My First Laughter Yoga Class: 1998
I am nearing the end of a month-long stay at an ashram in the Virginia mountains, and the teacher says we going to lie on the floor and laugh for 45 minutes. This seems normal (cue sarcasm here).
She starts us with gentle yoga movements and a few breathing exercises and then we lie on our backs in a zigzag pattern. The back of each person’s head is resting on someone else’s stomach. The teacher starts giggling at nothing—no jokes, no slapstick—and that little bit of laughter ripples outward until everyone is giggling. Then those giggles turn to laughter, in waves, up into peaks of guffaws and back down into valleys of breathy hahahas.
Listening to everyone else’s laugh styles immediately strikes me as hilarious and soon I’m laughing uncontrollably. I stop to catch my breath, but one guy’s loud donkey laugh cracks me up again. It is all so funny and so fun … until it isn’t.
My solar plexus quakes as someone’s head rests on it. Everyone starts to sound maniacal. Suddenly this is primal and scary. A good trip gone bad. People are too close to me. I try to keep laughing, to do what the teacher was urging us to do, but I start crying. Tears are rolling out of my eyes onto someone’s stomach while my solar plexus convulses.
The teacher squats down and tells me crying is completely normal because laughing and sobbing are closely related bodily reflexes. She helps me take deep, slow breaths and tells me to let the emotions flow. Soon I am back to laughing, tuned into the donkey laugh, feeling somewhat unhinged. But more than that, I feel free—like I’ve released some unknown monster that was haunting me.
The teacher calls us back to slow breathing and a few yoga stretches. We sit in a circle. I feel empty, in the best way. Everyone is smiling. Our eyes connect a little longer. That night, I sleep for 16 hours.
My Second Laughter Yoga Class: 2023
It’s been 25 years since my first laughter yoga class, but it often crosses my mind. Laughter is on my radar, having recently written about the physiological and psychological benefits of laughter. I’ve also spent the summer on the “struggle bus,” in a state of longing for more joy and laughter. So, it feels like the perfect time to revisit laughter yoga.
Unfortunately, no one is teaching laughter yoga in my little beach town, and I’m nowhere near the ashram. But it does not take long for me to find Robert Rivest on YouTube. Founder of the Rivest Method of Joyful Living, Rivest teaches laughter yoga and stress relief programs. He uses mindfulness, laughter, yoga, Qigong and the performing arts to bring greater health, happiness and joy to people and organizations around the world.
As I select a 24-minute class on his YouTube channel, I note the differences between the 28-year-old me at the ashram without a care in the world and the 54-year-old me who is sandwiching this class between classes, deadlines and errands. I can feel stress balling up in my belly, but I click play.
Rivest appears on the screen, looking straight into the camera with a huge grin. He starts with simple breaths in and out. He adds some slow, yoga arm movements connected with inhalations and exhalations.
Then, rivest adds the laughter. As we lift our arms on the inhalation, we’re instructed to add a surprising burst of laughter to the exhalation. Rivest releases natural howls of joy, but I can’t find my natural laugh. I feel silly and self-conscious. I wonder if my teenagers or my neighbor can hear Rivest’s cackling … and my painful attempts at joy.
The class continues. We expand our body and arms on the inhalations, contracting on the exhalations. Every new pattern of movement starts with breath only, then builds into laughter on the exhalation. It’s breathwork and movement and laughter all rolled into one, and I marvel at Rivest’s ability to keep his eyes connected to the camera while his joy flows out of him.
As my mind gets the hang of the pattern of movement and breath, I feel my own laughter coming more easily—not from my mind telling me to laugh, but from a deeper place, the diaphragm-shaking, gut-busting, lose-yourself-in-the-moment laugh. The more we simultaneously move and breathe, the more I react by the hilarity of laughing by myself in my yard to a YouTube video. I hear the youthful cackle of my teenage years begin to flow out of me. I’m so happy to hear myself laugh like that. Tears jump into my eyes. It’s been way too long.
Rivest dances around in nature while laughing and I follow along—forgetting the kids and the neighbor. I find myself moving off-script. I move wildly around my yard, laughing at this ridiculousness until the video ends and I’m called back to my reality.
I stop, look around, and lie down in the grass. I’m smiling like a jack-o-lantern. I tune in to the residual feeling of conjuring up laughter on an ordinary morning. The stress that was threatening to knot up in my belly never came. My belly lifts and falls with my breath. I feel the vibration of the cicadas buzzing in every cell of my body and the breeze on my skin. When I stand up to move on with my day, I feel like I’m embodying someone else’s body and mind. I’m moving slower, from my center. I’m smiling and noticing more and that feeling lasts for a few hours.
Since that morning I have practiced laughter yoga on YouTube several more times with Rivest, and I can tell, as he says, that the benefits are cumulative. On the days I do it, I feel joyful, hopeful and grateful, less stressed and more ready to smile and laugh at simple things. May we all find a little more laughter today.
Molly Harrison loves her life on a sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean. Her home, Nags Head, is on a barrier island as far east as you can get in North Carolina, and she spends as much time as possible in and on the water, at the beach, and in the maritime forests. In between, she works as a freelance writer and editor, yoga instructor, retreat leader, and Reiki practitioner. Her passions are helping people feel their best through exercise, energy healing, and nature.
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