"Mumbai: Home of Laughter Clubs and World Laughter Day"
by Steve Wilson, Psychologist, with material provided by Dr. Madan Kataria
The most invigorating and enlightening twenty minutes I've spent in a long time was with a Laughter Club on the beach at the Arabian Sea. It was already a sultry 85 degrees at 6:30 a.m. and the sun was burning off the overnight haze. The pungent aroma of exhaust fumes and burning dung, familiar in the cities of India, was not yet very strong as Dr. Madan Kataria and I trekked from my hotel, making our way over the fine-sand to a place on the beach where fresh herbal elixirs are dispensed each morning.
Among the juice choices quoted on the menu: Methi soup, good for diabetes, arthritis & joint pains; Moong soup, full of proteins & good for everybody; ginger lime, good for gas trouble, cold & cough, throat problem & digestion; Tulsi Sudha, good tonic for heart, cold & cough, controls cholesterol & purifies blood; and Tomato soup, refreshing starter of the day. Some of these concoctions were very pleasant and familiar, some were bitter and unusual. I was assured that they would do me no harm. In addition to the formalized laughter exercises that would follow, my obvious apprehensions and facial expressions upon swallowing were also a good reason for giggles and chuckles among the assembled crowd that surrounded me.
It was my great pleasure to spend many hours in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) with Dr. Kataria, the jovial, energetic, laughter-loving physician who has been the catalyst for more than 100 Laughter Clubs throughout India. He explained his passion for bringing the healing power of laughter and sensible living to the world. We exchanged ideas about humor, laughter, and playfulness, comparing and contrasting his eastern and my western outlook.
The western prescription says, "Know yourself, " and the eastern says, "Become yourself." We decided that the world is ready for a synthesis of these points of view. The healthiest people are in touch with their inner motivations, values, and attitudes at the same time they are in tune with their passions and purposes, and they move deliberately in that direction.
How the Idea Originated
Within the short span of two and a half years, under the guidance of Dr. Kataria, the founder and president, more than 45 laughter clubs have been established in Mumbai and all are going strong except a few, which lacked proper leaders and motivation. According to Dr. Kataria, the membership is growing and people are deriving health benefits. To monitor the health benefits, a research panel has been setup by the parent body, Laughter Clubs International.
The idea of Laughter Clubs is the brainchild of Dr. Kataria, editor of Your Own Doctor and Mera Doctor. In March 1995, when he thought of writing an article on "Laughter, the Best Medicine", he found a large amount of scientific literature on benefits of laughter on the human mind and body. But then he decided not to publish the article. Instead he went to a public Garden at Lokhandwala Complex, in Mumbai and spoke to people about starting a laughter club.
So, on March 13, 1995, he invited four people to start laughing, standing in one corner of the garden. Initially, some people scoffed at the concept and ridiculed the idea, but when the potential health benefits were explained many people got interested and attendance started growing.
In the beginning, all the participants stood in a circle and would invite someone to come to the center and crack a joke or tell a humorous anecdote. People enjoyed the fun and felt nice after 10-20 minutes of laughter every morning.
Joking Just Wasn't Enough
Everything went very well for about 15 days, after which the stock of good jokes ran out. Stale jokes, jokes targeted at a particular community, hurtful jokes and dirty jokes started coming in, which embarrassed many members, especially the ladies. "It was evident," Dr. Kataria remembers, "that if we wanted to laugh every day we could not depend on someone telling jokes 365 day a year." Jokes were banned and it was decided that the club members would laugh without them.
It took another couple of weeks before Dr. Kataria came out with an action plan to help people to laugh without jokes.
To his knowledge, it was the first time that laughter therapy had been put on a public platform, where anyone could participate and laugh for 15-20 minutes in a group, without paying a single penny. Kataria describes this practice, in part, as, "a beautiful package of stimulated simulated laughters," such as:
Each "laughter" lasts for about 30-45 seconds. Between "laughters" members practice deep breathing, and neck, shoulder, and stretching exercises. The different laughter exercises, deep breathing, and stretching are similar to many yogic asanas.
In addition, all the laughter club members practice ways of "sensible living" as recommended by Dr. Kataria. These include such practices as paying compliments during the whole week and sharing their experiences on Sundays, and asking forgiveness on Fridays to bust overdeveloped ego, which is the seat of many troubles in life and stops us from laughing. By celebrating birthdays of each and every member after the laughter session, he has added a new dimension to the interpersonal relationship aspect of the Laughter Clubs.
How to Start a Laughter Club in Your Area
Find a place in your locality where people can assemble early in the morning when they go for a walk. It can either be a public garden, a ground or a beach. The advantage of selecting such a place is that you can combine your laughter therapy session with your morning walk. You may have a laughing session of about 15-20 minutes duration and then proceed with your walk. Also, it is easier to gather a large number of people at such places. The chosen place should not be in the immediate vicinity of residential complexes so as to prevent disturbance to others. It is not advisable to have such sessions in residential premises, either.
The ideal time to start a laughing session is between 6a.m. and 7a.m. Small adjustments can be made in the starting time according to the convenience of the participants. "The advantage of laughing in the morning," according to Dr. Kataria, "is that 20 minutes of laughter in the morning keeps you in good spirits throughout the day. It energizes your body and charges you with happiness." Morning walks and laughter therapy sessions are complementary to each other and the benefits of both can be experienced together, at the same place and time of the day. Moreover, pollution levels are lowest in the morning and this ensures a good supply of relatively fresh air.
Kataria advises anyone wishing to start a laughter club in India to organize a group of at least 25 people (the larger the number of people, the easier it is to laugh) and then get in touch with him. He then organizes a team of experts who go to that location for a demonstration of various techniques of "Laughter Therapy" and to train some persons from the group as "Anchor Persons" (facilitators/leaders) who give the instructions that initiate the different kinds of laughter.
Some Personal Observations
The experience was exhilarating, festive and friendly. It combined yoga techniques familiar to me with what starts as simulated, or some might say "forced" laughter, which then turns into peals of genuine mirth. Anyone who has ever played the game of "Chucklebelly" knows what this is like.
Watching and participating in the Laughter Club reminded me of stories I have heard for many years claiming great benefits from a Buddhist practice of forced laughter. Supposedly, according to the descriptions, in order to set the spirit and mental attitude right and to promote health, one is advised to start each day with laughter. With slight variations, the prescription supposedly is to lie in bed upon awakening first thing in the morning and force yourself to laugh anywhere from five to fifteen minutes, then get up and start your day. Kataria had never heard these stories, but the activities at the Laughter Club sure looked like what I had heard about.
Kataria begins with extemporaneous words of encouragement to establish a positive motivational frame of mind in participants. He summarizes the potential benefits at the conclusion, reminding the group that laughter is free and that the Laughter Club is non-parochial, non-sectarian, and open to everyone.
Midway through the second set of laughters I was struck by the strong sense of friendship and familiarity I felt with people whom I met only a few minutes previously. I wonder if this is one of the great social benefits of large group "laughters", although I don't recall ever having those feelings at venues such as comedy concerts where people are laughing wildly. In the Laughter Club, there is a sense of camaraderie and welcome. I look forward to the research data the will eventually be forthcoming, to see whether it shed some light on the phenomenon as I experienced it.
World Laughter Day
The following is excerpted with permission from a report in Dr. Kataria's monthly magazine, Your Own Doctor.
"The 11th day of January 1998 went down in history when more than 10,000 participants from laughter clubs all over India laughed together at Race Course grounds Mumbai, to tell the whole world that we need to take laughter seriously. The outstanding success of the program was the result of excellent dedication of several Laughter Clubs. The enthusiastic participation by thousands of members proved that these Laughter Clubs are not a laughing matter.
"Dr. Kataria said that he would like to mention a couple of special features of the Laughter Club movement. One is that to become a member of a Laughter Club there is no form, no fee, and no other fuss. All that a person has to do is to stand with those who have gathered to laugh and then just laugh with them. The other feature is that laughter at the laughter clubs is not confined to physical aspects of laughter. On the contrary, there is more emphasis on the emotional part and extending it to what we call inner laughter.
"By inner laughter we mean that the spirit of laughter, which is to be happy and make others happy, goes within us and becomes part of our life and living. In that direction, ideas like paying deserving compliments, apologizing for the wrongs done, and the like; which eliminate bitterness, lift spirits of people, bring cheer and happiness around, and generally add to one's quality of life are being introduced. And that, in tandem with physical laughter, we believe, will bring about what we call inner laughter.
"The idea of organizing World Laughter Day, Dr. Kataria said, was to remind people of the many benefits of laughter and to actually show them that to laugh is not as difficult as it is thought to be. To be the beneficiary of all the benefits, one merely has to remove the usual inhibitions, be ready to laugh and then just go ahead and laugh.
"Dr Kataria said that, instead of indulging in more words, he would like to demonstrate how members of laughter clubs laugh and how easily and heartily they do so. All the members of various laughter clubs present then joined him in what he said were some of the types of laughter and gave their names: medium laughter, silent I laughter, jhoola laughter, and meter laughter.
"The grounds, which are usually filled with of the sound of horse gallops, groans of many losers, and laughter of a few winners; perhaps, for the first time, reverberated with laughter and happiness. Guests could not hold themselves back, joined in, and then laughed with abandon. Dr. Kataria ended with these words: "I am the healthiest person in the world, I am the happiest person in the world because I am a laughter club member." All the laughter club members joined in this with gusto as they do every day. TV and other cameras eagerly filmed the scene. The point was clearly made by Dr Kataria that laughing is really easy."
Dr. Kataria expects 50,000 people to assemble in Mumbai next January  for World Laughter Day. For information about joining a travel group, call (614) 855-4733 or e-mail WLT@stevewilson.com.
— Steve Wilson, Psychologist (© 1998)
AIMS AND OBJECTIVES OF LAUGHTER CLUBS INTERNATIONAL