Well Being: There is uplift, they find, in a good guffaw

Posted: November 07, 2011

Ruth Weisberg was driving down Lancaster Avenue after her morning swim at Villanova University. Despite the exercise boost, she was feeling low. She was thinking of her first cousin and the colorectal cancer that had spread to her liver. She recalled her cousin's lament about the endless rounds of chemotherapy:

"I can handle the nausea and fatigue," her cousin said. "What rips me up inside is that I haven't laughed in so long."

Weisberg was looking for a divine sign. In the window of Equilibrium Spa in Bryn Mawr, she saw it: a literal sign advertising a class in laughter yoga.

Weisberg, 55, of Ardmore, called and signed up. A blithe, upbeat spirit, she knew the benefits of laughter, for herself and for her cousin. "I came as her emissary," Weisberg declared.

The other night, I joined Weisberg at Equilibrium for a rollicking session of laughter yoga. The spa, in addition to offering such standard services as facials, massages, pedicures, and manicures, ventures into other realms of healing and well-being.

When Marta Tothova, 57, a Czech native who owns the spa, tried a laughter yoga class in Kennett Square, she knew she wanted to take it to the Main Line.

"My clients are very nice people," Tothova said, "But I see them always so sad, with no smiles on their faces."

Creating smiles and triggering laughter is the specialty of Ernie Oktay, leader of the laughter yoga class and an ordained interfaith minister who calls himself "director in charge of hilarity."

"I'm on a mission to spread peace and joy in the world through smiles and laughter," he announced.

A native of Istanbul and the grandson of a Sufi mystic, he was wearing a "Mr. Happy" T-shirt and had adorned the room with professions of his principles:

"Hilarity brings clarity."

"To be able to laugh at yourself is spiritual maturity."

"Be a Smile millionaire."

"Laughing is my favorite exercise."

Oktay, 50, came to the United States at age 10. He lives in Northeast Philadelphia and works as a massage therapist. He is a man of many parts: clown, mime, actor, cheerleader, motivator, stress reliever, healer, philosopher, spiritual guide, a latter-day Soupy Sales with a face that is animated, mobile, and plastic.

He says things like: "We live in a laugh-deprived and touch-deprived society. We're very suspicious of each other. We don't connect to each other heart to heart."

And: "We are always looking outside ourselves for happiness. Happiness is inside; it's our God-given birthright."

Given his antics, manic personality and insistence on living in the moment, it's hard to believe that for 26 years, Oktay was a cubicle captive, toiling as an arbitrator for the U.S. Department of Labor. He became a certified laughter yoga instructor after seeing a laughter yoga circle at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

"In our society, we think we need a reason to laugh," he said, but laughter is therapeutic in its own right. "We laugh not because we're happy; we're happy because we laugh. The body doesn't know the difference between genuine laughter and artificial laughter. It's easy to trick the body into happiness."

On a physiological level, laughter suffuses the body with oxygen, releases endorphins, boosts the immune system, and opens both the physical and emotional heart. The author and journalist Norman Cousins famously wrote about finding relief from crippling arthritis by laughing at Marx Brothers movies.

We were an intimate group, just four of us, facing one another in a circle, forcing ourselves at first into mock gales of hilarity, making eye contact, trying to infect one another with mirth. Periodically, we stopped to clap our hands and shout, "Ho, ho, ha, ha, ha!" We made faces at one another. We spoke gibberish. We danced and cavorted. We formed a conga line and shimmied back to back. We rode pogo-stick horses, and strutted like runway models. We blew bubbles and exhaled our cares and worries into balloons that we released into the air. Holding an inflatable globe in our laps, we confessed our hopes, dreams and fears, and Oktay concluded the session with a seemingly endless laugh track that we supplemented with our own laughter.

Oktay draws his inspiration from watching children frolic on playgrounds. What we were doing was childlike, not childish, he insisted. It was silly, ridiculous, and embarrassing. We were making fools of ourselves in front of strangers - and it felt good.

"When you're laughing, it's impossible to think about the past or the future," Oktay said. "It brings you into the present moment and breaks the tyranny of the mind."

Or, as Weisberg put it: "You have to show up for laughter yoga. You can't phone it in. There's no app for this."

Well Being:

A slide show of celebrities laughing: www.philly.com/health

"Well Being" appears every other week, rotating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at acarey@phillynews.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

Information about laughter yoga is available at www.LaughterYogaFriends.com, or contact Ernie Oktay at LaughterYogaCircle@gmail.com or 267-970-5696. Laughter yoga classes take place at 7 p.m. Tuesdays at Equilibrium Spa, 1038 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr. Telephone: 610-964-6135.

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