived regain their ability to let loose. He’s on a national tour to teach others the art of laughter meditation.

“Supposedly, laughter helps the endorphins get going and reinforces the immune system,” he said. “People come to the workshop and mention that they are feeling very negative or very down, or that they have a headache. But after, it’s all reversed. The tension in the head and the heaviness of heart are all gone.”

Allen Klein, president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, an organization founded by health care professionals to advance the positive benefits of laughter, has written extensively about the healing power of humor.

In “The Courage to Laugh,” he interviewed 100 people who have faced diseases like AIDS and cancer.

“I asked did they see any humor in the process, and 98 out of 100 said yes,” said Klein, who lost his wife to a rare liver disease when she was 34. “I wrote about how humor, even in those situations, can help us cope. It’s such a powerful tool.”

Nadananda developed laughter therapy over several years in New York, and he has taken his workshop from North Carolina to Canada. (For his complete schedule, see laraaji.blogspot.com.)

“The workshop requires me to be a good model to jump-start the group,” he said in an interview after a live session. “I’ll start by talking to the audience to dissolve any armor and to soften them up to make it a safe space for laughter. If I do it right, they’ll trust me and trust the space and just dive into the laughter.”

Erin Hoppin, a cheesemonger in San Francisco, has attended two workshops.

“I originally went at a horrible time in my life,” she said. “I thought it sounded wonderful because I know I always feel better when I laugh.”

Convinced the workshop did the trick, she returned with several friends.

“At first it feels forced,” Hoppin said. “But then you hear other people laughing, and you hear yourself laughing, and it’s like a self-perpetuating thing.”

Before the comedic catharsis begins, Nadananda typically stresses the importance of stimulating different energy centers in the body as he breaks into a spirited sing-along to illustrate his point.

“I’ve got the feelin' in my toes,” he sang at one recent session, raising both his foot and the energy level in the room simultaneously.

After a few minutes, the group hadn’t missed a beat.

“These toes are happy toes,” members responded together. “These little toes are happy toes!”

Carver Diserens, a sophomore at Trinity College, said that just hearing Nadananda’s guffaw was enough to tickle his funny bone.

“I remember looking over in his direction, and he was doing a yoga-esque dance with a really deep humming laugh,” he said.

Michelle Parris, a legal assistant from New York City, said Diserens cracked her up, proving the point that laughter is contagious.

“I just remember him going ho, ho, ho, ho and holding his sides, rolling around laughing,” she said.

But not everyone finds it quite so easy to burst into belly laughs on cue.

“Some people struggle the first time reaching for their authentic laughter,” Nadananda said. “They report that they prefer not to fake laughter. Practicing laughter may sound unnatural, but you can move obstacles to help your authentic laughter come through by working on it.”

Music, meditation and laughter had been powerful forces in Nadananda’s life since he graduated from Howard University in 1966 with a degree in music composition and started doing stand-up at the Apollo Theater. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he first tried combining them.

In 1985, he read Bhagwan Rajneesh’s “The Orange Book,” which contained suggestions for several different meditations.

“One of them was laughter meditation,” he said. “It was the first time I’d ever heard those two words together.”

After the laughter release, Nadananda urges his students to lie on their backs and close their eyes.

“The meditation that follows the group laughter is a wonderful opportunity for me to bring forth some gentle music with a gong or a kalimba,” he said.

Although the feedback is almost always positive, Nadananda says sometimes jokesters take things too far.

“Once in a while someone will dive into their laughter very robustly, and it will turn the others off,” he said. “You don’t know whether they’re hamming it up or they’re really going into it authentically with ecstatic hilarity.”

E-mail: asg2157@columbia.edu