Evelyn Cummings was consumed with gut-busting laughter Friday. She was among other women who packed East Texas Medical Center’s Pavilion for a breast cancer retreat.
The annual Pink Ribbon Getaway typically consists of medical panelists discussing breast health and breast cancer treatment, an inspiring keynote speaker and lunch. But Friday’s retreat provided a bonus — an uplifting change of pace for the women.
Prompted by a laughter yoga teacher, Ms. Cummings pretended to run her fingers around a glass, simulating “cocktail laughter.” Neither she nor the other women at the table could contain themselves.
This technique, laughter yoga, is growing in popularity, with hospitals and enthusiasts using it to help relieve stress and promote deep breathing, which helps to oxygenate the blood. This in turn helps the immune system, a benefit for cancer patients, proponents have said.
Ms. Cummings said she could feel a difference in just a few minutes.
“It’s helping my breathing,” she said. “Seems like it’s opening me up.”
In the pink-filled room, the laughter slowly shifted from fake, to spontaneous then to contagious. Everyone was cracking up, thanks to Stephen Findley, a chaplain at M.D. Anderson in Houston who also teaches laughter yoga. While teaching, he goes by his yoga name, Shakha Stephen.
Findley’s session had the women going through several types of laughing techniques including a shy laugh and robust laughs. Each ended with a loud chant: “Ho, ho, ho … ha, ha, ha … very good, very good, yeah!”
Laughter yoga doesn’t require participants to twist their bodies or quietly chant like the more recognizable forms of yoga. It focuses on using the core muscles, breathing and tapping into one’s child-like playfulness.
“When you’re truly laughing about something, you’re in the moment,” Findley said. “You’re not thinking about tomorrow, what’s going to happen next, or what you did yesterday. It gets you into the moment.”
Findley said laughter yoga is a form of physical exercise because participants use their diaphragm to deep breathe.
“Laughter yoga is a good way to get a built in workout,” he said. “It’s actually an aerobic workout but we’re using laughter and breathe as a way of stimulating the body.”
He said it’s also an emotional exercise because laughter makes people feel good.
“Laughter is cathartic,” Findley said. “Laughter also helps improve a person’s emotional intelligence. ... Laughter also diffuses three of our negative emotions: fear, anger and boredom.”
He said during these three emotions, people often are tense and breathing is shallow.
Findley learned laughter yoga after a friend invited him to a workshop in 2007. He knew he had to bring it to M.D. Anderson, a center renowned for its cancer treatment. He said there needed to be a more light-hearted healing component to offer patients battling cancer.
Regina Davis, director of ETMC’s Breast Care Center, happily participated in the laughter exercises, too. She invited Findley to come to the Tyler event after seeing him in Houston.
“I enjoyed it so much,” she said. “Within 10 minutes I was really into it. I thought it would be a great opportunity to bring something like this up here.”
Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from India, introduced laughter yoga in 1995. He was searching for a way to use humor as a stress management tool. Gathering a small group, they’d tell jokes and the audience would laugh. The group grew, but they ran out of jokes, Findley explained.
He said Kataria then examined evidence that showed how laughter, health and stress management were connected.
“He read a line that said the human body can’t tell the difference between a fake laugh and a real laugh,” he said. “So, he had a ‘haha’ moment.”