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Friday, July 5, 2013

Worst. Night. Ever.: A Visit to Laughter Club

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 1:14 PM

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I am not an easy laugher. At the movies, I can sit through an entire comedy stone-faced without cracking a smile, and afterward honestly say that I thought it was pretty funny. I can watch a stand-up comedian do a truly hilarious set and as everyone else in the room collapses in guffaws and chortles, I will be sitting still, half-smiling, thinking that yes, this is indeed quite funny, even though I am not actually breaking into laughter.

I don’t know why this is. Maybe I simply have a high laughter threshold, or maybe I have some sort of deep repression thing going on. I don’t know and I suppose I don’t really care. I do have friends who can make me laugh on a regular basis, and it’s because they’re really fucking funny. But a lot of times when I’m laughing at something witty you said, I’ll cop to it—I’m being polite. I am fake-laughing at you out of a sense of obligation and to make us all feel just that little more comfortable. Sorry.

For my Worst. Night. Ever., you nearly unanimously voted to send me to the Hawthorne Laughter Club. This was the right vote, Blogtown. This was the option that, for me personally, had the highest discomfort factor. (The other two options sounded potentially fun, although the hackey sack thing just sounded boring, not actively awful.) The weekly meetings are exactly what you imagine: A group of people meeting for an hour and laughing at each other in a series of laughter exercises. The idea is that fake-laughing will eventually turn into real laughter, and both real and fake laughter are good for the body in a number of ways. Laughing engenders deep breathing and enhanced circulation, and by activating those smiley muscles, the brain releases those good-feeling chemicals it keeps stored up in its little braintubes.

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This past Sunday, which surely must have been the hottest day of the year so far, I trudged to the yoga studio behind the Hawthorne Wellness Center, not really sure what to expect or how I would react to it. The studio was blessedly air conditioned, and although I was the only new participant, I received a generally warm welcome, or at least not outright suspicion. Our instructor was wearing a clown getup, right down to oversized clown shoes and makeup—the costume is something she saves for the fifth Sunday of every month, and not something she normally does on a weekly basis. Either way, though, this was not going to be a typical yoga class by any means.

I was one of nine participants in the class, and of course our instructor asked right off the bat, “Is this anyone’s first time to Laughter Club?” I alone raised my hand. When asked how I heard about it, I should have said something vague, like “the internet.” Instead I copped to being a writer for the Mercury on assignment. (Nobody laughed at this.)

We all stood in a circle as the instructor led us through a series of exercises, all of which involved deep breathing and loosening our limbs while vocalizing some form of “ha ha ha” or “ho ho ho” or “hee hee hee.” A couple exercises were repeated throughout the session as refrains, including one in which we all said “very good, very good” and then raised our arms up and saying “Yaaayyyyyy!” After doing this a few times, it stopped feeling ridiculous, believe it or not.

Some of the other exercises made me feel a bit squirmier. In one, each member of the circle took turns speaking out loud in gibberish for a few seconds. In another, we had to “laugh” our name out loud to the group. For my part, I think I kicked ass at both of these, despite any inner reluctance; this was my W.N.E. fate and I was going to embrace it head on. People laughed at me, but that was the whole point. (It also would have been weirder if I had been the only one in the group not willing to participate, which was totally an option, I should add.)

On the whole, it felt less like a yoga class and more like a theater exercise. Indeed, the yoga elements were absolutely minimal; there was no stretching, no sun salutations, no downward-facing dogs, or what have you. I bet almost all acting and improv classes make you do things far more goofy and embarrassing that anything I underwent at Laughter Club. The idea behind organized, willful laughing such as this seems to be more about getting over your inhibitions and embracing the awkwardness. And having done it—once—I actually think there is some validity to this! The true butt-clenching awkwardness I experienced in the beginning of the session gradually began to dissipate. It helped that everyone else was friendly and smiling and slightly self-conscious about all of it.

After just over an hour, the class came to a close. Had any of my fake laughter turned into genuine giggles? No, I can’t say that it did. But at the end, I did feel relaxed, perhaps even a little sleepy. At the very least, it was nice to be inside an air-conditioned room during the hottest part of the afternoon. Afterwards, as I was putting my shoes on, I was surprised when one of the class participants told me she hated laughter yoga at first—it took her six sessions before she got over her qualms. I don’t think I’ll ever get that far, but it’s good to know that if we get another Sunday as hot as the last one, there’s an air-conditioned yoga studio that’s welcome to all, provided they’re willing to at least pretend to laugh.

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