x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Laughing yoga? It's no joke to some

Not everyone finds India's laughter clubs amusing, with the country's high court expected to rule tomorrow on whether the glee should be contained.

Girdhar Peshawaria, president of the Gateway of India laughter club, leads members during a morning laughter session.
Girdhar Peshawaria, president of the Gateway of India laughter club, leads members during a morning laughter session.

MUMBAI // Girdhar Peshawaria raises his hands in the crisp morning air, before bringing them together to start clapping. Then, he starts to laugh, slowly at first.

"Ho ho! Ha ha!" goes Mr Peshawaria before letting out a laugh from "the depth of his stomach", as he described it.

On a pavement in front of the famous Taj Mahal hotel, with the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea behind them, stand a group of senior citizens following Mr Peshawaria, 75, as he leads his laughter club through their morning routine.

The group is one of more than 100 outdoor laughter yoga clubs in Mumbai, most popular among the older set.

In addition to laughing, the groups also sing bhajans, or devotional songs, accompanied by hand cymbals, clap and some light exercise.

But not everyone finds the clubs amusing.

Tomorrow, a high court decision will rule on whether the noisy glee at such outdoor gatherings should be contained.

One club, the 35-member Sheetal Jogging Association, based in the Mumbai suburb of Kurla, ran into trouble last month when their sessions earned the ire of Vinayak Shirsat, a 78-year-old lawyer near whose home the club held their morning meetings.

After repeatedly telling the club to pipe down, Mr Shirsat finally sued them for "mental agony, pain and public nuisance".

Last Thursday, Justices S A Bobade and Mridula Bhatkar of the Bombay high court ruled that, while laughing was not a crime, "even laughter can disturb people sometimes".

Police were ordered to cordon off the gazebo across from Mr Shirsat's house and forced the club to move, even though Mr Shirsat's neighbours said they were not bothered by the laughing.

His lawyer, Veena Thadani, hailed the judgment as a victory for peace and quiet. Laughing in a disturbing manner "amounts to aural aggression," she said, "which the courts have ruled amounts to noise pollution."

"No one can force another to hear what they don't want to," the lawyer said.

Representatives from the club will appear in court tomorrow to assure the judge they are not a public nuisance and have moved their sessions to a public park.

One of the problems for the clubs, however, is finding a place to share their mirth but not the noise.

"Location matters," said Mr Peshawaria, when asked about the court case.

"When so many people laugh together, it makes a loud noise and I can see how such a loud noise can turn into a nuisance in a tightly packed residential area."

Mumbai is the financial centre of India and the most populated city in the country, with 12.47 million people, according to last year's census. It has a population density of about 20,500 people per square kilometre - making it the fifth most densely populous city in the world.

Although most neighbourhoods have jogging tracks or small parks, they are surrounded by crowded housing.

Madan Kataria is known as the "guru" of the growing laughter yoga movement. A medical doctor, he is credited with turning laughter into a therapeutic exercise.

There are more than 6,000 laughter yoga clubs in 60 countries, according to the website for Dr Kataria's organisation, Laughter Yoga International.

Laughter yoga combines forced laughter with breathing exercises.

Dr Kataria said that the brain did not distinguish between forced and genuine laughter, so that the good feelings one had after a good laugh could be induced.

The movement began in 1995 with Dr Kataria and five of his friends in a public park in the Lokhandwala neighbourhood of Mumbai. They gathered in the morning and told each other jokes.

"After 10 days, we ran out of jokes, and they said, 'now what?' So I said, give me a day or two and I will think of something."

Through trial and error, Dr Kataria discovered that acting happy and laughing led to medical benefits.

"I realised if you act as a happy person and laugh for the sake of laughing, even that helps."

He then augmented his morning sessions with his other passion, yoga.

Yogic breathing exercises are thought to improve the functioning of the lungs.

"Laughter is a type of exhilaration that gets rid of the carbon dioxide in the lungs and helps more oxygen to the body and brain," said Dr Kataria. "It makes you more energetic."

For laughter yoga to work, however, it must be more than a simple guffaw.

"Laughter is beneficial only if you have laughed continuously for 10 to 15 minutes. Laughing in real life comes only for a few seconds," he said.

Dr Kataria now lives in Bangalore, where he is trying to establish a laughter yoga university.

He sympathised with the members of the Sheetal Jogging Association, saying that it was difficult to find an open spot in which to laugh in a city such as Mumbai.

But he also supported the court's decision saying that people have a right to their peace and quiet.

"I don't blame the person who complained," he said.

"I welcome the court's decision but it should not undermine the exercise."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae