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Laughter Yoga – A Boon For People With Special NeedsSandra Saint: My Laughter story started with a telephone conversation from an ex work colleague; “Hi San, I’ve found a course and thought you might like to do it as well. It’s called Laughter Yoga - have a look on the internet and let me know what you think.” So, that’s what I did and my ‘journey’ began. I have to admit that I was somewhat unsure, sceptical even, when I first started to investigate Laughter Yoga but after giving it some thought I decided that it was something I could use with my work in schools as I felt it complimented both the emotional and physical health training I delivered; and what better way to start a school day than with 10 minutes of laughter reverberating around the school. Without further ado I set the wheels in motion and booked the training.

By the time I came to attend the training I was in the midst of redundancy procedures and as a result, the CLYL course was one of the hardest things I’d done – as well as challenging my comfort zone my head wasn’t really with me so to speak! That said, I could still see the potential and worth of laughter and completed the two days.

After a very difficult and emotional 6 months of turmoil; my post was made redundant so I took the difficult challenge of becoming the owner of my own business. I believe that regularly practicing Laughter Yoga has definitely influenced my life as, along with the support of friends, it has helped me to cope through a very trying time in my life whilst improving my self-confidence; in turn helping me meet the many and varied problems I’ve faced with positivity which has allowed solutions to present themselves, not magically, but with hard work, a drive and belief in my own ability. Laughter has helped chase away demons that may have hampered my journey.

Since completing the Certified Laughter Yoga Leader training I have delivered a wide range of Laughter Yoga sessions, but perhaps the sessions that are most special to me are the ones I run for Eleanor; a client with complex special needs. I was approached by her mother to run a Laughter Yoga session with her, her daughter, other family members and the personal care team supporting her daughter. I believe in the therapeutic use of laughter, but would it work with a severely disabled person with complex needs?

I needed more information; what was this young woman’s level of functioning; what could she do? (Not what couldn’t she do). I knew her life was limited and restricted in a number of ways but the first thing I needed to know was could she laugh? “Oh yes, she can laugh” her mother told me, “the range of emotional responses present are; happiness, sadness, anger, joy, surprise coupled with a mischievous side that is very often present! She has a love of music and singing and is part of a choir; however, she needs a greater variety of activities and stimuli to support living a fulfilling and rewarding life.” So far so ‘normal’ but having ‘complex needs’ means that ‘normal’ has a different meaning.

The idea of autonomy for this young lady is quite different; she was born without a corpus collosum, the largest of the commissures, the fibres that connect the brains’ two hemispheres together. She also has a rare chromosome disorder giving rise to further problems. She requires full physical care and assistance with all daily living tasks and assistance to travel anywhere; she is unable to operate an electric wheelchair and needs assistance to transfer from chair to car seat or from chair to bed. Communication is restricted as her speech and vocabulary are limited. Cognitions it would seem are difficult to assess, however her emotions are not. This young lady is able to quite clearly let you know when she is enjoying an activity or not, her facial expression and vocal pronouncements are clear in their meaning. She possesses a sense of humour and is able to share in jokes and follow conversations (especially if she is the focus of that conversation).

Could I run a session then? Of course I could try it and so a date was set; our client, her parents and personal care assistants would attend my office on Sunday and if I didn’t mind could they continue to use our space to carry out their regular team meeting with an input from the Speech Therapy team involved in her care? I didn’t at all, it would be my pleasure.

The group arrived and this was actually the first time that I’d met my new client, I’m conscious that at times people can have a sense of anxiety about meeting someone with such profound difficulties, it is outside their ‘normal’ experience. But acknowledgement that an issue exists is essential and then talking about it is vital. Talking about things begins to dissolve all fears and prejudices.

I met my clients with warmth, care and as always works in England, a cup of tea! The session went really well, it was met with some scepticism from some within the room, but with full engagement from everyone. As laughter started to flow the Speech Therapists came to the office, unsure and unclear what was happening they were swept along by the laughter; engaging fully even though they really didn’t understand the concept of Laughter Yoga, they clearly got the idea of laughter. As for the main focus of our Laughter Yoga session, it is unclear as to what she (our client) thought of it. It would seem that she met the session with an open curiosity. It certainly wasn’t met with any distress and the activities were specifically designed to reduce the idea of ‘laughing at’ and increase the idea of ‘laughing with’ the other participants. The feedback after the session was positive; the surprised Speech Therapists were intrigued and wondered about the possibilities for Laughter Yoga being used with clients with a range of speech problems, as the focus on the breath and ways of breathing are used in a number of speech and language conditions.

My new client’s family recognised that it takes time for these things to work and that the nature of her condition means that it takes her a lot longer to process and act on new experiences. The personal assistants, in the main enjoyed it and it must be acknowledged that on first meeting Laughter Yoga it can feel a little strange and somewhat bizarre but they all highlighted the potential benefits.

The sessions continue on a weekly basis and follow a regular pattern. Eleanor has opened up more and more. She has begun to speak, describing herself as “happy”. She laughs out loud in the sessions and joins in with the rhythmical clapping and the chanting of “Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha” that occurs at the end of each of the exercises. There has also been an increased level of eye contact between myself and Eleanor as well as an increase in her participation with the actions associated with the Laughter Yoga exercises. Now also working 1:1 with Eleanor, I use very small progressive steps to develop her Laughter Yoga experiences. She is now able to recognise a prompt to initiate laughter and has even developed her own ‘Laugh at Self’ exercise through the use of her own name….she continues to astound and amaze me.

It is somewhat difficult for me as transient player in her life to truly know what she is making of Laughter Yoga and if it is making a discernible difference in her life, for that I rely on the feedback from her parents and carers. They tell me that Laughter Yoga does indeed help, (however difficult it may be to quantify those benefits), it has become another strategy that can be used when facing difficult times and adversity and to address the absurdity of some of the situations that they find themselves in.

Her team of personal assistants regularly report that the repetitious elements of Laughter Yoga are being recalled and displayed more and more frequently within daily life outside of the specific sessions with me. The Laughter Yoga exercises themselves are being used with Eleanor more frequently in everyday life and in doing so her carers suggest that the level of agitation that Eleanor experiences when engaging in activities that she doesn’t really like to do have been reduced! Laughter Yoga, by no means the only thing she and her family so has added another level of engagement with others and her laughter brings joy to more people. Most of all Eleanor whose abilities to laugh, make eye contact and participate have enriched my life and I need to say thank you to her for allowing me to continue to be part of her life.