A Report by Rebecca Foster, Rhode Island USA: Last month during the All America Laughter Yoga Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I had the privilege of going into the county jail with Dr. Kataria and a dozen other Laughter Yoga leaders. First, let me say that I regularly teach yoga and meditation in prisons here in Rhode Island and that I often incorporate proactive laughter into my classes. Nevertheless, I was blown away by how quickly Dr. K's Laughter Yoga session managed to dissolve the thick masks of separation that lay between the inmates and the rest of us. It was truly extraordinary.
There were about 80 men facing trial that joined us for the session. Dr. Kataria began his 5 points and then launched into the usual ho ho ha ha ha. Most of them looked reserved but amused. Some raised their eyebrows while a few looked a bit dismayed. "Very good, very good, yea!" was of course a hit. Then we did some basic exercises, like handshake, cell phone and credit card bill laughter. As volunteers we were connecting with the inmates but there was still a sense of “us” and “them” (hard to miss since they were all dressed in bright orange!). We then all sat down on the carpet together and Dr. Kataria led us into a Laughter Meditation.
As John Cleese said in his piece on Laughter Yoga, "It's almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you're just howling with laughter." Within a minute I was keeling over, grabbing my belly as my eyes connected with a fellow across the way, he too keeling over. Back and forth and around the laughter went. Here and there a silence, followed by a bursting out and the subsequent wave of giggles and guffaws. As with any laughter group, some of the men fell into the contagion more easily than others. A few men watched coolly from a distance. The Officer in charge did his best to maintain his authoritative demeanor but did concede a smile and a chuckle once or twice. Yet by the end, no one could miss the profound change that had taken place amongst us.
As one inmate said to me afterward, “I felt like we were all sitting together in one giant sandbox playing together." Masks had fallen away, ours and theirs. The men thanked us profusely, expressing overwhelming appreciation for our visit. Back in Rhode Island I've just begun a new Stress Management course in a men’s medium security facility that explicitly integrates Laughter Yoga with more traditional yoga and meditation. After just one class I can already see that this particular blend is indeed powerful medicine. As one inmate (a self proclaimed "addict with a habit for violence") said, "This is the first time I've felt peaceful in the six months I've been here."
Part of my dream is for this work to go viral– that is, more "outside-yogis" (those of us outside the prison system) get involved in the healing and transformation that is possible behind bars when we bring awareness and playful connection together in an intentional way. As a step in this direction I've just launched the "Yogi-Inmate Collaborative" to build relationships between traditional (and non-traditional!) yogis and yoga offered in prisons and related settings. For more information about this project, please visit www.thecenterofjoy.net and click on "yogi-inmates."