Allison Easter was amused. Romping through a Friday night AcroYoga class at Om Factory in New York City, she giggled during partner flying and Thai massage while her teachers and fellow students—yoginis sporting striped socks, pink hair, and Winnie-the-Pooh T-shirts—cavorted by her side.
"I tend to be serious about the physical activities I do," says Easter, a personal trainer and former dancer. "But having fun in my yoga practice helps me lighten up."
Easter isn't the only one who gets the joke. Across the United States, teachers and studios are recognizing that funny business can help yoga businesses thrive. "Humor can help a studio attract and retain students," says Julie Margolis, an instructor at New Jersey's Yoga Montclair. "They love it because it helps them relax their muscles, surrender to their practice, and take themselves—and yoga—less seriously."
Scientific studies show laughter has the same effects as asana practice: It can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, boost immunity, and minimize pain. And the physical act of laughter can be considered a form of spontaneous Pranayama (breathwork).
How can humor improve your students' yoga practice? "When we enjoy leela, Sanskrit for 'play,' we get more creative and widen our possibilities," says Erin Maile O'Keefe, cofounder of New York City's CircusYoga. Humor can help us laugh off poses we get "wrong," revel in ones we get "right"—and brave ones that we've never broached before.
Leela can also help us achieve one of the core aims of yoga: staying focused on the here and now. "When you're laughing, you aren't anywhere except the present," says Deven Sisler, a Santa Barbara yoga teacher who also works as a professional clown.
Hoping to add a dash of fun your yoga business? Here are top tips from yoga's reigning funny people on how to "enlighten up."
Send in the Clowns
"I tell bad jokes in class every day," says John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga in The Woodlands, Texas. "And I consider it an honor whenever a student steals one of my worst punch lines." Like Friend, many of the most beloved figures in yoga are known for their wit and whimsy. Hire instructors and staff who keep the capriciousness coming—as long as it's easy and doesn't feel forced.
Sunny up Your Space
Greet your students with cheerful smiles and bright decor, and those students will come flocking back for more. Consider New York's popular—and packed—Laughing Lotus, which lives up to its name with its rainbow-colored mats, fuchsia and purple walls, cookies in the reception area—and body glitter offered in the bathroom.
Soften the Seriousness
"In challenging poses, tell students to find a little smile in the corner of their mouths," suggests Sisler. If they're struggling to get into Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), ask them to think of it as "Wonderbra Pose" because it requires that they scoop up and lift their chest tissue. If they're scowling through Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose), have them shimmy their fingers back and forth in a show of exuberant "jazz" hands.
"Humor erupts spontaneously when people work in pairs or teams," says Margolis. Have students introduce themselves to their neighbors at the beginning of class. Encourage them do partner work both on and off the mat. CircusYoga invites its students to create new poses, such as a group Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) called "Super Nova Triangula." Om Yoga in New York City has invited practitioners to do 31 classes in 31 days—"all in harmony with other OMmies" who celebrate their accomplishment together with a party at the end of the month.
Pick Playful Practices
Introduce fun-filled practices such as disco yoga (done to disco music and offered at LifePower Yoga in Scottsdale, Arizona), laughter meditation (at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City), and "firefly yoga" (incorporating suspended hammocks and offered at Rusty Wells' Urban Flow in San Francisco). At Om Factory, students crowd to AcroYoga, AntiGravity Yoga, and Yoga Fight Club, too. "I encourage misbehavior and free expression in my classes," says owner Faramarz. "Some people call me a yoga anarchist for scheduling them. I rather like that label!"
Find Reasons to Revel
When the Chicago Yoga Center marked its 20th anniversary, it gave complimentary classes to all its students. When a staff member had a birthday at Golden Bridge Yoga in Los Angeles, director Gurmukh Khalsa handed out artisan chocolates. And when she's teaching at Virayoga in New York City, instructor Vanessa Spina adds humor to the holidays. "For Valentine's Day, I played my students a fun mix of music including Prince's 'Kiss,'" says Spina. "For Easter, I had them do an Easter-egg hunt in class."
Laugh at Yourself
Just as you should ask whether your yoga business is sufficiently silly, you should ask the same of question yourself. "Be sure to nurture joy in yourself," says Danny Paradise, an Ashtanga instructor who is based in the Hawaii Islands and offers popular workshops all over the globe. "Recognize that you are responsible for your own happiness and healing, and you'll be able to pass that message on through a joyful teaching practice."