Class Clown

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Yoga is serious, especially for instructors. We study, we practice, we teach.

But according to Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of Hasya (Laughter) Yoga and author of Laugh for No Reason, it's important to lighten up class with a healthy dose of laughter.

"In yoga, people tend to become serious and go inward," explains Dr. Kataria. "What is missing in yoga practice is joy."

Phil Milgrom, certified Laughter Yoga leader and codirector of the Centered Place Yoga Studio in Warren, Massachusetts, agrees. "When we take ourselves too seriously, we lose interest, we lose dedication, and we get discouraged," he says.

The two teachers claim that laughter is the antidote for more than a joyless practice. It tones the abdominal muscles, decreases stress, boosts immunity, improves circulation, and acts like a sneeze for the lungs.

But not everybody comes to class looking for a stand-up comedy routine, and most instructors don't want to perform one either.

Build a Yogic Repertoire

Fortunately, there are practical ways to go about the business of laughter, whether you're serious-minded or just plain silly.

Machiko Yoshida, certified Laughter Yoga teacher in Monterey Park, California, and former stand-up comedian, uses the warm-up portion of class to introduce a childlike sense of humor--or, in yogic terms, humor with a sattvic nature: pure, innocent, and nourishing.

"I start with the hands, feet, neck, and shoulders," she explains, "and while I'm doing that I talk about something funny to relieve the weight of thinking."

Milgrom has been building his collection of yogic jokes since 1995. "I only teach Headstand in groups of two," he teases. "That way students can take turns standing on each other's heads."

Of course he doesn't instigate laughter during a delicate asana such as Sirsasana (Headstand). "I like to do it during a safe pose that [students] are less inclined to enjoy, to help them loosen up and get out of their old frame of mind about the pose," he says.

Play with Your Class

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, yoga instructor, and research psychologist at Stanford University, takes an alternative approach to inviting laughter into class. She prefers to play games.

For example, as students are filing into class, she'll ask them to divulge their favorite and least favorite poses and then choreograph them into a class.

McGonigal explains, "It's typically a very fun and playful class, because we get to face aversion, avoidance, and ego all together, out in the open, and consciously try to experience the poses in a different, heart-opening, and mind-opening way."

Laugh for No Reason

If telling jokes and playing games isn't your style, Dr. Kataria may be the laughter guru for you.

"Anyone can laugh for no reason at all," he says. "You can laugh even if you don't have a sense of humor [and] even if you're not happy."

After one hour of grounded asana practice, Dr. Kataria has his students fake it by contracting the abdominals and generating a hearty laugh through the diaphragm. "Whether you laugh for real or laugh for pretend, your body doesn't know the difference," he says.

He reserves his ten-minute laughter sessions for the end of class to energize his students and send them into the world with a renewed sense of joy.

Toys for Teachers

Ready to boost the laugh factor of your class routine? Play around with these tips.

  • Act like a kid. "Take a kids' yoga teacher training, or try to observe some kids' yoga classes," suggests McGonigal.
  • Get creative. Yoshida likes to make up poses or change the names of familiar asanas. One of her favorites is "Dying Roach" pose. Students lie on their backs, hands and legs in the air, and then shake their limbs while they laugh at themselves.
  • Embrace awkwardness. "If you get an interesting idea for a game or a playful class and you're tempted to reject it because it seems weird or silly, pause and ask yourself, 'Why not?'" says McGonigal.
  • Breathe. Let laughter replace the Pranayama portion of class. It has all the benefits of yogic breathing, says Dr. Kataria, and it's fun!
  • Maintain control. Humor should be used to quiet the mind and encourage presence. Socialization is a sign of distraction, warns Milgrom. If giggles get out of control, Yoshida recommends moving to another pose or changing the subject.
  • Be yourself. You don't have to be a comedian to get your students to lighten up. Milgrom advises, "Simply connect to your heart with a smile while you teach and take yourself less seriously."

Melissa Garvey is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. You can read more of her thoughts on yoga and daily life at YogaPulse .