In the latest episode of The Chopra Well’s 30 DAYS OF INTENT, Natalie and Iman get silly with some laughing meditation. They visit Stephanie Nash who leads them in an intimate and, at times, goofy session. We interviewed Stephanie on her experience teaching laughing meditation and how the practice has changed her life.
The Chopra Well: We love laughing! And Natalie and Iman do, too. Why is it so hard, then, to laugh in the more controlled setting of a laughing meditation session?
Stephanie Nash: Laughing is a spontaneous act – as we all know. Why are we not, then, laughing all the time?
Well, with the stresses and worries of life, our minds become occupied with concerns of the past and future, with less room to allow the natural response to freely take over. We develop tensions that become habitual of holding back our tears, of swallowing them with tightness in the tongue, throat, and jaw. Laughter is not something that we tend to deliberately stifle – it’s usually more of a case of not leaving space for it, and thus it’s harder to notice how tension makes it less likely.
“Why is it so hard … in a controlled setting”? Because something that is spontaneous and happens naturally will be easier. That, however, is not the point here. The key is not necessarily to have it feel the same, the key is to stretch so that there is more tendency to laugh and smile as natural responses in life. And it’s been proven that simply doing the actions of smiling and laughing there are physiological, psychological and emotional benefits, even when the laugh or smile is not authentic.
CW: If we tend to hold ourselves back from laughing spontaneously, what are some things we can do to open up and loosen the muscles a bit?
SN: One way of “stretching” or “lubricating” the pathway is to deliberately smile or laugh – without the natural impulse. Yes, it often can feel quite false at first. What I’ve tried to do is make it an exercise that is practical and can be done by anybody during the course of his or her day. Just 30 seconds 2-3 times a day, can help shift any habit pattern of sadness, depression, anger, or fear.
CW: Natalie and Iman seemed a little bit wary at first to laugh. Is it ever hard or awkward for you when you’re first teaching someone the practice?
SN: I’d say that most people are a bit surprised at the notion of “laughing for no reason.” Some, as I believe Natalie brought up, might even find it to be insane. So right there you’ve got concepts and judgments that get in the way of them experiencing the potential freedom that could be experienced. Does that make it more challenging for me to help people experience the possibilities? Sure, but that’s my job. And some people are going to be more naturally inclined to laugh or open to the possibility than others.
Also, and this is not unimportant, this was the first time I’d ever taught anyone who hadn’t come of their own choosing. Also, I did not know until moments before Natalie and Iman arrived that they had no idea what they were heading into. So that made it particularly challenging for everyone, I think. All those factors added together to create a unique challenge given the nature of this work, but working through challenges usually leads to some interesting growth.
Also, I’d say that 95% or more of the time that I present laughing meditation it’s to a group, and that makes a big difference. Different groups have different dynamics, but there are always a few people who really let out a huge guffaw that affects the group, and/or there are a couple of people with very funny, unique laughs, and that alone can set off the group into peels of laughter. Hearing a good laugh can be like being tickled, which is what I try to supply with my laugh. Then, after someone has experienced that, when they attempt to do it on their own, it’s definitely easier because the natural recall of the positive experience of the group returns and supports the process.
So, when teaching people privately, it will naturally be a bit more challenging. It can be easier to teach one person than two, depending on if it’s a comfortable, intimate relationship or if they are relatively new to each other. So then, naturally, it’s not only more difficult to abandon oneself to the laugh during the teaching, but at home, the remembering of that initial discomfort may be recalled, reinforcing more resistance.
SN: Yes, I practice the smiling practice 3-20 times a day, and the laughing practice I employ if I realize I have not heard the sound of my laugh that day. Because I do this a lot, I laugh a lot and am more prone to laughing. But when I work as a meditation teacher with people in deep pain or grief, laughing is not the natural or appropriate activity, so I use the laughing meditation to balance. It’s like taking a “positive” vitamin, in the same way we may review our day – Did I exercise? Drink enough water? Meditate? One can notice if one let out a good deep laugh that day, and it’s an easy fix.
Since I started employing laughter and smiling, I’ve been happier and am more motivated to move, create, and serve. I notice many people commenting on how much younger I look. I’m 55 years old now, and I probably feel better and stronger than I did in my mid-30’s.
And there is also a tangible shift in my life circumstances and relationships from this practice. An undeniable shift is on job opportunities, people wanting to assist me, or come to my workshops. I mean, who doesn’t want to be around a happy person? And the relationships and students I draw into my life reflect it back, so I am then not just generating it myself but receiving it from others. This triggers a quite authentic impulse to smile or laugh, and this lovely positive feedback loop develops. When smiling and laughing, you notice the world smiling and laughing back, and it feels like the world is buoying you up.
The last thing I feel I should say is that I find laughter to be a wonderful and totally underutilized component to happiness. When I’m counseling or teaching meditation to someone, I always also emphasize exercise, getting out in nature, employing mindfulness in daily life, along with some kind of fun, creative energy release. But there is no question that smiling and laughing can supply the fuel for all that.
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