Magazine article The Spectator

Serious Laughter

Magazine article The Spectator

Serious Laughter

Article excerpt

The very last out-take in a compilation of humorous out-takes I saw about five years ago has stayed in my mind's eye ever since, evergreen and distinct, like a favourite sexual fantasy, to be played back in times of boredom or emergency. During an interval in the class, a local television news reporter is interviewing the teacher of a new-age therapy called Laughter Yoga. To the right of them, three of the teacher's students are standing obediently in a line facing the camera and trying to keep a straight face.

All three are fighting a losing battle, but the chap in the middle, who looks as if he only popped out for a packet of Mayfair and somehow got roped in to make up the numbers, has already lost it. He's got his chin dug into his chest, his eyes tight shut and his shoulders are convulsing wildly. After a while he thinks his crisis is passed. He opens his eyes and lifts his head. But the world strikes him, if anything, as more ludicrous than before, and now he's bent double and clutching his stomach as if he's been shot.

The interviewer is also trying not to lose it. In a wavering voice he asks the teacher, a tiny Indian man, and the only person present fully in command of himself, to demonstrate one of his Laughter Yoga techniques. The yogi nods gravely, composes himself, then lets out the most ridiculously artificial falsetto cackle, like some evil pantomime villain with a dastardly plan. And everybody, students, reporter, literally falls about. It's as if someone's lobbed a hand grenade.

Exactly why everyone laughs so helplessly at the yogi's ersatz laughter is unclear. Perhaps the moral and religious undertone of the endeavour lends it a piquant absurdity. Maybe the students are racists. Even in enlightened times such as these, it's not unknown. But it's the mental image of that one student, laughing in spite of himself, and trying to suppress it, and failing utterly, with such undignified results, that stays indelibly in my mind. If life's going badly I summon up this man and try to see things from his point of view at that particular moment.

Last Saturday afternoon, however, I was able to go one better and attend a Laughter Yoga club myself. Yogic laughing has caught on, apparently, and now there are 13,000 Laughter Yoga clubs worldwide, including a new one, I was overjoyed to discover, in a nearby town. …

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