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Laughter as preparation for Kapalabhati
I have just been to a laughter workshop lead by Miriam Cox [EMPOWERMENT UK - see www.empowermentuk.co.uk ] during which it occurred to
me that Kapalabhati could be thought of as a form of deliberate, controlled laughter. Indeed, in terms of what one’s skeletal
muscular system is doing, there is much in common – laughter uses, strengthens and develops stamina in the same muscles that
are needed and used in Kapalabhati. And there is an added benefit that laughter (and laughter exercises) are more obviously
uplifting on an emotional level, making it easier to let go of worries and concerns – in part because they bring with them
a sense of fun and joyfulness. So, what I offer here are some of the exercises (and ideas) I was introduced to at the
laughter workshop – put into a yoga context and with my own thoughts and understanding added.
Spontaneous laughter is easy – it just happens. With self-initiated laughter one usually has purposefully to put into place
the ingredients or seeds for laughter – these are:
- Breathing. Laughter occurs during the exhalation (as does the active part of Kapalabhati) so, the fuller your lungs to
begin with, the longer the laughter will last (in that round of laughter). Similarly, laughter encourages long and full exhalations
and, the deeper the exhalation, the fuller the following inhalation tends to be.
- Smiling. In descriptions of Kapalabhati practices, there is usually little comment on the face. However, with laughter exercises,
choosing to smile with the face is important for creating the appropriate mind-set and physiological responses. In so many ways,
smiling helps up lift one’s moods and promotes an accepting openness.
- Muscular action. Laughter, like Kapalabhati, uses “breathing muscles” in a quite specific way. In particular, there is
a set of sudden contractions of abdominal muscles, which causes the diaphragm to suddenly be pressed upwards, causing the series
of brief expulsions of air from the lungs that is so characteristic of both laughter and Kapalabhati. In laughter, this is
accompanied by, and aided by, making short “explosive” sounds such as “Ha”, “He”, “Ho” and “Se” – in other words, deliberately
making these sounds tends to encourage the sort of muscular contraction that occurs in both laughter and Kapalabhati.
- Relaxation or allowing the process to occur. Laughter is great for encouraging general relaxation (in the sense
of letting go of tension) of mood and muscles – and in the process this encourages letting go of unhappy / uncomfortable /
unhelpful moods, worries and thoughts. It also needs one to avoid getting in the way of or blocking the laughter – part of
“becoming socialized” is learning when not to laugh (say to avoid causing offense, or being disrespectful) and so we learn
how to block or nip in the bud the first seeds of laughter (feel free to laugh at this mixed metaphor!). So, to laugh, we
need to let go of these controlling mechanisms. We also need to be in not “too rigid” a state – this could be emotionally,
but also physically – in particular, both laughter and Kapalabhati will be impossible if the diaphragm is held contracted
in a rigid state. The good news is that just a little bit of laughter facilitates the relaxation for deeper fuller laughter
– and, in the process, begins the process of relaxing the diaphragm sufficiently for one to be able to start exploring
Laughter is of course a very natural process that is normally great for increasing well-being. However, there are some
situations when it can (at least in some ways) be problematic – for example : –
- Recent abdominal surgery – clearly if the abdominal wall is not yet fully healed, it is likely not to be strong enough to
cope with the stresses of sharp, rapid contraction of abdominal muscles. So it would be best to up-lift mood with smiling
practices, and, when ready, start to develop abdominal strength with exercises that gently engage abdominal muscles
(i.e. in a non-jerky way).
- Cracked Rib or Ribs – if breathing itself can be uncomfortable or painful when one has a broken/cracked rib (or ribs), this is
even more true for laughing. One needs to keep one’s breathing as gentle as possible until the ribs have healed – to keep the movement
of the ribs to a minimum. So, for a mood up-lift, go for something less physical, something like smiling practices or
“up-lifting” mental mantra work.
- Pregnancy – the sudden inward jerking of the abdominal wall that occurs during the following laughter exercises is not
something I would recommend to someone who is pregnant. However, spontaneous laughter when pregnant is clearly not a disaster –
self-initiated laughter (especially when learning how to do it) has a more “forced” feel leading, I think, to a stronger,
inward jerking of the abdominal wall. So it would be best to up-lift mood with smiling practices, and to keep the abdomen
toned with gentle practice such as imagining the abdominal wall /muscles gently hugging the fetus / baby
inwards (towards the spine).
However, because laughter, even self-initiated laughter, is not consciously regulated, there is much less risk compared
with Kapalabhati of “hyper-ventilation” type problems (see Some Notes on Hyperventilation
In the unlikely event that
one finds oneself beginning to feel light-headed, or “strange” in the head, the solution is to stop the practice, and
sit with relaxed breathing (perhaps with hands cupped over mouth and nose for a couple of breaths as this will mean the
carbon-dioxide content in the air inhaled is slightly higher).
The other potential issue is laughing so much that it “hurts”. This is most likely to occur with spontaneous laughter where the
process has become so “uncontrolled” that one feels unable to stop laughing even with muscles starting to ache due to the degree
and length of their muscular effort. Usually even with the muscular ache, the laughter feels so good that one does not mind the
“hurting” bit. Indeed, unless one’s trunk is compromised in some way (e.g. recent abdominal surgery or cracked ribs), then it
is very unlikely to do any harm - indeed all that is really happening is that breathing muscles are being given a really good
bit of exercise / workout. If, with self-initiated laughter, you start to feel aches in the abdomen (upper abdomen) or around
the rib-cage, then stop the practice for the day (or at least for five minutes or so). With practice you will find your
breathing muscles (and their attachments) become stronger, more resilient and able to work for longer (more stamina) all
enabling you to take your laughter practice further and to practise for longer.
Stand (in Tadasana) and smile with your face – even if you don’t feel like smiling put as much of a smile on to
your face as you can and keep smiling in what follows. Breathe out slowly until you feel you can’t breathe out any more – you
can allow your spine/ trunk to curl forwards. Inhale, with a sense of lengthening (and straightening if relevant) of your spine
and expansion of your trunk. Then, on the exhalation, make a short loud “Ha” sound. Pause, breathing normally (i.e. however
naturally happens) before repeating. You may find it helpful / instructive to have one hand resting on your upper abdomen,
and one hand on your lower abdomen as this will give you extra feedback on what your muscles are doing. Once you have got
the hang of the exercise, allow your arms to be relaxed in the sense of allowing them to move however naturally happens
(without deliberately or consciously moving them in any particular way).
As above, but this time, make two “Ha” sounds, one after the other on the exhalation.
As above, but this time, make three or four “Ha” sounds one after the other on the one exhalation – you will
find that the loudness of the “Ha” sounds becomes a little less with the greater number of repetitions and this is normal and fine.
As above, but this time, making as many “Ha” sounds on the one exhalation as you easily feel able to – still
keep the “Ha” sound fairly loud – as loud is easily comfortable for the sound to be (this is mostly avoiding being inhibited
about producing the sound). When you have got to this stage, you can then work towards being able to do several rounds of
laughter one after the other. What you are aiming for here is to let go of the sound-producing process, so that the laughter
once started continues of its own accord.
Whatever stage one has got to with the above practice, one can, once one has got a feel for what one is doing, experiment with
using different sounds : Ho, Ha, He, and making a hissing sound (Se) are good one’s to try. What you are looking for are sounds that
encourage a quick inward contraction of the upper abdomen (and floating ribs) – some sounds will encourage this more than
The following practices are ones you might like to try once you can comfortably make more than three sound repetitions on the
one exhalation. (Notice they all involve spinal twisting so they do need to be practised equally on both sides).
Ho laughter while imagining starting a motor
Ho laughter is like the “laughing policeman” laughter or a Father Christmas laughter – a deep belly laughter which in
terms of awareness and emotion seems to reside in the lower half of the abdomen. This practice will be great for developing
feelings of stability, resilience and feeling that one has the strength to deal with whatever might come one’s way – as well
as for all laughter practices encouraging feelings of happiness.
The idea with this practice is to imagine that one is starting a motor by pulling on a string with the “Ho” sounds being
the sounds of the motor. With the first pull on the string, the motor splutters into “life” just for 3 or so “Ho” sounds;
the second time the motor runs for a little longer; and then, on the third pull, the motor gets properly started and “happily”
chugs along for many “Ho” sounds (until you run out of breath to breathe out).
Stand (in Tadasana) with your feet hip-width apart (or even a little wider than that). Both smile and imagine a smile on your face.
Step your left foot forwards and somewhat to the left (so that the left foot is pointing a little to the left compared to the direction
the right foot is pointing). Move your left arm so it is pointing at about 45 degrees down from horizontal, and bend your wrist so the
palm faces the same direction as your arm – imagine this hand is resting on the motor (as though helping to keep it in place). Take your
right hand to the space between the forefinger and thumb of your left hand – imagine your right hand is holding onto the ring pull for
the starting string of the motor. Breathing in, draw the right hand backwards by bending the right elbow and drawing it back until in
the same plane as the shoulders – let go of the imagined string pull and imagine the motor [i.e. the exhalation] makes 3 or 4 “Ho”
sounds. Return the hands to the starting position. Now, this time while inhaling, draw the right elbow backwards comfortably past the
shoulders (you may notice the trunk twists a little), let go of the string pull, and imagine the motor [i.e. the exhalation]
makes several “Ho” sounds. Return the hands to the starting position. Now, again while inhaling, draw the elbow back as far as
comfortably possible, let go of the ring pull at the end of the inhalation (allowing the arm to straighten backwards), and imagine
the motor joyously / happily chugging along, making “Ho” sounds until you run out of breath. Repeat to the other side – that is
with the right foot forward (and a little to the right) and right hand resting on the motor and left hand pulling on the string pull.
Ha laughter while imagining shooting arrows of happy laughter
Ha laugher is one which in terms of awareness and emotion seems to reside in the top half of the trunk – diaphragm and above.
This practice will be great for developing feelings of friendliness and light-heartedness (great for when you want to be sociable
or accepting of others) – as well as for all laughter practices encouraging feelings of happiness.
The idea with this practice is to imagine one is shooting arrows with little beads of happy laughter into the world
(fairly close to one). On the first pull of the bowstring, the arrow does not fly and there are just three or so “Ha” sounds
(as if a vibration of the bowstring). With the second pull of the bowstring, the arrow still does not fly, but there are
several “Ha” sounds, and, on the third pull, the arrow flies, and “Ha” sounds continue like a mantra of good wishes for many
“Ha” sounds (until you run out of breath to breathe out).
Stand (in Tadasana) with your feet hip-width apart (or even a little wider than that). [You can, if you wish, adopt the same leg
stance as in the previous exercise, or the leg position for Warrior 1 pose.] Smile at the thought of sending beads of laughter
and happiness out into the world – keep smiling the goodwill and happiness throughout this exercise. Lift your left arm forwards
until at shoulder level and imagine you are holding a bow in your left hand. Imagine you have a quiver full of arrows on your
back and take your right hand over the top your shoulder to behind the spine of your upper back to pick up an imaginary arrow.
Take your right hand and imaginary arrow forwards to the imaginary bow – right hand ends up besides the left hand. Inhaling,
draw the right hand backwards by bending the right elbow and drawing it back until in the same plane as the shoulders. Now,
allow the bowstring to relax forwards (right hand also moving forwards to beside the left hand) and imagine the bowstring
vibrating, making an exhalation with 3 or 4 “Ha” sounds. With the next inhalation, draw the right elbow backwards comfortably
past the shoulders (you may notice the trunk twists a little); allow the bowstring to relax forwards (right hand also moving
forwards to beside the left hand) and imagine the bowstring vibrating, making an exhalation with several “Ha” sounds. Then,
while inhaling, draw the elbow back as far as comfortably possible whilst keeping facing forwards. Let go of the string of
the bow at the end of the inhalation (allowing the arm to straighten backwards), and imagine the arrow flying and dropping
beads of happiness and laughter in its flight, the bow string making “Ha” sounds like a mantra of good wishes until you
run out of breath. Repeat to the other side – that is with right hand holding the bow and left hand drawing the bowstring
backwards. You might like to imagine the beads of happiness and laughter as water – watering, or encouraging growth of,
the “plants” of happiness in those around.
He laughter while imagining shooting seeds of joyful laughter
He laugher is one that in terms of awareness and emotion seems to reside in the top of the shoulders and above. For
those who are “mind”-orientated or “ideas”-orientated this practice is likely to feel easy, even if they struggle a bit
with the previous two. This practice has a sense of mischievous fun to it – and, as for all laughter practices, encourages
feelings of happiness.
With this practice the idea is to imagine that one is holding a machine gun which shoots seeds (or beads) of joyful laughter
into the world – the “He” sounds being the sounds of the machine gun.
Stand (in Tadasana) with your feet hip-width apart (or even a little wider than that). [You can, if you wish, move into
a feet-apart (about double hip-width) half squat with a vertical trunk and tail-bone pointing down so the spine is long
and nearly straight.] Smile with a sense of joy and happiness – joyful at the thought of sending seeds of joy and laughter
far and wide in the world – keep smiling this joy and happiness throughout this exercise. Take your right hand to the
right side of the front of your trunk at about waist level, palm facing upwards. Move your left arm into a loose curve
with the palm of the left hand facing the center of your chest. Imagine there is a “joyful” machine gun resting in your
left hand and right hand so that the “shooting” end points upwards at an angle (about 45 degrees) and to the left side
of you. Inhale, then exhaling, imagine the sound the machine gun makes, with your exhalation making very rapid “he” sounds
as the machine gun sprays the seeds of joy and laughter out into the world. Keep your hips facing forwards and move your
upper body round to one side and the other so as to spray the joyful seeds over as big an area as possible. Swap positions
of your hands / arms and repeat. You might wish to imagine the seeds or beads of joyful laughter as coming in the colours
of the rainbow – imagining you are making the world more colourful and joyful (and that the different colours of seeds /
beads will develop in the most useful places for them to do so).
Clearly the last two exercises have a sense of sharing the goodness of laughter – the exercise that follows doesn’t
involve laughter but is just as much fun.
Place your hand (or hands) on your upper abdomen (palms inward towards abdomen). Imagine your laughing practice has
stimulated an accumulation of joyful, happy, vibrant energy – so much so that you know there is plenty more than you
need for now (and with laughter you have essentially an infinite well of this energy you can draw upon to refill yourself
with) and so decide to share some of it with the world around. You may wish to imagine this energy as light or colour (a
mix of colours if you like). Imagine you can gather some if it into your hand (or hands) by moving your hand(s) in small
circles over the centre of your upper abdomen – then cup the hand (to create space between the abdomen and the hand for the
joyful, happy, vibrant energy. Slowly tilt the hand so the top edge moves away from the abdomen while at the same covering
the gap between hand and abdomen with the other hand (palm face down) so that you end up with one hand on top of the other
with just edges touching and the space between the hands filled with the joyful, happy, vibrant energy. Move your hands a
little away from your abdomen and spend a few moments imagining yourself and your hands filled with joyful, happy, vibrant
energy and enjoy. Then choose to throw the joyful, happy, vibrant energy in your hands up into the world for others to enjoy.
While making a playful and exuberant “wheeeee” sound throw the energy upwards by rapidly moving your hands to overhead and
then spreading your hands wide (and imagine the energy flying upwards and spreading). You may wish to spend some time imagining
the joyful, happy, vibrant energy gently floating downwards in a wide area. Imagine each being touched by it being given a
little more energy, and a little more lightness and bit of calm joyfulness. Imagine that any energy, which does not fall on
a being, falling onto the Earth, being absorbed by and nurturing the Earth so that the Earth becomes better able to support
and nurture all the life that lives on the Earth.
Memories of laughter and things that have in the past made you laugh are great aids to stimulating laughter. So you may find
it useful (and fun and enjoyable) to collect laughter memories. This might take the form of a note-book or file of incidents and
anecdotes and jokes that make you laugh – so some including funny pictures or cartoons will be helpful. Another thing to consider
is collecting tapes, videos, DVDs of programs, comedies and shows that you find funny. If you are not much into comedies and jokes,
you can do the same thing with regard to things that make you smile and happy memories – you will get pleasure from looking through
them and this will help put you into a good mind-set for laughter practice.
- Excellent workout / exercise for many “breathing muscles” encouraging the development of both strength and stamina in these muscles.
- Encourages relaxation of the diaphragm leading to easier, freer and more relaxed breathing.
- Can help with learning to breathe more “abdominally” (also called abdominal-diaphragmatic breathing – this is a healthy
relaxed breathing mode) or “diaphragmatically” (also called thoraco-diaphragmatic breathing – a mode of breathing tending to
lead to feelings of alert calmness and strength / resilience). And can help with breaking habits of “paradoxical breathing”
(a mode of breathing that tends to lead to feelings of anxiety and stress) or “constricted thoracic breathing” (a mode
of breathing tending to feelings of tension and nervousness). [For more understanding of these different modes of breathing
I recommend reading Chapter 2 of “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga” By H. David Coulter – pub: Body and Breath Inc].
- Can facilitate letting go of tension, unhelpful thoughts and difficult emotions such as anger, hatred and worry. And
this in turn can facilitate seeing things with a new perspective.
- Tends to activate the Manipura Chakra (which is associated with energy to do; feeling empowered and able, and confident) –
so it is a particularly good practice when one is feeling low and / or lacking in energy.
- Encourages feelings of happiness and friendliness.
- Usually is enjoyable and fun – something one can do just for the fun of it.