Karen Sivan and the art of laughter yoga

Forgot to bring your lunch to work today? Chillax. Karen Sivan has a simple solution. Well, just laugh it off.

“You know, laughter is contagious, just like yawning. Laughing is a sort of exercise too. Simply laughing is about forgetting ourselves, letting go. So, let’s play, be child-like,” Karen says, before, almost out of the blue, breaking into a guffaw. But you never know if she’s faking it. “Do you know that your brain cannot distinguish between a real laughter and a voluntary one?” she asks, bursting into another riotous chortle as her blue eyes gleam with glee.

The 61-year-old laughter yogi then shepherds the motley group of foreign tourists gathered at Kin-Hin Zen Meditation Centre close to Lagoona Beach Resort at Pachalloor to its roofed terrace. The lilting music of the sea beyond, the surrounding greenery and the partial view of the calm backwaters create a serene mood. A statuette of Buddha deep in meditation and an hourglass rest on a table. The guests ease into the ambience as Karen gathers them around. To break the ice, she makes them introduce themselves. “Maintain eye contact, that’s very important. Remember, you’re here to have fun. Forget everything else,” she says, seguing into a peal of laughter.

What follows are light exercises, not the back-bending, contorting ones recommended in hardcore yoga. Mere stretches and deep breathing, all punctuated by voluntary laughter. “You laugh for the sake of laughing. After a point, you actually start laughing for real.” To get into the thick of things, Karen instructs the participants to limber up. She switches to a merry-go-round of droll jigs and rhythmic claps and ‘HAHAHAs’, while others follow suit. The recreations crescendo into a laugh riot for the next two hours.

“Laughter has a healing effect. It has the power to reduce stress, encourage joy and strengthen the mind by clearing it of unwanted, negative thoughts. It is also a spiritual practice, helping us to develop love, kindness and compassion. Laughing brings us together and unites us — it is a common language we all speak,” says Karen.

What began as an exciting three-week holiday package to Kovalam in 1997 turned out to be an eye-opener for the London-born Karen. “As soon as I had landed here, I met some people who eventually helped me make this country my home. In the final week [of her holiday], I leased a house [at Kovalam] for three years as I felt this was where I was meant to be. After a year, I met Sivan through yoga and we married in 1999. Together, we now run Kin-Hin from our home in Pachalloor [Sivan’s native village],” she says.

So how different is ‘laughter yoga’ from ‘yoga-yoga’? Karen simply says “it’s more fun.” However, she quickly adds that the practice should not be dismissed as a light-hearted fad or “only for the crazy.” With deep breathing too involved, there’s scientific backing. “A good bout of laughter eliminates stress, brings in extra oxygen to the body, which strengthens the immune system and releases endorphins – a combination that makes us feel energised and happy.”

Karen does attest to the age-old adage ‘laughter is the best medicine’, whether it is to prevent or cure the mind’s afflictions. “Laughter becomes more meaningful when it is intended not only to make oneself happy, but others too. In laughter clubs, this intention is called The Inner Spirit of Laughter,” she says.

There are no regular schedules and Karen organises laughter yoga sessions depending on the number of visitors. But Kin-Hin offers daily Zen meditation sittings and Hatha Yoga classes in the Sivananda tradition.