Marcia Alter has a huge, booming laugh that echoes throughout the recreation room of the Cortina D’Arroyo Grande senior apartment complex.
“Oh I love that laughter lotion,” she says as she pantomimes putting lotion on her face before letting out a loud guffaw. A group of about a dozen women in a circle around her also start laughing as they mimic her movements.
Even as she moves throughout the circle, surrounded by chortling women, Alter’s distinctive belly laugh echoes off the tall ceiling of the recreation room.
But she didn’t always laugh like that. For a time, the most she could summon up was a small exhalation of breath.
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“I call it my dark ages,” Alter said as she leaned back in her chair after the women left. “Even if it was hysterically funny, the most I could go was, ‘ha.’ I was having constant colds, and I was working full time. But I knew about these laughter classes. So one Friday I dragged myself to one of them.”
Alter emerged from those classes a different person, she said.
“An hour later I was so energized, I was walking up to people I had never met saying, ‘Let’s go to the bar!’ ” she laughed. “I don’t do that! So I was definitely hooked.”
Five years ago, she and fellow Arroyo Grande resident Caity McCardell became certified to teach laughter yoga classes, which they followed up with laughter wellness certification this year. The pair now teach four classes each week in Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo.
Wellness and yoga
Laughter wellness and yoga focus on using laughter to improve people’s lives, both mentally and physically, McCardell said.
Laughter yoga is the older of the two methods: it was developed by Indian physician Madan Katarina as an exercise activity in the mid-1990s, and usually involves people taking part in silly games to stimulate laughter, McCardell said.
“The idea with laughter yoga is to fake it until you make it,” she said.
McCardell said she discovered laughter yoga 10 years ago, after a series of deaths in her family left her feeling at a loss with how to handle her grief. She turned to therapy and antidepressants.
“It was kind of like I was living in a warzone, except I was living in happy San Luis Obispo,” she said.
Most people don’t have a cultural context for this. This is something new — to actually make a practice of laughter.
Eventually, McCardell was introduced to laughter yoga, which she said helped lift her out of her depression by giving her a place to be happy again, and not focused on her depression.
“It took me from a place of depression and anxiety and stress that sort of feeds off itself — It shocked me a little bit. It was like a switch,” she said as she snapped her fingers.
Laughter wellness is a newer concept. Founded in the early 2000s by Sebastien Gendry, founder of the Laughter Wellness Institute in Los Angeles, laughter wellness focuses more on a lifestyle change that encourages positive thinking, rather than just mimicking laughter through activities, McCardell said.
Both methods look to capitalize on the “therapeutic benefits of laughter.” They are sometimes used to help treat people, like McCardell, who have gone through traumatic experiences or are struggling with depression and anxiety, though often it is used as a bonding and relaxing technique.
“Most people don’t have a cultural context for this,” Alter said. “This is something new — to actually make a practice of laughter. And because of that, they’ll misunderstand it. They’ll try to put it in a box where it doesn’t belong. Like ‘silly’ or ‘frivolous.’ And it’s really about health. It’s about increasing our health expectancy.”
Learning to laugh
McCardell and Alter teach a combination of laughter yoga and laughter wellness in their classes.
On Wednesday, Alter opened the weekly class at the Cortina D’Arroyo Grande complex with a short speech welcoming the group before jumping into an exercise that had the assembled women — mostly elderly — placing their index fingers on their foreheads and “pressing the start button.”
Several giggles were heard throughout the room at that, before Alter moved on to asking each woman to hold hands with a fellow student, and wink when they could feel their partner’s pulse.
Over the next hour, Alter and McCardell led the group in a series of activities that asked participants to stand and stare, wiggle and giggle, shout and hug, and, yes, even quack.
Darlene Bohn, 79, said her favorite exercise in the class is bumper cars, where the women all stand inside a circle and bump into each other like they’re driving bumper cars.
“I love bumper cars already, so even fake ones are fun,” she said. “I love the classes too. They get our endorphins moving, and it’s a happy place and a positive place. And you get to meet people, like-minded people. It’s great.”
My partner has early signs of dementia, so life is not as easy as it was. On a personal level, this is lightening up my life and whatever challenges I’m facing.
Marcell Kardush, laughter class student
Marcelle Kardush, 78, said her favorite exercise is one where the students reach down to their feet, and then slowly bring their arms up before spreading them wide above their head, to signify letting happiness into their lives.
Kardush, who has a doctorate from UC Berkeley in social and transpersonal psychology, said she began attending the classes because of her husband.
“My partner has early signs of dementia, so life is not as easy as it was,” she said. “On a personal level, this is lightening up my life and whatever challenges I’m facing. But I’m also very aware of the changes in my brain as we laugh. You can feel the repatterning. I’m expecting that as I go home and see Ray, my partner, there will be more lightness in me than there was previously.”
A crowd of laughing women does attract attention at the senior complex. Residents often walk by on the second level and look down at the assembled women pretending to be ducks before shaking their heads and moving on.
Elvira Gomes, 90, was one of those residents, until she decided one day to join in.
“It felt good to laugh,” she said. “It’s like getting a facial. It just pushes your face up.”
Gomes said doing the classes gives her an extra boost of confidence in her other activities.
“I just feel like I can do things,” she said, noting that she also teaches hula dancing and the ukulele at the senior complex. “If I mess up, I feel like I can laugh about it and move on.”
After an hour of exercises Atler and McCardell wrapped up the class with a group chant:
“We are the joyful people of Cortina; we are the excited people of Cortina; we are the positive people of Cortina. And we love to laugh!”
For more information
Marcia Alter and Caity McCardell hold four laughter wellness classes each week in Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo, and also provide public and private talks and workshops on the topic of laughter wellness on request. For information or a schedule of classes, visit www.laughterinslo.com.