Natural Awakenings

Laughter as Yoga, a Way of Life: Patrick Murphy Welage - by Kristin DeMint

If you’ve talked with him for just a second, you know him—even if you never officially met.

You know him because you’ve experienced his presence, and you walked away from the exchange feeling lighter, feeling more optimistic, feeling a deep and seemingly limitless connection to this man you hardly know. In a sense, talking with Patrick Murphy Welage is like coming face-to-face with your inner child. Ask him about anything, it seems, and suddenly you feel bubbling up within you this innocence, this joy, this happy-go-lucky enjoyment of conversational play. For Welage, laughter isn’t a random occurrence; it’s a constant companion, a way of life. For him, laughter is yoga—it’s unity with others, with a higher power, with his deepest self.

Welage began practicing laughter seven years ago in Mumbai, India. What at the time was a simple tip (“Go to laughter yoga while you’re in Mumbai; these people stand outside in a park and just laugh,” said a woman at an ashram he was visiting. “I’m not sure where it is, but it’s in a park, and it’s downtown, and I think it’s near the Gateway to India”) became a journey of letting go and sharing the freedom he’s found.

No sooner did Welage arrive in Mumbai than the concierge at his hotel reserved him a spot in a laughter yoga class at the home of Dr. Madan Kataria, a local doctor. Little did Welage know that Kataria is credited with founding (or, more accurately, reviving) the Hasya Yoga, or Laughter Yoga, movement, which he began in 1995 in—you guessed it—a park. And little did our very own Welage know that at some point he’d be touring the world training and teaching alongside the famous physician.

Stepping Inside a Class

Typically, a Laughter Yoga class is anywhere from one to two hours long. In Welage’s classes, he begins by talking about the practice and sometimes showing videos of what goes on in a Laughter Yoga class. Then, he and his students begin with breathing and stretching exercises. “If you’ve never taken a yoga class in your life,” he adds, “that’s fine. You don’t even need a yoga mat.”

After the warmup, the laughter exercises begin. One Welage describes is where you hold out both hands and act as if you’re pouring a milkshake from one glass to another—you make a sound (“aaah”), inflected at the end, as you pour said imaginary milkshake back and forth.

If at some point people lose it and they can’t stop laughing, the teacher has them breathe. “When you lose control of laughter, you’re sort of ‘out there’,” Welage explains. “The instructor helps bring the attention back to the moment, helps calm the laughter. Laughter is contagious; that’s one reason it works. It takes just as long to calm down [as it does to induce spontaneous laughter].”

Regarding his first Laughter Yoga experience at Dr. Kataria’s house, Welage shares, “At first [the class] felt strange and awkward, but then I just immediately plugged into the spirit of it. What I was participating in was a community; I’m stepping into this room of all Indians, almost all women, and they pretty much all know each other. The power of this exercise is that you can go anywhere in the world, and when you laugh with people, you can connect with them.”

The Power of Laughter

“Laughter is powerful,” says Welage. “Unfortunately, laughter has been misunderstood and used to control people. For example, there’s a saying that goes ‘Ladies smile; whores laugh.’ And in high society, if you laugh you cover your mouth—you’re considered low-class if you open your mouth and let it all out. People are afraid of power; there’s an underlying social construction about laughter that’s based in fear.”

The irony is that as Welage and countless others have found, laughter holds a key—some might even say the master key—to freedom. When you laugh, you accept what is—you let go of your hold on any mental hang-ups you have and focus on the act. “Laughter is not just about the physicality and the sound—laughter is energy, it’s vibration, it’s a way of being in the world,” explains Welage. “People have a limited knowledge of yoga—it’s a philosophy of being in the world. I like to use word plays, and one of the ones I use most frequently is that yoga equals ‘you go.’ In yoga, the ego goes away, ‘you’ go away. The truth about laughter is that when you lose yourself in it and really let go, it’s impossible to think of anything. You’re just in that present moment, being connected with the experience.

“Laughter is an attitude; it’s inner work,” Welage continues. “The spiritual energy of all our masters is lightness and compassion—it’s not about showing up as a heavy, serious sort of person. [With laughter], you can go to something that’s so absurd and just sit there and enjoy it for what it is and just go ‘hahaha.’ And if you sense that someone is uncomfortable by your laughing, you can laugh inwardly.” Among the other benefi ts of Laughter Yoga Welage mentions are the following: “It’s a great ice-breaker and a great community builder. It’s a universal language, like music. It’s non-violence; when we laugh, we are practicing nonviolence by laughing with people, not at people.”


A Curious Career path

Welage has had an interesting career path, an unexpected one. “When you get on a path [that’s focused on] living the ideals and not focusing on the results, it sort of feeds itself,” Welage comments about his wide-ranging professional activities. A professor of theology, philosophy, international studies, service learning, and theatre arts at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, he’s also worked extensively with peace and justice programs and service learning projects both here and abroad. He’s delivered sermons at religious congregations and has led seminars, workshops and retreats on a range of topics. In many of these situations, he’s brought laughter to the table—even his college classes get to experience his commitment to this emerging form of yoga.

“There are wonderful therapeutic applications of laughter,” he explains. “Laughter is used in retirement communities for the elderly, it’s been used in prisons (because it reduces stress and violence), and I’ve even led a laughter class for 20 blind teenagers.”

Laughter Yoga is also about practicing being nonjudgmental, not looking at or thinking about how another person laughs, or how much, explains Welage. “People have to learn that it’s okay to laugh, and to laugh for no reason….[Laughter Yoga] has opened up a whole new dimension of life to me—I practice it every day.”

Natural Awakenings • November 2009

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