We've all heard the adage about an apple a day keeping the doctor away, but maybe we should add a laugh a day to that prescription.
Cheryl Ann Oberg is a certified laughter leader, therapeutic clown, director for the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor, and executive director of Calgary's Caring Clown Association. At the Alberta Children's Hospital, where Oberg spends two days each week lifting the spirits of youngsters, patients and staff know her as Sparkle the Clown.
You might think a hospital -- especially if you're a sick child or the parent of one -- is the last place to find a good laugh. You'd be wrong. Oberg takes her special brand of medicine to team meetings, rounds and mental health wards, as well as hospice and palliative care units. Many Alzheimer patients respond positively to laughter therapy, discovering that laughter brings back fond memories.
"Laughter is one of those tools that helps push away fear," says Oberg. "When you're laughing, the negative emotions go away. Laughter is a built-in medicine cabinet."
Five years ago Oberg was involved in a car accident that left her hospitalized, in critical condition and with a long recovery period ahead of her. She believes that accident equipped her with a deeper appreciation and understanding of what her young hospital charges are going through.
"I have kids (at the Alberta Children's Hospital) who have had rods put in their backs and they're in extreme pain. I teach them laughter techniques to help them cope with their physical pain."
You don't need to be in pain or distress to benefit from laughter.
Laughter as exercise?
Yes, say practitioners of laughter yoga. Laughter stimulates heart and blood circulation, improves lung capacity, exercises the abdominal muscles, and can be done regularly regardless of your fitness level. But the health benefits don't stop there. Laughter lowers levels of epinephrine and cortisol (stress hormones) while upping levels of endorphins (the feel-good chemical manufactured by our own bodies).
5 reasons to laugh every day
1. Laughter reduces stress.
2. Laughter is a natural anti-aging tool. It ups blood supply to your face and improves your colour.
3. Laughter can help you sleep. Regular laughter reduces stress and depression and makes it easier for you to get a good night's rest. Oberg teaches children how to do silent laughter when a bad dream wakens them in the middle of the night. "We'll just have the sound of the air coming in and out, but you can't hear the laughter," she says. "That laughter will help them relax their bodies so they can go back to sleep."
4. Laughter can improve your lung capacity and improve oxygen levels in the blood.
5. Laughter is infectious -- if you live life with enthusiasm and laughter, it will extend to the people around you.
What is laughter yoga?
A non-religious, non-political physical activity, laughter yoga was started in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, a Mumbai, India physician who was intrigued by the positive benefits of laughter among his patients. The principle is simple: laugh regularly and you will feel better physically and mentally.
Laughter yoga isn't a euphemism for visiting a stand-up comedy club. In fact, you can do laughter yoga without a sense of humour! Exercises are a combination of tension-releasing laughter, breathing and stretching, and rhythmic clapping and chanting (Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha). This is followed by laughter meditation -- a few minutes of silence followed by "fake" laughing.
"Laughter clubs are groups that get together and laugh for no reason," says Oberg. "They're usually free and drop-in. In Calgary, I'm re-naming it to Laughing Families to encourage the whole family to drop in."
Find a laughter club near you
There are an estimated 5,000 laughter yoga clubs in 40 countries around the world. You can find a laughter yoga club in your area by visiting: www.laughteryoga.ca/where.htm
"You don't need a prescription, you don't need someone to gift-wrap it and give it to you," says Oberg. "Just give yourself permission to laugh. The difference between a bad day and a good day can be one minute of laughter."