People always ask Beverley Bender what's so darn funny. This just makes her laugh even harder — partly because she's so happy, and partly because that's her job. As a Certified Laughter Leader, she tours the Bay Area staging workshops in which participants learn to titter, roar, guffaw, and hoot for no real reason at all except to improve their health. She considers laughter an "inexpensive and effective wonder drug with no side effects."
"When we're in pain or depressed, our bodies just tighten up," said Bender, whose "Laughing for the Health of It" class at the Albany Library (1247 Marin Ave., Albany) on Thursday, August 5, is designed especially for seniors. "Laughing relaxes us." Laughter has been proven to improve the human immune system. Researchers at Loma Linda University, among others, have determined that laughing lowers blood pressure, quells stress hormones, and boosts infection-fighting T-cells, according to Bender.
"I've always been in laughter," said Bender. "I started telling jokes as a kid. My parents thought it was cute, so they encouraged me. When I started telling slightly risqué jokes, they knew I didn't get the risqué parts, so they let me tell those, too."
Bender used humor when working in sales, fine-tuning her skills through Toastmasters and open-mic standup. While completing her master's degree in gerontology at San Francisco State University with a thesis on the benefits of humor among older adults, she discovered the World Laughter Tour, an outfit promoting laughter as therapy, inspired by the "laughter yoga" movement founded in India by physician Madan Kataria. Undergoing the WLT training course, Bender became a Laughter Leader, then traveled to study with Kataria himself.
From him, she learned about laughter as a mantra. Her classes begin with the chant Ho ho ha ha. They also include games and exercises in which participants walk around the room making funny faces and funny sounds and imagining themselves in stressful situations such as being stuck in traffic or late for class, then laughing out loud, long and hard, to defy that stress. Bender offers take-home strategies as well: While approaching a tense situation such as a doctor's appointment or an exam, for example, she suggests putting your cell phone to your ear. "Pretend you're talking to someone who has just told you the funniest joke. Laugh out loud, and you'll be a little more relaxed when you get wherever you're going.
"The more you do it, the fake laugh becomes a real laugh," she continued. "When you smile and laugh, you're telling your body that you're happy. You cannot feel pain or depression in that moment, because in that moment the laughter is all that's there."
Happiness is all too scarce in a fear-driven era, Bender mused, "but this society takes too many pills. Antidepressants just level out people's moods rather than help them go through what they're going through. I tell them to get laughter into their lives. Do it every day, even if it starts with a fake laugh."
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