Larry O’Brien loves a quote from Hafiz, the medieval Persian poet: “Laughter is the sound of a soul waking up.”
When you see O’Brien in action, you’d believe it. During his Laughter Yoga sessions, he rides energetically around the room in his wheelchair. As he laughs, he claps out every syllable: “Ho! Ho! Ha-ha-ha! Very good! Very good! Yayyyy!”
This particular day, he’s leading Laughter Yoga at the Hope Alzheimer’s Center in Cranston. Dozens of residents encircle him. Some are lucid and vocal; others look skeptical, even grouchy. But then O’Brien leans toward a random face and says, “When you laugh, everybody laughs!” Like clockwork, the resident chuckles. And everybody bursts into laughter.
O’Brien’s journey to Laughter Yoga has been long. Years ago, he worked as a technical recruiter, finding jobs for skilled engineers. In 1978, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. O’Brien is gentle and good-humored, and it makes perfect sense that, a little over a decade ago, he discovered “Laughter Therapy” at Care New England.
“It’s an antidepressant,” says O’Brien. “Not that I was depressed. But to live mindfully, you have to have a certain level of mindlessness. You have to have a certain amount of no-thought. And this is a no-thought experience.”
Laughter Yoga started in the mid-1990s, when physician Dr. Matan Kataria started organizing group laughter sessions in his native India. The phenomenon exploded, and Laughter Clubs have popped up in almost every major city, including Providence. One leader is Rebecca Foster, who hosts a free Laughter Club at Studio@116. Held each Sunday, Laughter Club is more physical, less structured, but adheres to the same lighthearted philosophy as sessions at the Hope Alzheimer’s Center. Like other Laughter Yoga practitioners, Foster points out that “the body cannot differentiate between simulated and ‘real’ laughter, if done with willingness. One gets the same physiological and psychological benefits.”
“It raises serotonin levels,” says O’Brien, who trained under Foster. “It releases endorphins. It raises dopamine levels in areas of the brain that let you experience good feelings.”
This fact is evident at Hope, where sour expressions turn joyful and distant eyes become present. O’Brien mixes his laughter routine with singalongs and rehearsed anecdotes from his own life. At one point, he opens an old telephone book and starts reading random business listings, and everyone bellows.
The session ends with a recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The residents close their eyes and go quiet. As the music swells, O’Brien murmurs to the crowd, “My grandfather used to say, ‘You might as well be happy. It doesn’t cost you anything.’” Sundays, 116 Calvery Street.