OSAKA, Japan -- Laughing is said to be good for the mind and body. Taking that advice to heart, a number of seniors are flocking to laughter yoga -- an exercise that encourages people to laugh while practicing yoga.
Despite its name, laughter yoga does not actually require practitioners to bend and contort their bodies into difficult poses. Developed in 1995 by an Indian doctor and his wife, the exercise only requires people to take deep breaths while doing simple yoga poses.
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The exercise trend has spread to more than 70 countries around the world, including the United States, China and Germany. According to Laughter Yoga Japan, an incorporated nonprofit organization, the exercise can help refresh the mind and body, ease stress and improve the lymphatic and circulatory systems.
Bright and early on a spring day, about 30 members of a laughter yoga group gathered in Osaka Castle Park in Chuo Ward, Osaka. "Imagine you're an airplane flying to Hawaii," Rikako Ueda, the group's organizer, told participants.
The group then stretched their arms wide open to mimic airplane wings before bursting out into laughter while running around.
After a while, the group began clapping before saying in unison, "Eeyan, eeyan ... " or "It's good" in the local dialect.
"If you can't laugh properly, just let out a loud 'hahaha,'" said Ueda, a 58-year-old certified laughter yoga teacher.
The exercise continued as members were prompted to imagine themselves picking up gold bars, or peeling huge bananas. They also mimicked swimming strokes, such as freestyle and the dog paddle.
The group continued the laughing exercises for about an hour.
Said Ueda: "It's important that at first, you just let out your voice cheerfully. If you practice every day, you'll be able to laugh very naturally."
Ueda's "Warai Yoga Kurabu" (Laughter Yoga Club) group holds meetings at the park once a month, in addition to indoor practices.
According to scientists, people laugh less as they grow older.
In a survey of 2,471 people conducted by Tetsuya Ohira, a professor at Fukushima Medical University, more than 60 percent of female respondents under 50 said they laughed almost every day, compared to just 43 percent for those aged 70 or older.
For men, the figure stood at 36 percent for those 70 or older, significantly lower than the 58 percent recorded for those under 40.
"The less people laugh, the more likely they are to develop memory loss or other symptoms," Ohira said.
Hiroshi Inoue, professor emeritus at Kansai University, also said, "Laughing is an excellent ability that humans have."
"As people get older, they tend to laugh less and don't talk to others as much. But that would be a regretful waste of such an excellent ability," said Inoue, who also serves as an adviser to the Japan Society for Laughter and Humor Studies. The organization, based in Osaka, conducts comprehensive studies on laughter and humor in psychology, medicine and philosophy.
Regarding laughter yoga, Inoue said: "Practitioners can be any age. If people become able to really laugh while exercising together, that phenomenon is called 'laughter transmissibility.' I advise practitioners to make suggestions on what type of poses would let them have even more fun."