• Comedy Club of a different shtick
    By JENNIFER GROGAN Columbia News Service | July 27,2005
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    Dr. Alex Eingorn leads a laughter club at his practice in Manhattan. Participants usually meet once a week to do stress-relieving “laughing exercises.”
    NEW YORK - If a patient had visited Dr. Alex Eingorn's basement office on a recent weekday after hours, he would have been perplexed by the ritual going on there.

    Eingorn, a Manhattan chiropractor by day, stood in a circle with five middle-aged people holding up imaginary bird cages. At a signal, the six simultaneously opened the cages and freed the pretend birds, doubling over with laughter - the people, not the birds.

    Several imitated their make-believe pets by flapping their arms, prompting even more intense laughter. Taking a deep breath, they clapped their hands, chanting "Ho, ho!" and "Ha, ha, ha!"

    No, these people are not crazy. They are members of a laughter club, which meets weekly to practice a combination of routines that trigger laughter and yoga breathing, known as laughter yoga. Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian physician, founded the movement in 1995, and it has grown to more than 3,500 clubs worldwide as people search for innovative ways to relieve stress and have fun.

    "There is so much negativity, misery and depression in this world," Kataria said. "The human spirit is going down day by day and laughter can elevate it. Once you feel good inside, you see the world differently."

    Kataria said adults are not laughing nearly enough. Children laugh up to 300 or 400 times a day, while adults only laugh 15 times a day, he said. Recent studies have also shown that laughter can strengthen the immune system, reduce depression, improve self-confidence and even fend off heart attacks and strokes.

    Laughing can be a great workout. Like any aerobic activity, it increases heart rate and circulation. It also exercises the lungs, facial muscles and diaphragm.

    "It stimulates every organ and it's not boring like a treadmill, where you're running and running but not going anywhere," said Eingorn, 44, founder of the "Grabbagiraffe" laughter club, a free group event. "My mind is clear and I'm ready to go out and face the world in a positive way."

    Eingorn first realized the benefits of laughter when one of his patients suffered from severe back pain and depression. He told the patient a joke to relax his muscles. Years later, Eingorn trained with Kataria and started his own club in November 2003.

    Kataria, 49, started the first club in a park in Bombay, India, with just five people. He never thought he would devote his life to making people laugh.

    "I thought I had to make a lot of money to tell the world that I was something, and I was stressed," he said. "My attitude has changed and I'm happier. I may not be rich in money, but I'm the richest person in this world."

    At the end of every session, participants stand with their eyes closed for one minute, hoping for world peace.

    "If we have more clubs, there will be no war because laughing people cannot fight," Kataria said.

    Others have followed Kataria's lead. Steve Wilson, a psychologist, was lecturing in Asia when he learned about laughter yoga. He adapted the model to Western culture by de-emphasizing the yoga and founded the World Laughter Tour in 1998. Through the tour, he trains those who want to become "laughter leaders" and start their own clubs. So far, 1,500 have completed the training.

    "Laughter is innate," Wilson said. "We laugh when we're young without being taught how to do it. People are hungry for anything that can relieve stress. They're worried about their kids, their job, the price of gasoline and whether there's going to be a bomb somewhere. They want relief."

    In April, Wilson was scheduled to train 30 staff people at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America to show cancer patients and their families how to make laughter a part of their therapy.

    Laughter club participants rely on a series of funny moves - anything from imitating penguins to pretending to walk over hot sand - to trigger laughter. But don't expect a comedy routine: Jokes are not part of the program, because they require language comprehension, and not everyone agrees on what's funny.

    "Regardless of whether you're in India, Russia or speak Brooklynese, everyone understands 'ha, ha, ha,'" said Francine Shore, 47, who helped Eingorn start his club.

    Some people are timid at first, but generally loosen up after a session or two. Raul Morales, 42, of the Bronx, N.Y., had no problem letting go during his second session with Eingorn.

    "I have no job right now, but this makes me feel relaxed," he said after 45 minutes of skipping around the room, doing every exercise enthusiastically and laughing uncontrollably. "I forget my image, lose myself and be silly. It can't hurt."

    Others have noticed a dramatic effect on their lives even after the sessions end. Jackie Gill, a career counselor at the University of Arizona in Tucson and president of the local laughter club, was recently rushed to the hospital after a car accident. Rather than get upset, she laughed and chatted with the nurses.

    "I was in pain but I wasn't dying, so why not have fun," she said. "But if this had happened before I had the club, I probably would have focused on how the accident was going to affect me negatively."

    Like many laughter clubs around the country, Gill's group is planning to celebrate World Laughter Day May 1. Her club will do its exercises in a local park. She said she hopes for a high turnout because people's "laughter muscles" are out of shape.

    "We're all just too busy and uptight," Gill said. "People don't realize that the laughter is missing from their lives until they get the opportunity to spend time laughing."
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