Culture

5 Things I learned At A Balinese Laughing Yoga Class

Laughter really is the best medicine.

My cheeks are hurting, head is throbbing, chest is wheezing. The shoulders of the guy in front of me shake uncontrollably and the little girl to my right has her mouth wide open. All around us, people are clapping backs, slapping knees and, to my surprise, spitting.

It’s our final day in Bali and my travel buddy and I are the only foreigners at a laughing yoga class.

The lesson is at an ashram in Nyuh Kuning, a tiny rainforest village on the outskirts of central Ubud; just a hop, skip, and jump through the Monkey Forest. Kadek, our spiritual instructor, takes us through the laughter styles, warming us up on sly titters, moving on to belly laughs, and culminating in full-blown cackles. He’s a professional laugh man, with the biggest grin and most infectious guffaw this side of Seminyak. And while we don’t understand a word of his Bahasa, it’s easy enough to catch the gist.

It’s a relatively common practice in Indonesia, and perhaps it’s one of the reasons why Balinese people seem to have such happy demeanours. If you spent three hours a week uncontrollably giggling, I’m sure you’d feel pretty happy, too.

Indonesian man

Image: Gede Adhiputra

It’s known as laughing yoga, although it’s very different to the yoga we’re used to – there’s less downward-facing dog and more cracking-up. It was developed by an Indian doctor, Madan Katarina. It’s known for improving mental health (thanks to all those endorphins) and ventilation, increasing antibodies in saliva (more on that later), and reducing blood pressure and heart rate. Not to mention the ab workout.

Besides discovering my cheek muscles pretty much give out after 45 minutes of smiling, here’s what else I learned during my laughing yoga class:

#1 Spit bags are surprisingly necessary

I can’t give exact medical reasoning as to why excessive laughter kicks your saliva glands into overdrive, but the reality is that it happens. About 25 minutes into our hearty chortling sesh, I began to see people pulling plastic bags out of their pockets to covertly spit. Others would dart off to the garden’s edge and politely expectorate into the flower bed.

I was puzzled until my own cheeks started to feel strange, puckering the way they do when you suck on something sour. Suddenly, my mouth was pooling with saliva (attractive, I know). Just as I was at risk of looking like a drooling doberman, my laughing neighbour/spit saviour turned and offered me a little plastic bag of my own.


#2 Always follow the hype man

In a laughing yoga class, you’ve got the leader at the front and then a bunch of hype men (and women) spread throughout the group. These are laughers to whom chuckling comes naturally. They’re blessed with resting happy faces and can produce anything from a “ha!” to a “hahahaha” on command.

They’re there to encourage you on your laughing journey, wandering the class, stopping by groups of laughers to chortle alongside them, often provoking even more laughter.

Don’t shy from the hype people, they’re here to make you laugh louder, better, faster and stronger. Like a Daft Punk song, but more fun.


#3 The endorphins are real – and they work wonders

Do you remember the scene in Mary Poppins when the characters were overcome with an attack of giggles and they float up to the ceiling? That’s what an hour of laughing feels like.

Laughing – even forced laughing – is known to reduce anxiety and depression, counteract feelings of loneliness and tension, improve self-esteem, restore energy and improve your mental functioning. It’s no wonder the Balinese people walk around with a smile plastered on their faces for hours.

Post-class, I got caught in a tropical thunderstorm wearing suede shoes, lost my wallet and missed my bus, and even that didn’t dampen my good vibes.

tourist in Bali

Image: Artem

#4 Inhibitions are easy to lose

As the only travellers in a group of 60-or-so locals, we already felt like fish out of water. Throw in a fear of appearing foolish in front of others and the ashram seemed like a disaster for the introverted.

We began the class feeling nervous, but soon learned we couldn’t have been in a more welcoming or supportive environment. Once we’d realised that no one was looking our way except to smile, we managed to shake off those inhibitions and embrace the experience.

Acting silly, without fear of consequence or ridicule, happens to be one of the most liberating feelings in the world. I highly recommend you all give it a go.


#5 Laughter really is contagious

The most important thing I learned is that laughter is contagious, even more so than yawning (or frowning). When you’re surrounded by other people’s joy, it’s impossible not to smile.

And when you have a Balinese hype man howling in your face, it’s impossible not to laugh, too.

(Lead image: Artem Bali)