“This world will be saved by laughter”

Text: Nina Beier

Lockdown, exit restrictions, compulsory face masks – the coronavirus has turned our lives upside down in recent months. The following report was written before this very unusual time. A snapshot from times before Corona.

When Feriha laughs, it’s loud and heartly. Many people have told her that, on the street or on the bus. “You laugh so beautifully!”, they then address Feriha. And Feriha replies: “You can do that too!” For seven years she has been attending the “Lachtreff”, a laughter meeting in Munich’s Westpark every Sunday. Here, strangers meet for an hour to laugh under guidance. This is called laughter yoga or laughter wellness.

The weather means well today with the Lachtreff. On this mild day in February, almost forty people have come to the Westpark to laugh. Most of them are older, estimated at over sixty, but there are also a few younger faces. “We do this here because laughing is healthy and because we don’t laugh enough,” laughter trainer Cornelia Leisch explains to the newcomers at the beginning.

Every Sunday, Cornelia Leisch’s Lachtreff meets in Munich’s Westpark – at least that’s how it was before Corona times. (Photo: Cornelia Leisch)

Today, Feriha is once again the first one at the meeting place. In her oversized, black down coat and a blue woollen cap over her short, grey hair, the 66-year-old sits on a white metal bench and waits. She always attends a few minutes earlier. “So that nobody misses the laughter because they can’t find it!” she explains. Laughter has given her so much. For her, there is no worry, no pain, no loneliness here. With her dark brown eyes, Feriha scans the area for new visitors to the Laughing Club. “Are you here for laughs?” she asks two middle-aged women, who at first approach each other a little uncertainly. And sure enough, they are.

Laughing to enjoy life (again)

You can somehow see that Cornelia is a laughter trainer. She appears cheerful and colourful: In addition to her red dyed, shoulder-length hair, she wears a red fabric coat and an orange scarf. But the giveaway are her laughter lines, which spread out from her mouth and eyes like a fan on her face. Cornelia herself came out of a completely overwhelming life situation to laughter: After living abroad for 13 years, she returned to Munich as a single mother in 2001. She lacked the joy of life, she felt helpless and abandoned. Then she discovered laughter for herself, became a laughter trainer and finally took over the laughter group of her predecessor. Many who come here have a similar life story, often marked by loneliness, illness or depression.

Now, Cornelia has gathered the troupe into a big circle. First of all, everyone should say their name one after the other and then laugh. You can immediately tell who is already practised in laughing and who is not. While old stagers like Feriha immediately start laughing out loud, some of the newcomers grin a little ashamedly into the group.

Every beginning is difficult

If you are new here, you have to overcome an inhibition threshold first. This was also the case with Feriha. “I thought they were going to put us in the madhouse,” remembers the Turkish-born woman about her first meeting. It’s a funny picture in the Westpark: There is this colourful bunch of people standing in a circle and breaking out into a resounding laughter that drowns out even the cackling of the geese and ducks in the park. Sometimes the people run around wildly, always accompanied by laughter or some kind of exclamation like “Oh, that feels so good!” and gestures.

The laughter yoga exercises Cornelia teaches can always be assigned to one of four categories. In coordination exercises, for example, you clap your hands and say “hoho hahaha”. There are also breathing exercises. Positive reinforcers, on the other hand, are interjections like “Yes! The last category is the invitation to play, where the focus is on interaction with the others. Very important here: eye contact!

Cornelia takes advantage of this today with a “Munich Special”: First, she wants everyone to pretend they’re from a big city like Munich. Nobody looks at each other. Nobody talks. “Now let’s switch over to Westpark laughing group!” Cornelia suddenly calls into the silence. Immediately, the picture changes. At once, the participants look at each other and laugh. There are happy faces everywhere.

Laughter releases hormones

It can be scientifically proven that laughing is good for the body and the mind . A study published in the “Journal of Neuroscience” in 2017 shows that laughter releases happiness hormones in the brain. This can also relieve pain. Feriha experiences it herself every Sunday. You can’t tell by looking at the little woman, but she has fibromyalgia syndrome. People affected by this disease suffer from chronic muscle pain. “I can’t feel the pain when I laugh.” But that is not the only reason why laughter yoga has become so valuable to Feriha. For her, community is also very important.

This community feeling especially can be seen at the end of the hour. Everybody moves closer together again, everybody hooks up with his or her neighbour and closes their eyes. Then there is free laughter, which lasts two to three minutes. Once everyone slowly opens their eyes again, they all look very satisfied.

Feriha has a huge smile on her face. “This world will be saved by laughter”, she is convinced of that. “If everyone smiles a little, there will be no more hostility.” She has decided to spend her life laughing. Where she goes, she carries it along. “You laugh so beautifully,” people tell her. And Feriha says: “You can do that too!”

And now? At least in this form, the weekly laughter meetings can’t take place anymore.

In the meantime Cornelia Leisch offers virtual laughter trainings. An unusual experience, she says.

In Corona times everything becomes virtual. Even laughter meetings. (Photo: Cornelia Leisch)

“I must confess, I couldn’t have imagined it at all. When we meet for real, we get very close, physically and emotionally. We look each other straight in the eyes, we touch each other briefly again and again. We establish a direct connection. How is that supposed to work on the screen?

To my great surprise I could see that it works after all. Somewhat different, but still you feel connected, not alone, but in community. You have 25 people in your living room or office smiling at you. When can you experience something like that in real life?

At the beginning of the corona restrictions we did daily laugh groups. We had to get to know the technique better, try out which exercises were more suitable for the screen and which less, and make lots of mistakes. Now I can say that it is going so well that I will certainly continue the online training in part, even if we may meet again in the park sometime.

Because it also has advantages. You don’t have to travel to the session. Some people simply take a break from work in their home office to be part of a laughing session. People who are not from Munich can participate.

I have now even started an international laughter and conversation circle with my teacher Sebastien Gendry, who is based in California. First laughing together and then in small groups to discuss certain questions, and just listen. It seems that this is exactly what many people need right now.”

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