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The Best Medicine

Exploring the health benefits of a hardy har har

Author Hannah Stuart-Leach Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

dispatches1

BRISTOL, ENGLAND – Dr. Madan Kataria stands before an audience and does what he does best. “Ha ha!” he chortles. “Hoo hoo!” The crowd responds in kind: “Hee hee!” This mutual exchange of merriment continues until the doctor raises his hands and begins to speak. “Laughter,” he says, “gives you so much positive energy!”

Actually, it’s supposed to give you more than this. Laughter Yoga—the “wellbeing workout” founded by Dr. Kataria in 1995—is said to do everything from lowering blood pressure to boosting the immune system. There are groups in more than 70 countries around the world devoted to the practice, including the one Dr. Kataria is addressing now—Bristol Laughter Club, the oldest one outside India.

Dressed in a smart shirt and slacks, the bespectacled, billiard-ball-bald doctor invites the audience of around 40 to join him in what he calls Radiant Laughter. The idea is that by faking it, people will trick their bodies into replicating the neurochemical and aerobic responses generated by actual laughter. For some, this is not as easy as it sounds. Devotees at the front of the room get stuck trying to match their howls and hoots to those of the guru onstage. At the back, a handful of newbies shuffle about, their rictus grins and awkward eyes giving the game away. Some look longingly out the window or concentrate on the thudding of the African drum class downstairs. The doctor apparently senses the discomfort. “How do you laugh with no joke?” he says.

Eventually, however, even the most stubbornly resistant gigglers succumb, and the room descends into cheerful chaos. One enthusiast loses it completely, emitting the piercing staccato howls of a hyena, and the laughter around him becomes genuinely helpless.

“Now that,” says Dr. Kataria, wiping tears from under his specs, “is happiness on demand!”

Then, without warning, the doctor becomes serious. He has one more secret to share, he says, an essential element in the quest for health and happiness. He fixes the now-silent audience with an intense gaze and shouts, loud enough that a few people flinch: “Stop reading the newspapers!”

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