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Friday, December 19, 2014 | Last updated: 5:09pm

Laughter is yoga leader's 'inner pharmacy'





I left the Curves gym on Glenn Street and Campbell Avenue at 20 minutes to 7 on Sunday night, my sides aching, my face beet red and sweaty. I could already tell that I'd be sore the next day, having activated muscles I rarely use. Walking through the strip mall parking lot to my car, I realized I had a big, silly grin on my face, left over from the last hour of exercise.



But I wasn't leaving a traditional workout class. I had just experienced my first hour of laughter yoga.



Laughter yoga is just what it sounds like: stretching, breathing exercises relaxation combined with a whole lot of laughing.



Gita Fendelman, a laughter yoga instructor and member of the Tucson Laughter Club, calls laughter her ""inner pharmacy."" Fendelman had been practicing Hatha yoga since 1971. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a little more than seven years ago, which limited her ability to do traditional yoga.



""But I had heard of laughter yoga, and I figured I could still laugh,"" she said.



Since starting her laughter yoga practice four years ago, Fendelman said she has stopped taking any medication for her Parkinson's disease. Laughter yoga has become the only treatment she needs.



Fendelman said laughter has been shown to help with a whole host of conditions, including depression, chronic pain, sleep disorders, diabetes and conditions like Parkinson's disease and arthritis. She said a recent study even indicated laughter might boost fertility.



Fendelman and other members of the Tucson Laughter Club hope to bring these and other benefits to the greater community on May 1, which is World Laughter Day. Laughter clubs in more than 60 countries will be hosting events all day to promote the laughter yoga mission: ""joy, good health and world peace through laughter.""



Tucson's event will be held on the UA Mall in front of McKale Center from 10:30 a.m. to noon. The morning will feature ""bubbles and games,"" in addition to a laughter yoga session, Fendelman said.



The event is free and open to everyone.



""Men, women and children,"" Fendelman stressed. ""Especially children. Bring your inner child.""



An inner child is an important facet of laughter yoga, as I learned during Fendelman's Sunday evening session at Curves. The group, called the Laughter YogHA club, meets weekly at 5:30 p.m.



We began by sitting in a circle and making eye contact, which Fendelman stresses is an important aspect of laughter yoga. We stretched and breathed, then learned a few basic laughter chants, accompanied by clapping or simple dance moves.



And then, for the bulk of the next half hour, we just laughed. Because it was Easter Sunday, many of the laugh prompts Fendelman introduced were holiday themed. ""Now do your, ‘I ate too much Easter food laugh,'"" she instructed us, and we all let out long, wailing laughs, holding our stomachs. We did an Easter fashion show, prancing down a makeshift aisle in pretend bonnets and hoopskirts while the rest of the group laughed. We searched for Easter eggs, guffawing every time we ""found"" one in a fellow laugher's ear or on top of their head. Most of the session consisted of various kinds of pantomime and make-believe, accompanied by perpetual belly laughter.



That kind of laughter is difficult to sustain for more than a minute or so, as I soon found. It requires both mental and physical discipline.



""We're laughing whether we feel like it or not,"" Fendelman said. ""It's just like exercise.""



It's also, of course, infectious. Forced laughter quickly becomes real, and I often found that, as Fendelman transitioned between laughing exercises, I couldn't stop my laughter.



Toward the end of class, my cell phone rang, interrupting the explanation of an exercise. Instead of glaring around, trying to find the idiot who didn't turn off her cell phone before class, everyone just laughed.



Fendelman ended class with a ""savasana,"" or corpse pose, the traditional ending to a Hatha yoga class. This deep relaxation pose was the perfect end to a surprisingly vigorous hour of laughter. I left with aching cheeks and a perceptibly lifted mood.



The World Laughter Day event on the Mall will feature a laughter yoga session, so you don't have to take my word for it. But after just one laughter yoga session, I understand how a person can get hooked.



""It's almost magical,"" Fendelman said. ""And the only side effects are good ones. You might not be able to stop.""



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