Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Well-being : March 12, 2000
Laugh and be well
Serious. Glum. Morose. Irritable. Discontented. As the centuries advance and we progress technologically, there seems to be little cheer to go around. The violence and conflict all around makes us insecure and grim faced.
Where are the comedies as in the past when a Charlie Chaplin, Norman Wisdom, Jerry Lewis or Laurel and Hardy could transform the audience into a chuckling mass of humanity? Where have the light-hearted romances gone in which couples like Doris Day and Rock Hudson sparred and flirted under indulgent eyes?
Life then was wild and wonderful and the great race among the rivals in laughter was exhilarating. The Sixties and Seventies saw a flourishing breed of comedians in our country too.
Humour as a therapy has never failed. For many of us the medicine for the blues, for the downcurved mouth and heavy heart is Wodehousian humour. As we watch the simple Bertie bleat for his butler and the dotty Emsworth gaze dotingly on his porcine empress, nothing needs to be made heavy weather of. The cartoons of R. K. Laxman and the gentle humour of R. K. Narayan can bring a smile to the dourest face.
Humour leavened with wit is the Indian speciality and the Vidusha or jester could get away with rank impertinence to bring a smile to royal lips. The Jataka tales, the stories of Birbal and Tenali Raman are filled with humour that drives away the cobwebs from our minds and the unease from our hearts.
Has humour become a rare commodity of late? What are the benefits of the hearty laugh and happy smile?
Plenty, according to doctors and experts. Humour contributes greatly to a feeling of well-being. "Laugh and be well" is now a proven medical fact. Humour and laughter for therapeutic value are being increasingly recognised today throughout the world. Laughter clinics are attached to hospitals in the U.S., U.K. and other Western countries where films and video-films are screened. If you feel it is crazy to laugh without reason it is time to rethink. For those merry souls whose laughter rings out loud and clear are on the way to becoming de-stressed individuals at peace with themselves and the world. Shedding their ailments along with their inhibitions, they are on the route to a better life.
Madan Kataria, a Mumbai based physician, has blazed a trail of laughter across the globe. The "merry medicine man from India" and a pioneer of the laughter clubs movement in the country, he is also the Founder-President of the Laughter Club International, with 70 branches in the city and more than 400 nation wide. The concept has generated interest in major cities of the world from New York to Hong Kong, Italy to Tokyo.
Dr. Madan Kataria in a detailed e-mail to this correspondent, elaborated on the multiple uses of this "wonder medicine" in improving physical and mental well-being.
The world has become serious, he rues. The media constantly bombards us with bad news and negative thoughts. There is no laughter at workplaces and children too, behave like adults. "Through the clubs we are trying to break the seriousness of life, and by reviving the spirit of laughter, alleviate stress.
"Children laugh over 300 times a day whereas adults laugh only 15 times. This is because children laugh unconditionally while adults do so only if there is a cause. The club is a joint effort by like-minded people to liberate laughter and happiness from reason for where there is logic, there is no laughter. The very essence of laughter is absurdity," points out the author of Laugh For No Reason.
More than 70 per cent of illnesses have some relation to stress. High blood pressure, heart disease, depression, insomnia, migraine, anxiety, allergies, peptic ulcers - the list goes on. "If these symptoms recur and persist, you need to unwind and become a member of a Laughter Club", adds Dr. Kataria. The treatment of mind-related diseases is aided by the use of laughter which is the easiest form of meditation.
Yogic laughter (Hasya Yoga) in a group is one of the most economical de-stressing measures, he says.
Dr. Kataria began his club in a small way at a park in Mumbai with just four members, four years ago. The idea caught on well but jokes to trigger off laughter were replaced, as they became risque, by exercises akin to yogic ones such as Pranayam, kaphalbhati, bhastarika and talasanas.
Each session of the club starts with deep breathing and the Ho, Ho, Ha, Ha warm-up followed by a variety of stimulated laughter such as hearty, silent, medium and swinging laughter, and dancing guffaws. The members, on being allowed to improvise, went on an imaginative spree with an ingenuous cloth merchant coming up with the one metre laugh to parody the measurement of material and others serving up the cocktail and argument forms of mirth.
The editor of the health magazine Your Own Doctor, says his clubs ensure value-based life rather than a perpetual rat race.
There is more to laughter however than merely resounds on the ear. "We don't claim long standing ailments have been cured by laughter therapy," It is mainly an anti-stress measure and more of a supplementary and preventive therapy. Beginning the day with 15 minutes of laughter keeps you fresh throughout the day, says Dr. Kataria.
A safety valve that defuses tension, laughter reduces the release of stress related hormones and aids in relaxation. "Our studies have shown that people suffering from a variety of diseases have benefited in some way or the other. There is a 10-20 mm drop in blood pressure after a 10 minute laughter session." Laughter helps to control blood pressure. Though it cannot reverse the problem, it can arrest the progress of the disease. "Those suffering from heart disease and have stabilised the medication will find that laughter improves the blood supply as well as oxygen supply to the heart muscles. Like magic fingers it massages the internal abdominal walls."
The daily guffaws strengthen the immune system of the body by helping to increase the count of natural killer lymphocytes (a type of white cell) and raise the antibody levels.
Researchers have found that antibodies in the mucous membranes of the nose and respiratory passages increase after laughter therapy. The frequency of colds, sore throats and chest infections comes down, affirms the doctor, quoting from personal experience in case of attacks of flu.
Since laughter improves the level of endorphins, which are natural pain killers in our body, it helps reduce the intensity of pain from arthritis, spondylitis and migraine. Asthmatics derive benefit from this exercise as it improves lung capacity and oxygen levels in the blood, he adds.
The spirit of laughter is focussed on these clubs by promoting inter-personal relationships and the concepts of forgiveness and understanding. The shedding of inhibitions leads to development of confidence and leadership qualities as well as communication skills - "as many as 30 of our club members have become anchor persons".
And the looks conscious can take heart. According to Dr. Kataria, laughter can make you look younger for it tones up the muscles of your face and leads to an increase of blood supply which nourishes the facial skin and makes it glow.
The International Laughter Club concept was sparked of by the discovery of the healing powers of laughter by American journalist Norman Cousins. Victim of a painful spinal disease, he found that humorous films on video alleviated his symptoms. His book Anatomy of An Illness published in 1978 established the therapeutic effect of laughter.
Patch Adams, a cheerful American doctor also believes in the health benefits of humour and laughter and the film "Patch Adams" starring Robin Williams is a tribute to the happy physician.
Not only do we laugh in a group but also practise and implement ways and means to sensible living, says the Laughter Club chief. "We are already paying a heavy price for taking life seriously. The time has come to take laughter seriously."
So next time, you pass a group of the Club members laughing itself into stitches do not laugh at them. It may be better to join them instead.
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