By Suzanne Buzek
Patrick Murphy Welage laughs for no reason. But before you question his sanity, you should know that the adjunct theology professor’s spontaneous bursts are part of the worldwide movement—known as laughter yoga—dedicated to creating more peaceful minds, happier people, and overall communal harmony.
“Sometimes it’s hard to sell the idea of what laughter yoga really is; I am not talking about comedy or humor,” Welage explains. “It is breathing and stretching exercises that lead up to laughter meditation—30 minutes of uncontrollable laughter. It always works. I’ve never had it not work on someone.”
A certified instructor and trained laughologist, Welage found laughter yoga to be therapeutic and riveting when he first encountered it nine years ago.
“I found it, or it found me—however that works—when I was in Nepal with a group of Xavier students for an Academic Service Learning Semester,” he says. “I had some extra days around Thanksgiving, so I went to India. A woman at an ashram was telling me about Mumbai and she said, ‘Go to laughter yoga.’”
Welage participated in a laughter yoga session with Dr. Madan Kataria, the physician who founded the laughter yoga movement. Of the experience, he recalls feeling as if a seed was planted in him to continue with laughter yoga, so he completed various trainings with Kataria over the years, fully embracing the many dimensions of joy and healing that come from laughter and sharing this gift with others.
“I think the benefits of laughter are physical, mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual,” says Welage. “When you laugh there’s a connection to something that is very sacred and profound, God-like, whatever terms you want to use.
“If you want to learn from the best teachers of laughter, look at small children. Research shows that children laugh on an average of 200-300 times a day,” Welage continues. “Adults laugh on an average of 15 times a day. So what happened?”
Remember those childhood moments of ridicule, being laughed at on the schoolyard playground, or even laughing at someone else’s expense? Welage says humans are taught socially when to laugh, what to laugh at or how to laugh during the early years, and oftentimes the lines between what is good-hearted laughter and condescending laughter get blurred.
“There is too much laughing at, and not enough laughing with,” he says. “Look at any comedian—even the clean ones—and the laughter is making fun of someone or something, there is distancing, and it’s ugly. As human beings, I think we can do better than that.”
Welage’s training with laughter yoga parallels the content of the theology courses he teaches—especially his favorite, Prophets of Non-violence. He offers a laughter yoga session for his theology students every semester. Laughter yoga also serves as an extension of his work with social justice, which spans over 40 years.
One particular issue Welage addresses during a typical laughter yoga session is our relationship to the environment. After holding up a large poster of “The Blue Marble,” he asks his yoga students to try and heal the damage on the Earth.
“Today, we are not in the best relationship with Mother Earth, with how much we are consuming and not replenishing. One way to heal this relationship is to hug, and we’re not going to hug one another. We’re going to hug the planet, so you really have to stretch out your arms and legs, and you’re going to walk around the room like that,” he says. “Everyone is does this, and everyone sees everyone doing this, so what are we going to do? We’re going to laugh. They just love it, not because it’s a fun laughter exercise, but it reminds them of the social justice issue of the environment. It’s very powerful.”
Welage has led laughter yoga sessions all over the world for diverse groups of people—from retirement communities to sexual therapists—in places as far as Ghana and Thailand. In July he is off to Australia to lead a five-day silence and laughter retreat with Kataria. He teaches regular sessions at Tri-Health Pavilion in Blue Ash and will start once-a-month sessions at Gratitude in Motion Yoga School in Clifton come September.
“Laughter yoga may or may not plant a seed that can help them to remember to laugh authentically, but it gives them the gift of laughter in that moment, and that is beautiful,” he says. “People are truly beautiful when they laugh.”