As dawn breaks in India’s largest and noisiest city, there’s a hubbub on Chowpatty beach that sounds altogether stranger than the car horns, bus engines and tinny radios that provide the usual rush-hour soundtrack. Standing in a circle on the pale yellow sands of the beach, a group of men and women are twirling their arms in the air like portly birds trying to take off. Dressed in a mix of saris, t-shirts and punjabis, they take their cue from Kishore Kuvavala, a man with a smile as wide as the Ganges, and the leader of the Chowpatty Beach Laughter Yoga Club.
Invented by Indian doctor Madan Kataria in the mid-Nineties, laughter yoga now has thousands of devotees. Many sessions, such as Kuvavala’s, are free for anybody to join, providing newcomers don’t mind an early start. Propelled by the philosophy that laughter gives humans huge spiritual and medical benefits, the session is book-ended by prayer and breathing sessions, and its main objective couldn’t be simpler – to set your giggling, howling, chortling and smirking instincts free.
Kataria soon found out after starting his original group that simple joke-telling wasn’t enough – not least because his devotees ran out of gags. So these days, laughter yoga clubs rely on physical comedy: stirring an imaginary bowl of lassi, laughing at yourself in an imaginary mirror, pretending to be an aeroplane and doing a giant hokey-cokey are all part of the forty-five minute Chowpatty beach session, which ends with a huge call and response shout-a-thon. It’s hard to let yourself go, but look around at the hordes of men and women roaring without restraint and soon you’ll be producing laughter of a volume and tone that would get you thrown out of most bars.
It certainly seems to be working. Laughter yoga clubs have now sprung up across the USA and Europe. The smiles on the faces of our motley crew of policemen, pensioners, students and office workers as they leave for work tell their own story. As Kishore explains at the end of the giggle-fest. “No need for lie-ins – but every need for laughter!”