When Larry Steffler was in his late 40s, he was really stressed out.
Aiming for a new career as a social worker, he was studying for a degree at the University of Albany, and his goal was a perfect grade in every class.
“My friends would say that I was so uptight that I would vibrate,” Steffler recalls.
Then he discovered Laughter Yoga, which not only got him through college, it helped him survive AIDS and cancer.
Laughter Yoga is a guided practice that induces giggling and guffaws through deep breathing, body exercises, playfulness and eye contact with others in a group.
“Laughter Yoga is a way to find your inner child. You just relax and let go,” says Steffler, who became a certified instructor five years ago.
Started in India
Developed in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician in India, Laughter Yoga is practiced in Laughter Clubs in 105 countries around the world. There are no such clubs in the Capital Region, and Steffler, who grew up in Latham, knows of only one local other person besides himself that is trained to do it.
“It’s something that a lot of people don’t know about in this part of the country,” he says.
Steffler has helped cancer patients make merry at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Club in Latham, and at Bravehearts, a women’s support and retreat group.
Senior citizens are another one of his target groups. He has worked with assisted living residents at Atria Delmar Place in Delmar and currently he meets once a month with residents of Westview Homes in Albany.
Every session begins with a 10-minute warmup.
“I have people stretch and deep breathe to all the different parts of their body. You need to loosen people up a bit,” Steffler says.
Then he leads the group in what he calls “silly little Laughter Yoga exercises.”
He asks participants to pretend to laugh by repeating fake laughter words, like “ho ho, ha ha ha” or goes around to each person, asking for their best fake laugh.
“By the time we’re all the way around, everyone is laughing naturally.”
The laughter exercises bypass the intellectual part of your brain, Steffler says.
“Once you get your body moving and you do fake laughter, it turns into real laughter. And the body can’t tell the difference.”
Watching others do the exercises really gets things going.
“You ever notice that laughter is a contagion? That’s what happens in Laughter Yoga. We all just get in the moment and let go,” Steffler says.
“You just laugh naturally. You just allow yourself to be. It’s just accepting what comes up and not worrying about what other people think or do or say. In our society, we get so caught up in conventions and stuff, that we always hold ourselves in.”
“Laughter orchestra” is another exercise. “I get people to pretend they are conducting an orchestra. That gets people laughing and a lot of times that gets someone singing and that turns into the whole group singing along, conducting music,” he says.
Yet another exercise involves making faces at each other.
“We stick our tongues out at each other. How many adults have really stuck their tongues out at another adult? It brings people back to a place where things are a lot more calmer in their life and not as complicated.”
People of any age can do it, he says.
“It doesn’t make any difference what mobility level or even cognitive level you are at. If it’s seniors who have mobility issues, then we can do it sitting down in a chair.”
For a younger group or people without mobility issues, he gets the group to move around.
“We dance, we let loose. I have them pretend they are riding around on a motorcycle.”
Laughter Yoga has many health benefits, Steffler says.
“Cortisol is a stress hormone. Studies have shown that laughter lowers that and it increases the serotonin, the good hormones in the body. Also the deep breathing oxygenates the brain and you think more clearly. The laughter pretty much goes through your whole body.”
“Ninety-five percent of the people really enjoy it and they feel relaxed. They say their body doesn’t feel as tense. They seem calmer.”
Laughter Yoga can also be done alone, Steffler says.
“Once you learn some of the exercises and the philosophy, you can have a private practice of doing it.”
Steffler says it was his personal practice that “helped me calm down and get through school.”
Then, only months after he got his degree, Steffler, who was already an AIDS survivor, was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer.
Six days after a scan showed a tumor, he had surgery, the only treatment for his type of cancer.
Sitting at home on his yoga mat, he did Laughing Yoga regularly, which “helped me make peace with it.” He also read the book “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach.
“It’s about dealing with fear and not running away from fear.”
Getting through it
Today, at age 59, Steffler is a four-year cancer survivor and an AIDS and gay rights activist.
He lives in Rensselaer with his partner, the Rev. Keith Patterson, an Episcopal minister and health care chaplain.
“My main thing is to get people to understand that they can go through hell and get out through the other side of it. We can get through stuff if we realize that we are worth it,” Steffler says.
“I’m just a common person but there’s a spark in me that made me realize that I wanted to survive. I wanted to make peace with my past. It’s really wonderful now to be who I am. Being where I am now, I wouldn’t give that up for anything.”
For more information on Laughter Yoga, go www.laughteryoga.org or email Larry Steffler at [email protected]
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or on Twitter @bjorngazette.