x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Fake it till you make it,' then you're laughing yourself happy

Laughter, whether it comes naturally or is forced, triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in the body. Laura Collins attends a special yoga studio in Dubai.

Diala, left, and Maya at the Laughter Yoga class at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates. Jaime Puebla / The National
Diala, left, and Maya at the Laughter Yoga class at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates. Jaime Puebla / The National

I am sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, trying - really trying - to giggle. Anybody who knows me knows how wrong that sentence is. If there is one thing that comes naturally and unbidden to me it's the hopeless, breathless, uncontrollable abandon of giggling. Well, it used to be. Because at half past seven on this particular Wednesday evening in Dubai the "gift", such as it is, has deserted me entirely. Others around me are managing it. I open one eye and survey a dozen or so strangers sniggering away, their eyes firmly shut. I renew my efforts and try to focus. But not even the earnest attempt to summon, as instructed, the last happy memory that made me laugh is having much effect. I'm drawing a blank. Instead I find myself wishing I hadn't worn my baby blue jeans and pondering the fate of their seat, planted as it is on the dusty studio floor.

With a clap of her hands, self-styled master coach Sahar Haffar Moussly signals the end of this meditation. Its purpose, she says, is "to get you out of your comfort zone". In that case it's been a resounding success. "Even if you don't feel it you have to force the laughter," she explains to the now silent room.

"Fake it till you make it," she concludes with a fierce bright smile. This is the mantra of Laughter Yoga. Suddenly I want to giggle.

It is just a few weeks since Moussly, a former life coach from Syria, brought the concept of Laughter Yoga to the UAE with a series of trial sessions at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac). "It is a totally new concept here," she says - an assertion borne out by the fact that none of the people who turn up for this session have the faintest idea what it is.

"Who knows what Laughter Yoga is?" she asks.

"Some sort of yoga?" somebody offers quite reasonably.

"No."

We're all out of ideas.

"It's not yoga like you might understand it," Moussly explains. Nor for that matter is it laughter like you might understand it. Having established the utter ignorance of her students, Moussly goes on to explain the principal of Laughter Yoga. It was developed by an Indian doctor, Madan Kataria, in Mumbai. He launched the first Laughter Club in one of the city's parks in 1995 after his research showed that the body can't distinguish between real and fake laughter. It therefore produces all the same endorphins and serotonin, with all their life and health-enhancing benefits, from forced laughter as it does from the genuine thing. Oxygen flow increases, blood pressure drops, anxiety diminishes, breathing deepens ... we feel better.

So, Moussly tells us, there will be no funny stories and there will be no jokes. This is all sounding a bit grim to be honest. Basically the next hour will be no laughing matter but we will be expected to cackle on cue.

"It might feel foolish," Moussly admits. "But we will feel foolish together. Paint on a smile and we begin."

My heart sinks.

We start with a bit of a warm up: some neck rolling, hand waggling, hip gyrating and arm swinging followed by a bit of moaning designed to loosen up the vocal chords. Then it's onto the first exercise, the "laughing namaste". We are to move around the room, hands palm to palm in the classic namaste pose of greeting, but instead of uttering that greeting we are to laugh, heartily and loudly - right in the other person's face. There is a sort of communal double-take, an unspoken "seriously?" before we attempt to throw ourselves into the experience. That, after all, is the point as Moussly keeps reminding us. "Fake it till you make it," she barks and as she laughs her namaste off I have to hand it to her; she's either really enjoying herself or really good at faking it. I, however, am not.

"Ho. Ho. Ho," Moussly booms. "OMG," my inner voice replies.

Moussly rattles through a succession of prosaically named exercises, "Waking up the body laughter" consists of rapidly tapping our arms and legs while laughing hard. And it is hard, to laugh that is. The "talking gibberish" exercise needs no explanation. I fight the urge to leave. Then there's the "I'm laughing but I don't know why I'm laughing" exercise. I'm not laughing and I am very clear about the reasons. Still, I persevere. I tell myself that I will laugh really loudly in the next exercise. I steel myself to do so only to find that it is one of contemplative breathing. Apparently we're not allowed to laugh in this, which of course means that, for the first time in the session, I feel the dizzy rise of giggles. I bite my lip and breathe studiously.

Next up is "weightless electric shock laughter exercise". Is there a book of these? I wonder. This involves slow-motioning the delivery of this "shock" to yourself - index finger of right hand onto left forearm then reverse and repeat - and responding with a violent burst of laughter while spinning away presumably due to our sudden weightlessness.

I glance across the room and catch the eye of Sylvia, a 28-year-old estate agent. She is there with her friend and colleague Jenny. They bought a voucher on Groupon thinking, understandably, that they were going to be doing some sort of yoga. She looks at the pantomiming around her, gives a wry eye roll, then launches into the exercise.

All these things, Moussly says, are meant to remove our inhibitions and open us not to the conditional state of happiness but to the more sustained one of joy. I like the sound of that. The trouble is, concerted attempts to remove my inhibitions only draw my attention to the fact that those inhibitions exist. Far more effective in my experience is simply allowing them to fall away unnoticed, unforced and without remark.

Somewhat alarmingly, Moussly announces that we are going to "blow our brains with angry thoughts". We will then get those mind-blowingly angry thoughts out of our system through laughter. Actually, this turns out to be quite fun, and the volume in the room jumps dramatically as our "angry thoughts", signalled by a sort of whooping crescendo, ends with roared laughter.

A random assortment of exercises follow - we frantically gyrate our arms like pistons to "pump the laughter", we do the "ho ho hahaha" clap, which unsurprisingly means laughing in rhythm to two slow claps "ho ho" followed by three rapid ones, "hahaha". We "hee hee" and "ha ha" and I'm starting to feel dizzy with the effort of trying to laugh when required and fighting the urge to giggle at all the wrong places.

It's a relief when Moussly announces it's time to lie on our backs, knees raised as we enter the "grounding" period as the session nears its end. Apparently if you laugh too much and don't ground yourself afterwards you can get depressed. Blimey, who'd have thought?

There's a sustained period of forced laughter - though truthfully I've sort of given up by now and am just enjoying lying on the floor. Then Moussly signals that it's time for some quiet relaxation. She ends with the direction, "Imagine you have given birth to a laughter baby". Every muscle in my body contracts in the effort to suppress the urge to giggle. The room is silent. This is torture. Next to me, 24-year-old Maya is fighting a similar battle - one we are both destined to lose.

"Can I laugh?" she finally wails before completely losing it. So much for grounding. Moussly makes another attempt to save us from ourselves but it only makes it worse and finally she gives up and suggests we move onto the "ho ho ha ha" dance - a sort of shuffling affair in which we push the air forwards with our hands at "ho ho", and down towards the ground on "ha ha".

The session is over. Honestly, my first thought is, "Thank goodness for that." But heading back out to the Mall of the Emirates car park I register that I feel far more upbeat and energised than I did on the journey there. Is it just sheer relief that it's over? Certainly that might play a part. But I think of Moussly's words, "We forget how to laugh as we grow up. As children we laugh all the time. As adults we are told, 'Don't laugh without reason.' Here we laugh for no reason." And I smile and vow to try to laugh more and to giggle whenever I want.

lcollins@thenational.ae