My Laughter StoryGo Back Dr Madan Kataria, India 31 May 2017
Born in a small village on Indo - Pakistan border, I was the youngest of eight children. Hailing from a farming background, my parents were simple village folk engrossed in the daily grind of a rural life. They had never been to a school, and to follow suit my siblings too were not interested in studying. I was the odd one and showed a lot of academic spark which fuelled my mother’s dream that I should become a doctor. As medical facility was a rarity in the village, and one had to travel almost 15 miles to seek any kind of medical help, she hoped I would study medicine and return to the village to help the people.
In pursuance of her wish, I went to a boarding school and worked hard to get my medical degree. After graduation, I went to Mumbai to do my post- graduate studies in medicine. Completely lured by the glitz and glitterati of Mumbai, swanky cars and luxurious apartments, I too wanted to become rich and famous. I tried everything in my capacity to reach for the skies, but soon realized it was not that simple. My quest did not succeed and I slumped into a bout of depression. Life was tough and it was not easy to make money without any business experience. I was stressed and miserable. At that time, my mother visited Mumbai and was shocked to see my state. She asked, “Madan, what is wrong? You don’t look happy and you don’t laugh and smile like you did in the village.”
She was right. Somewhere in the midst of upward scramble, I had actually lost my laughter. The transition from an innocent village boy to a city doctor had seriously altered my persona. I knew I was in trouble. Having realized the enormity of the situation, I embarked on a new search – and this time it was not money. It was to find my laughter - the key to happiness and joy.
Not content with being a practicing physician in a suburb in Mumbai, India, I launched a health magazine ‘My Doctor’ to spread more awareness about good health among people. But March 1995 was a turning point in my life. While writing an article ‘Laughter – The Best Medicine’ for my journal, I stumbled on a rich repertoire of scientific work done on laughter as a therapy. On exploring further, I was amazed at the volume of documented studies that described at great length the many proven benefits of laughter on the human mind and body.
As I read through the scientific literature on the benefits of laughter, I was profoundly inspired by the book ‘Anatomy of an Illness’ written by Norman Cousins in which he described how he laughed his way back to health from Ankylosing Spondylitis, an incurable disease of the spine. The work of Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University in California which showed that mirthful laughter reduces stress levels and has a positive effect on the immune system was also very rousing.
This set me thinking. Life in Mumbai was stressful and people hardly laughed. They were forever rushed and hassled to meet their needs and fulfill their dreams. Even I had turned dour and lost my laughter to the daily rigors of my profession and the added burden of a publication. There was no time to laugh.
I believed laughter could improve health and cope with stressors of modern living. I looked for ways to generate more laughter and help people in medical or personal crisis. I started joking and laughing with my patients and soon found that they recovered much faster as laughter kept them happy and positive.
On13th March, 1995, I got up at 4am and was pacing up and down in my living room when a sudden idea flashed through my mind: If laughter is so good, why not set up a Laughter Club. I was ecstatic and could hardly wait to implement the concept. Within three hours, I hurried to the public park where I used to go for my daily morning walk and tried to convince the regular morning walkers about the importance of laughter and to start a Laughter Club.
The expressions were predictable. They were aghast and actually thought I was crazy. They laughed at the idea and scoffed at the whole concept. But, I was unshakeable and did not give up. I did manage to motivate 4 out of 400 people! And thus was born the first Laughter Club with just 5 people.
We met for half an hour every morning to laugh together much to the amusement of befuddled onlookers. In the beginning, the session began by someone telling a joke or narrating a humorous anecdote. Soon, people started enjoying the whole exercise and reported feeling much better after a laughter session of 20-30 minutes.
Bearing the initial ridicule and criticism, I firmly continued to explain the health benefits of laughter till gradually people became a little more receptive and showed a keen interest. The attendance started growing, and there were nearly 55 people by the end of the week. For ten days the routine continued with much vigor, after which we hit a snag. The stock of good jokes and stories ran out, and we were left with negative, hurtful and naughty jokes which prompted some participants to complain that it would be better to close the club than to continue with such jokes.
Determined to keep the Laughter Club alive, I asked the club members to give me a day to resolve the crisis. That night, I kept trying to look for some way to laugh without jokes. Providentially, I laid my hands on a book ‘Emotions and Health’, from Prevention Health Care Series (USA). While reading a chapter on humor and laughter, I was surprised to discover that the body cannot differentiate between real and fake laughter. It clearly revealed that if one cannot laugh, one should pretend to laugh. I also learnt that not only laughter, but a bodily expression of any motion, generates a similar emotion in the mind.
This was a breakthrough - I thought why not use laughter as an exercise.
The next morning, I explained this to the group and asked them to try and act out laughter with me for one minute. Though skeptical, they agreed to try.The results were amazing. For some, acted out laughter quickly turned into real laughter this was contagious and very soon others followed. Soon the group was laughing like never before. The hearty laughter that followed persisted for almost ten minutes.
Finally, there was laughter, real laughter – with no jokes.
The fact that one could laugh without an external trigger was a unique feature. But there were some people who were naturally inhibited and shy and found it difficult to generate laughter. As every person has a different psychological make-up; it was harder for some to laugh. My new challenge was how to get these people laughing without any reason.
I came up with an idea of warm-up exercises, such as clapping and chanting ho ho ha ha ha. This loosened the inhibitions and helped people to laugh easily. Soon different kinds of laughter exercises were developed, which included elements of role-play, childlike playfulness and other techniques from my days as an amateur dramatic actor.
As the concept evolved, I saw many similarities between laughter and Pranayama in Yoga. Both were based on the principle of optimal breathing - fundamental to good health. Together with my wife, Madhuri, we incorporated the elements from this ancient form of Yogic breathing with laughter and the result was Laughter Yoga or Hasya Yoga (as known in Sanskrit) - a complete workout for health and wellness. A physically-oriented technique, it allows for multiple health benefits, primarily increasing the supply of oxygen, boosting the immune system and energizing and recharging the metabolism.
Today, with thousands of Laughter Yoga Clubs burgeoning worldwide, scores of people are taking advantage of the enormous benefits of laughter and are experiencing relief from a variety of stress-related illnesses. It has grown on its own strength, and the actual benefits are undeniable.
As the news of Laughter Clubs spread in the country, back in my hometown, a local newspaper carried a picture of a club on the first page, which sent my eldest brother into a state of panic. He called me and asked, “Madan, what are you doing? Please stop it immediately. This is causing us a lot of embarrassment. We sent you to become a doctor; instead you’ve become a laughing stock.”
I tried to explain that the club was not some sort of funny entertainment or cheap comedy – it was a health club and was dedicated to provide good health and maintain the well being of the people. But alas! All explanation was in vain. He was adamant that I stop my laughter movement.
In order to convince my family, I invited him and my mother to Mumbai and took them to the Jogger’s Park Laughter Club in Mumbai west. They were surprised to see more than 100 people laughing together. Most of them were educated professionals like doctors, engineers, accountants and businessmen. In fact, they were amazed to see lots of ladies in the session.
The overwhelming response from the members and the feeling of harmony that was displayed had a profound impact on my family and they changed their attitude towards the laughter movement. Comprehending the tremendous health benefits and the happiness and joy that the clubs have instilled in the people worldwide, my family now takes pride in my work and is a part of my ‘laughter family’.