BEIRUT: Laughter has long been called the best medicine, but physiotherapist and laughter yoga leader Liliane Akiki truly believes it can be a natural painkiller.
“Pain is something that we can manage, whether by a physical approach or mentally. Pain can be eased by 50 percent with distraction. This is how laughter can help,” explains Akiki, who has long relied on humor to help her with patients even before she began to lead laughter yoga.
Akiki has been a physiotherapist since 1995 and opened her clinic LARC (Liliane Akiki Rehabilitation Center) in Beirut April 2009. A month later she received her certification as a laughter yoga teacher and began to incorporate it into her physical therapy practice – which focuses primarily on spinal deformities and scoliosis.
“When we laugh it’s like when we work out, we release lots of endorphins. Endorphins are the natural morphine of the body ... When we laugh we also improve the blood circulation, the blood is flowing better and the muscles are getting this blood flow so muscle tension and strains can be eased this way as an effect of the endorphins,” she explains.
Laughter yoga is a form of yoga that combines breathing, stretching and self-triggered laughter exercises for mental and physical wellness. Benefits of the practice include release of endorphins and increased blood flow, as described by Akiki, but the activity also burns calories and releases muscle tension.
To an observer, laughter yoga can look pretty silly – and indeed, it is. At a recent session, Akiki leads participants in a circle clapping, jumping, engaging in laughter greetings and a release of giggles. We run around each other shaking our hands about us, yelling out “Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha” until no one can help but burst out in genuine laughter.
“When you laugh about 20 seconds, it’s like the exercise of rowing for 3 minutes. The benefit of doing group sessions is that you feed off each other. The brain doesn’t differentiate between whether you’re laughing for real or faking your laughter,” she says.
While she leads laughter yoga for anyone interested, she first decided to recommend the sessions to her patients as a way of helping them release muscle tension and, more importantly, to approach their therapy with a positive attitude.
“There are things that we cannot change, but when we are positive, when you do those laughing sessions, you become more self-confident and more positive and you can face the problem with another approach,” says Akiki. “If laughter can do a lot or do something, why not? At least it can be amusing during the treatment.”
Akiki’s former patient, Lara Ajjawi, believes that participating in laughter yoga sessions helped with her physical therapy and to confront challenges – inside and outside Akiki’s clinic.
“The laughter yoga helped me physically and mentally,” attests Ajjawi, who had sought help from many doctors for the pain she was experiencing in her shoulders and neck before coming to LARC. “Not only the pain in my muscles improved but I felt relaxed.”
Ajjawi believes that her pain was a result from the stresses of her work at UNHCR and caused by sitting at a computer desk day in and day out. She began therapy sessions twice a week and participated in laughter yoga once a week.
She explains that after laughter yoga: “You feel relieved, you feel full of energy. You are not worried. I used to always feel a little bit worried and tense but after the session it’s over. You stretch your body and use your muscles.”
The benefits were not only physical for Ajjawi and especially helped her face the stresses of her job in a healthier way: “In every office you have problems with colleagues or tensions. I used to react to those discussions in a very tense, nervous way. After the laughter yoga sessions I’m dealing with the issues differently. I’m calmer, I’m not nervous like I used to be. I take my time to discuss problems with my colleagues and I’m not aggressive with anyone.”
At the end of Akiki’s laughter yoga session, the group calms down for a bit of laughter meditation and then a debrief about how they feel.
We’ve just finished 10 minutes of lying on our backs, letting out spontaneous laughter and the participants can’t stop smiling as they talk about the way the feel post-yoga.
“I feel huge relief and very happy. It’s like out there is another world and in here we created our own world,” describes one laughter yoga-goer.
Another agrees and says that while she wouldn’t replace her normal workout routine with just laughter yoga, she describes the session as special treat for body and mind, “just like dessert.”