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Jewish Journal

For a few good laughs

by David Suissa

July 30, 2008 | 11:07 pm

It's not often I get to celebrate Shabbat right by the ocean waves, howling with laughter.

It started innocently enough, on a lazy Shabbat afternoon last week in Laguna Beach.

I was feeling a little guilty that I had missed the two-mile trek to the local Chabad for Shabbat morning services. My family and I were hanging out in a cozy beach house we had rented for the week, and I was still hung over from the previous night's Shabbat meal celebrating my daughter's graduation.

We could stay inside and read and play board games, or we could walk to the beach.

We walked to the beach.

I'll find a quiet place there for some Shabbat meditation, I thought to myself.

But the beach was crowded. I strolled and played with the kids for several hours, and as the afternoon wore on, it didn't look like there'd be any moment of Shabbat tranquility. Little did I know, however, that another kind of moment was about to hit me.

Not a moment with God, but a moment with crazy laughter.

"I think I have an interesting activity for us," my sister said. "There's a guy out there who's got this laughter yoga thing going on."

How does anyone say no to a "laughter yoga thing"?

So, minutes later, there we were, the whole clan, standing in a semi-circle near the crashing waves, moving our bodies in strange motions -- and laughing hysterically. Most of us were oblivious to the people walking by who were making strange faces and holding their children real close.

We had been corralled by Jeffrey Briar, a world-renowned expert laugher.

Briar is the director of The Laughter Yoga Institute and founder of the Laguna Laughter Club. He was a traditional Yoga instructor for 35 years until, in 2005, he studied in Switzerland with an Indian doctor named Madan Kataria, who had developed the practice of "Laughter as Exercise" with his yoga-teacher wife, Madhuri.

Kataria's Laughter Club movement began in 1995 in a public park in Bombay with five people. Today, there are more than 6,000 clubs in 60 countries, with an estimated 300,000 people laughing regularly at laughter clubs throughout the world.

Briar is a bohemian Jew who had his bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles in the 1970s. He is a thinner, less hyper version of Richard Simmons.

For about 30 minutes, he took me, my mother, my sister, my five children and a few others through a series of laughing exercises, one sillier than the next. The whole idea, he said, was to laugh for no reason.

Well, actually, for one reason: Because remarkable things happen to the human body when it's in a state of laughter.

As he later explained to me, laughter relieves stress; it enhances the immune system; it improves respiratory and cardiovascular functions (by bringing fresh oxygen to the blood and brain); it relieves pain (by producing endorphins, the body's natural pain-killer); it activates digestive and eliminative systems; and it encourages relaxation, boosts self-confidence and deepens creativity.

In other words, Briar doesn't think we should wait for the new Ben Stiller movie or the next "Saturday Night Live" episode in order to have a good laugh.

As he puts it: "If laughter is so good for you, why wait for something funny?"

Indeed, you look at the guy and it looks like plenty of oxygen is going to his blood and brain. He's been on that same stretch of sand in Laguna Beach every day for the past three years. His mission in life is to help bring unconditional laughter to the world, or at least to everybody he meets. The ultimate vision of Laughter Yoga, he says, is world peace.

After the 30-minute exercise was over, he noticed that I was still cracking up.

"You're a natural-born laugher," he told me.

Yes, I am, I told him. What I didn't tell him was that I had been hoping to get a little quiet Shabbat experience on the beach that day -- and I certainly wasn't expecting boisterous laughing exercises that would make my mother laugh so hard she'd have to sit down on a big rock and rest.

It's true that I put a high value on laughter; I would say I've spent a good chunk of my life cracking up -- often for no good reason. But when I think of the religious experience, I don't think of wild laughter. In fact, I have sharp memories of being reprimanded by grown-ups when, as a kid, I would laugh uncontrollably with my buddies during Shabbat services -- as my father was reciting every word of the prayers, lost in his own sincere bliss.

Synagogues are monuments to reverence; laughter is a monument to self-absorbed pleasure. In a synagogue, we are encouraged to take things seriously. With laughter, the less you take seriously, the more you laugh.

Having said that, I confess that the moment of crazy joy I had on the beach probably brought me as close to my family -- and to God -- as I've ever felt on Shabbat.

In fact, it struck me, after all that laughter-induced fresh oxygen pumped through my blood and brain, that Jeffrey Briar is a lot like your basic neighborhood rabbi -- you know, the one who would love you to join his or her shul.

Think about it: They both look friendly and happy; they both believe passionately in their way of life; they both want to share their way of life to benefit you and your family; they both seek world peace, and, of course, they're both Jewish.

I'm not sure what would please me more: To have Briar become a rabbi, or to have rabbis do an internship at his Laughter Club.

Either one would give us more than a few good laughs, not to mention activate our digestive and eliminative systems.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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