Bringing laughter to the yoga mat

The Yoga for Life Project provides uplifting classes to local people to help them deal with professional and personal stressors

Laughing might be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re up to your eyeballs in stress, but Claire Whalley, the founder of The Yoga For Life Project, believes some rib-tickling chuckling is exactly what you should be doing. Whalley teaches “laughter yoga”, a form of practice that combines breath work with the bonus of boosting happy hormones by laughing in order to shift feelings or moods of being stuck. 

Founded in 2019, the Yoga for Life Project is a not-for-profit company based in Bethnal Green. Its aim is to make yoga available to a wider cross-section of society, bringing the health benefits of yoga to those who need it most. They provide classes catering to a wide range of health conditions, from cancer and long covid to stress and burnout.

Whalley, who has been practising yoga for over 30 years, was brought up in a medical family – her father was one of the first GPs to work in the NHS. In 2022, North East London NHS Foundation Trust asked Whalley to offer laughter yoga classes to the NHS staff to help ease their stress. She leapt at the chance to bring the benefits of yoga to bring its benefits to a broader and more diverse community in the workplace. What started as an uncertain experiment quickly turned into a roaring success as local NHS staff suffering from stress, chronic fatigue, burn out and long covid took weekly laughter yoga classes online. “Breathing and moving their bodies during lunch breaks allows them to release stress but also feel more energised for the rest of the day,” says Whalley.

The original idea of laughter yoga was founded in a Mumbai park in the early 1990s by Dr Madan Kataria. His research found that the body benefits from laughing, even when you pretend to laugh, because it cannot distinguish between real and pretend laughter. “It is different from other yoga classes as, generally, we don’t laugh in those,” says Whalley. “In laughter yoga the class might start standing or seated depending on what the student feels is best for them that day,” she says. “It is not a competitive exercise, but more about discovering how you feel.”

The healthcare professionals who attend the class are exhausted and stressed, she says. “They describe their days as being unable to take a break and feeling responsible for patients while covering for the understaffed,” says Whalley. “Some even fall asleep early in the class as they are desperately tired and burnt out.”

In laughter yoga, students place their hands on their chest and belly to explore the flow of breath in the body. They feel it all the way deep down, running across corners of their feet, which leaves them grounded, she says. “If you feel the breath in the upper part, explore breathing into the belly, expanding the belly with the breath so the hand gently moves away.” says Whalley. “Once you feel the breath in the belly and chest clear, drop the lower hand and breathe into the hands on the belly.” 

She describes moments of relief and relaxation in laughter yoga, where a calmed body is crucial to sustaining peace in the exercise: “Feel the rise and fall of the breath like a wave. Relax the shoulders away from the ears, imagine a smile behind the eyes and on the lips. Continue breathing and feeling into the feet, feeling deeply relaxed and grounded. 

“Come to making a ‘ha ho’ sound,” she says. “Smile, arms over the head, and exhale, arms down with ‘a ha’ sound, do this a couple of times. On the third time as you exhale, introduce a ‘ha ha ha’ sound encouraging involuntary laughter. Now start to shake the upper body out and laugh at the same time. Clap ‘ho ho ha’ and introduce a second and third ‘ha’. Soon you will be laughing.”

Apart from laughter yoga, The Yoga for Life Project also provides classes for breath work and gentle movement. “One of the essential tools to navigate stress is breath work, which is a foundation of yoga and accessible to everyone. Even if someone is too unwell to move much, it is easy to learn to slow down your breath,” says Lauren Dutton, a yoga instructor who runs some classes for The Yoga for Life Project. 

Dutton has studied breath-work, or pranayama, to support a range of health conditions including stress and anxiety, and brings her knowledge to her teaching: “We work on things that can calm, soothe and regulate the nervous system.”

A laughter yoga class ends with yoga nidra, a guided body scan and meditation, taking the students to their delta brain waves of sleep  — our deepest sleep — where the body’s natural system of self-repair switches on. In this state, the body finds deep rest and the student is left feeling relaxed and revitalised. The technique is said to particularly help people who are suffering from stress, anxiety, PTSD, chronic fatigue and insomnia. 

The yoga classes also include care group discussions, where participants would open up about their feelings and emotions. Dutton says the community has developed into one supportive group aimed at relieving stress. She found that these practices were key to ease the sense of anxiety, fear, and self-criticism, which has long troubled her. 

“It is a tool that is always with you. You can practise it anywhere and laugh your stress away,” says Dutton. The power of laughter yoga lies in its ability to fill an exhausted person’s life with delight and comfort. By tracing your personal flow of calmness within the body, you may feel revived inside and out – inciting a kind of laughter that stems genuinely from your heart. 

Yoga classes for the NHS staff are funded by the North East London NHS Foundation Trust (NELFT). They are held on Tuesday lunch times. Contact the NELFT if you intend to join. For others, see The Yoga For Life Project’s weekly timetable to book a class online. Laura Dutton also runs classes from her own private practice, Laura Dutton Yoga.

Main Image by Arthur Richardson

Click here to see the rest of ELL’s articles for this Stress Awareness Month.

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