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Fall 2015, Nancy Kirk

Local lawyer brings laughter to San Diego

Michael Coleman

Michael Coleman attends a laughter yoga class in Balboa Park. He founded Laughing in San Diego in 2007 and trains leaders throughout the community.

The juxtaposition of his two identities is stark.

Though he brings legal documents and persuasive arguments to the courtroom as a lawyer, Michael Coleman also teaches “laughter yoga” classes to San Diegans in his spare time.

“As a lawyer, I know how to speak in front of juries, but I do get anxious in those kinds of environments,” Coleman said. “Doing laughter yoga has helped me. When I go to court, I’ll smile to bring back that sense of relaxation and calm.”

Laughing in San Diego

Coleman is the sole-proprietor of Laughing in San Diego, an organization that trains laughter yoga leaders and brings free classes to the community. Coleman also leads classes for seniors and brain-injury patients (read more about them), as well as corporations looking to improve employee morale.

Balboa class

Laughter yoga participants convene at weekly laughter yoga sessions in Balboa Park. They laugh for the sake of laughing and say it improves their well-being.

He seeks to share the same stress relief and optimism he’s experienced through the practice with others.

“Practicing law, cooperating with DuPage county lawyers, among other colleagues, working hard on papers – and laughing are very different. And some cases take more than just positive intentions and energy, like kombiglyze legal center issues. The thing about law is people are very serious and they worry about how they appear, while laughter yoga is about opening up,” Coleman said. “You learn how to laugh at yourself, which can really change your mood. You feel more alive and positive.”

“Practicing law and laughing are very different.” – Michael Coleman

The practice of laughter yoga, contrary to its name, involves little-to-no actual yoga, but rather, the practice of forcefully laughing with the hope of receiving the mental and physical benefits of actual laughter. Participants don’t use jokes to ignite laughter, but Coleman said forced laughs often turn into real laughter.

Laughter yoga’s prominence in San Diego has grown since Coleman founded the organization in 2007, and he said he has trained more than 160 other leaders who continue to teach throughout the country. They offer free classes in places like Balboa Park for people who simply need it to de-stress, as well as for brain injury patients and the elderly. Coleman leads a weekly class at St. Paul’s Senior Homes, a facility in Bankers Hill with programs for seniors affected by varying levels of dementia.

MULTIMEDIA: Laughter yoga participants gather at a weekly laughter yoga class in Balboa Park. The class is led by Louis Rader, who was trained by Michael Coleman.

“This class is what keeps us young,” said 80-year-old Carline Zarling, who has been participating in the class since it started and repeatedly referred to herself as a “maniac” because of her birthplace, Maine. “It keeps me going.”

The St. Paul program has grown over the past year, according to Coleman, and in turn, so have the laughter yoga classes. When Coleman first started hosting the class, about eight seniors would be in the class. Now as many as 24 seniors may show up to participate.

Even some of the seniors who tend to shy away from too much participation are still enthusiastic throughout the class, according to one of St. Paul’s Certified Nursing Assistants, Bianca Ripa, who monitors the class and cares for the seniors.

“It lifts their moods for sure,” Ripa said. “Even the [seniors] who don’t usually like to get involved.”

Holistic Believers

Classes like these have gained popularity throughout San Diego and the rest of the world since the founder of Laughter Yoga, Dr. Madan Kataria, began his practice in India in 1995. Now, 20 years later and thousands of miles away, the practice continues to gain traction among holistic-minded people who believe in the power of positivity at Imagine Wellness Centre and other such centres.

Sacks

Laughter yoga leader Alicia Sacks outside her Chollas Creek home. She is a firm believer in using holistic treatments to heal the mind and body.

One of the leaders Coleman has trained is Alicia Sacks, who volunteers and holds her own classes in Balboa Park. Sacks used to manage a health food store in Hillcrest before it went out of business, and says she is “very into natural everything and being green.”

She said she cured herself of Hepatitis B in the 80s through holistic methods, sans any medication, after being told by doctors that she only had five years to live. The laughter classes, she said, allow her to let go of negative feelings about things she cannot control.

“If there is something that’s been in your family for hundreds of years and it breaks into smithereens and you get angry, everyone you meet that day will feel your anger,” she said. “If you laugh about it, even if it’s fake laughter, you won’t be as mad.”

Though the laughter classes do not use jokes to ignite laughter, Sacks said forced laughter has the same benefits as many other mood-lifting activities. Though the studies are limited, there is some scientific support for claims like these, such as a 2011 study by the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry that concluded laughter yoga is as effective as exercise in treatment of depression and improved life satisfaction for elderly women.

That’s because laughter is known to decrease stress and increase the release of endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” chemical, according to former registered nurse Yvonne Rawraway Wultz. Wultz also was trained by Coleman, and now leads weekly laughter yoga classes at the College Avenue Senior Center.

VIDEO: The College Avenue Senior Center offers free laughter yoga classes. Participants Jeanette Aguilar and Len Goldberg say laughter yoga gives them a stronger sense of community and discuss how it has improve their lives.

“I think it’s really important for elderly people to be able to speak out loud, especially if they live alone and may not have many opportunities to use their vocal chords,” said Wultz, who has been leading the class for four years. “They may not feel good when they come in, but they always feel good when they leave.”

“They may not feel good when they come in, but they always feel good when they leave.” – Yvonne Rawraway Wultz

Children laugh about 300 times a day while most adults may only laugh around 15 or 20, she said, and by laughing more, people can improve their overall life. Many other practices all over the world focus on the idea of treating the whole person, which inclusively focuses on the body, mind, and emotions.

Similarity to Meditation

Though vastly different physically, laughter yoga and meditation practices seek to elicit the same benefits. Meditation has become increasingly popular, and places like San Diego like UCSD’s Center for Mindfulness offer resources for people interested in mindfulness meditation, a practice that is also believed to enhance someone’s overall quality of life.

“The mind is really powerful, and the way we approach our own reality has a huge impact on our physical well-being.” – Jennifer Miller

“[Mindfulness] is about noticing what the stressors are in your life and having a means to change the relationship to the stressors and be at peace with them,” said Jennifer Miller, a psychologist and mindfulness teacher who works at the center. She believes that mind power has the ability to change brain and body chemistry, potentially improving someone’s infliction of fatigue or immune disorder.

“The mind is really powerful, and the way we approach our own reality has a huge impact on our physical well-being,” Miller said.

Free Laughter Yoga

Laughter Yoga participants place signs near their classes so others know they welcome newcomers. The brochure aims to answer questions that spectators may have.

She sees the similarity between laughter yoga and mindfulness meditation, two different breeds of the same concept: releasing tension in some way and being emotionally present.

As less traditional practices expand, places like Cancer Treatment Centers of America accept laughter therapy as a having a beneficial impact on health and use an integrative approach focused on overall health and wellness while still including conventional medicine and treatment.

But no matter a person’s state of health, Michael Coleman said that laughter yoga is for everyone, as long as they’re willing to let go of inhibition.

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About Nancy Kirk

Nancy is a journalism graduate from SDSU.

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