A few weeks ago, as I was exploring a social network called Streetlife, an advert caught my eye. It read: “Laughter Yoga – Weekly Laughter Club”. Intrigued, I carried on reading. By the time I had finished, I was still not entirely sure what laughter yoga involved, but I was even more intrigued.
The bit of the advert that particularly struck me was this: “The concept of Laughter Yoga is based on a scientific fact that the body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter and the same physiological and psychological benefits are the result… Anyone can laugh for no reason, without relying on humour, jokes or comedy.” The idea of laughter without humour seemed absurd to me, like a car without an engine. Could humourless laughter really be anything other than the product of insanity?
I decided to find out by paying a visit to the Weekly Laughter Club, at Llandaff North Community Centre. I had no clue as to what awaited me, aside from the advert and a hazy memory of a moment from an old travel programme in which Michael Palin visited a similar class in Germany. The only thing I really remembered about it was that Palin, an actor who built a career out of playing baffled and uncomfortable characters, had never looked more baffled or uncomfortable than he did there.
With that reassuring thought in mind I met Efa and Maria, who run the sessions, and five other participants. They were all lovely, so, after a smattering of small talk, the laughter began.
It took about 50 minutes to end. In that time very little happened other than laughter. Unremitting, manic, braying laughter. Not long after it had started, a problem became apparent. In a room that sounded like a pack of hyenas being mercilessly tickled with a giant feather duster, my laughter was conspicuous by its feebleness.
I tried. I really did. Unfortunately, I am one of those “silent laughers”. As the session went on, I put more and more effort into producing giggles of substance, but the result was a series of noises that must have sounded almost sarcastic.
There was another, even bigger problem. Only one exercise, a memory game designed to cause funny mistakes, actually provided something to laugh at. We laughed while having imaginary phone calls and opening imaginary letters; while shaking hands; even after saying our names.
All this soon gave me an answer to the question of whether laughter can work without humour. I realised that, for me at least, the two are intrinsically connected. There was something very forced about the laughter, and at times something unsettling. One of the exercises required that we spend a minute shaking hands with a partner, staring into their eyes and laughing. As the minute crawled by, the absence of humour from my partner’s eyes began to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. I felt a little like I was looking at a man who had been dosed with laughing gas and forced to watch his house burn down.
Despite my disappointment with laughter yoga, my impression of the class was not an entirely negative one. Everyone was very friendly and there was something admirable about their willingness to let go of inhibitions.
Fellow participant Peter Lewis said: “I find it very relaxing and it’s a great way to meet new people. You feel a bit silly and self-conscious at first, but eventually that goes away. I’ve definitely noticed that I have less stress in my life since I started doing laughter yoga.”
The enthusiasm of Peter and the rest of the class shows that laughter yoga has its fans. But my visit to Llandaff North Community Centre confirmed something about my relationship with laughter that I had always suspected: without humour it is meaningless to me.