Make an April fool of yourself! India’s growing network of early morning Laughter Clubs is aiming to cheer up a nation – and the world
My jaw aches, my muscles are throbbing, the sun is beating with increasing ferocity on my scalp. Shaking my left leg with as much vigour as I can muster, it hardly seems to bother me anymore that 60 or so locals are pointing and urging me to put in more effort.
Who would have thought the simple act of laughing would turn out to be so energy consuming?
“Our group is totally free to join and always will be,” says Kishore Kuvavala as we sip sugary chai in his modest apartment at the tip of south Mumbai after our morning laughter session. “That’s why laughter yoga is so popular with the more elderly people around here who perhaps don’t have much spare cash. We want to appeal to younger people too, but I don’t think they enjoy getting up early.”
Kuvavala is a perfect figurehead for the Chowpatty Beach Laughter Club. A rotund figure in shorts and T-shirt, he has an instantly charming, rubbery and somewhat jowly face that makes him look not dissimilar to an Indian cousin of Benny Hill. He began the Chowpatty club after inviting the father of the practice, Dr Madan Kataria, to speak at his walking club eight years ago.
Now, every morning of the year, he leads around 60 ‘Mumbaikars’ on an hour of communal games that includes group back-patting, impersonations of horses or tractors, kicking imaginary footballs (the cause of the groups mirth at my virgin efforts) and even a quick burst of the hokey-cokey. It’s designed to produce as much laughter as possible – a huge spiritual and medical benefit to anyone who participates, claim the organisers.
Based on the idea that laughter can help in curing medical diseases, Kataria’s club (which he started by recruiting three strangers to stand in a park in north Mumbai at dawn and tell jokes to each other in 1995) has spread across India, with hundreds of clubs now operating every morning from remote hill stations to Chowpatty Beach.
Recently, however, a schism has developed between Kataria and some of the other groups. Members of Kuvavala’s clan complain that the godfather of the practice has lost sight of the original spirit of laughter yoga by charging money for public speaking and rolling out an ever-lengthening string of promotional DVDs and tie-ins in a bid to spread the word of the benefits of a morning giggle.
“I’ve gone and talked to people from all walks of life in Mumbai for nothing,” says Kuvavala. “I’ve talked to prostitutes, train workers, hotel porters, policemen, even prisoners, to try to teach them of the positive effects of laughing. Now, even when I’m in an argument with my family, I’ve learned how to smile and remove all the negative thoughts from my body. It could be a huge instrument for world peace.”
Lofty ideals aside, the practical benefits of laughing in Mumbai, where security at railway stations and financial institutions is a chilling reminder of the sniper attacks and bombs that shook the city in November 2008, are hard to deny. Laughter clubs may currently be most popular among the elderly in Mumbai, but for a (relatively) young convert like myself, the aching jaw is a forgivable side effect to a morning ritual that enabled me to see the funny side of life in this most chaotic of cities.