It’s no joke: One Valleyite uses laughter to help others heal themselves
Illustration by Elwood H. Smith
As the old saw says, laughter is the best medicine. And Jodi Peister — a Rockland County resident who calls herself “Dr. Wellbeing” — is out to prove that adage to anyone who will share a good guffaw with her.
A graduate of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Peister practiced psychiatry during the late 1990s. By the year 2000, however, she was too sick to continue her career. She had suffered from depression, anxiety, fatigue, and other ailments since she was a teenager, but she found that her increased workload made these problems more severe. “I lived in pain all the time,” she says.
Feeling that her medical training had not equipped her to solve her own health woes, “I started studying the teachers of the East,” she recalls, “and I began to understand the mind in a more simplistic view. I needed to let the energy through.”
Through her research, Peister discovered the work of Dr. Madan Kataria, the founder of laughter yoga, a gentle exercise routine that involves simple movements, yogic breathing (or pranayama), and unconditional laughter. An Indian physician, Kataria organized the first laughter club in a Mumbai park in 1995; today, there are more than 6,000 such clubs in 60 countries worldwide. After studying to become a certified laughter yoga teacher, Peister started a social laughter club in September 2006.
Laughing, Peister explains, is one of the best ways to improve one’s overall health. A good belly laugh can boost the immune system, aid blood circulation, elevate the heart rate, raise endorphin levels, and ease muscle tension. Scientific studies in Japan have shown that laughing has a positive effect on the breathing problems associated with asthma and allergies; it also helps regulate blood sugar levels, a major problem for diabetes patients. It has reportedly alleviated symptoms of depression, anxiety, hypertension, constipation, and thyroid disease as well.
Although there are other trained laughter coaches in the Valley, Peister is the only one who runs a laughter club. Meetings are held each week in her hometown of Chestnut Ridge, and are open to anyone who wants to attend.
For each session, Peister prepares a written routine, which often includes singing a “silly” song; clapping, chanting, and breathing exercises; performing simple movements (such as raising the arms, shaking hands, or doing the hokey-pokey dance) — and laughing all the while. “It’s very silly, and people are sometimes embarrassed,” Peister says. “We have been socialized not to laugh out loud, that it’s not appropriate. Laughter clubs make it safe to be silly.”
Although the meetings can take on aspects of a free-for-all (Peister says her group members sometimes “fly around the room like birds” or do an exercise in which they literally “rub elbows” with each other), the club has several hard and fast rules. Interestingly, telling jokes is forbidden. Often culturally tinged, jokes tend to get their humor by mocking or denigrating others; Piester prefers to incite laughter that does not rely on any negative features. No onlookers are allowed; everyone must participate in order to avoid having some people feel awkward and socially inhibited. Not in the mood to laugh? “Fake it, it’s fun” is Peister’s mantra. “Fake laughter is as therapeutic as real laughter. I’ve had people come to the club looking very down, but they leave smiling.”
Perhaps the most basic rule Peister gives her group is to “let it flow.” “This can have many meanings,” she explains. “Some people start laughing, and can’t stop. Some start crying, and can’t stop. The first time I did it, I burst into tears — it was wonderful. And some pee their pants or fart — and that’s okay.”
Besides her club meetings, Peister leads laughter yoga events for businesses, social groups, and medical institutions. She often works at nursing homes with the elderly, the developmentally disabled, and others with limited mobility who can especially benefit from the exercise. And this summer, she is hoping to offer her programs to children at local day camps.
Indeed, in many ways laughter yoga is all about “playing like kids again. It brings back unbelievable freedom, and helps us dump the negative stuff,” Peister says. “At the end of a session, people are lying on the floor, and they don’t want to leave. They’re finally in that ‘ahh’ place. The gotta-gotta, shoulda-shoulda, push-push is gone.”
► The Wellbeing Laughter Club
Every Wednesday from 7:30-8:30 p.m. at Peace Through Play Nursery School, 8 Amber Ridge Rd., Chestnut Ridge
Also on June 9 from 7:30-8:30 p.m. at Tappan Free Library, 93 Main St., Tappan
Meetings are open to all; suggested donation $10