“Laugh as much as you breathe and love as long as you live.” –Author unknown
When I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 1993, I had been ill for six long years. During those six years, my husband and I had consulted with numerous doctors and I had undergone countless tests and several courses of therapy, but nothing proved conclusive or effective. Somehow, we knew there was an answer out there, we just hadn’t found it yet—and even after we received the diagnosis of Lyme disease, it would be several more years until our path led us to the healing modalities that would eventually restore my health.
My husband, Chris, and I have often been asked: how did you do it? How did you hang on through all that uncertainty? How did you survive?
The answer is simple: faith, hope and love, a positive outlook and laughter.
Though simple, the answer was not always easy. There came a point during that first year when the weight of inescapable illness, disorientation, fear and despair became overwhelming. In the face of the terrors that would one day in the distant future be categorized as Lyme disease, we came to realize that the only certainty and true freedom we possessed was our choice in how we would approach our lives, including the illness and all that came with it.
From the beginning, Chris focused as much as possible on the humor of things, one of his natural gifts. He would tell me silly jokes, sing silly songs, make ridiculous comments—just to keep us laughing.
During that first year, my mother-in-law, Charlotte, gave us a copy of Norman Cousins’ book, Anatomy of an Illness. This life-affirming, triumphant book details Mr. Cousins’ courage and tenacity in the face of a mysterious, crippling disease from which he was not expected to survive.
Earlier in life, Norman Cousins had battled heart disease; he had fought back with massive doses of Vitamin C and, according to him, by training himself to laugh. Cousins served as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he did research on the biochemistry of human emotions, which he long believed were key to human beings’ success in fighting illness.(1) He wrote a series of successful books on illness and healing, and when he again faced the specter of life-threatening illness, he developed a recovery program that incorporated laughter induced by watching Marx Brothers films. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he reported. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.” (2)
Inspired by Cousins’ words, Chris and I increased our watching of funny movies and television programs, including: Candid Camera, M.A.S.H., I Love Lucy, The Bill Cosby Show and Frasier. To this day, just thinking about our favorite Candid Camera episode, The Hungry Hand, sends us into peals of laughter.
Laughter was a means for us of holding on and fighting back; those good, old-fashioned belly laughs made us both feel so much better! The pure, simple joy of laughing out loud not only eased the painful symptoms I was experiencing, it helped us to remember what it was to be truly alive and grateful for every moment.
Years passed and, ultimately, I was led to Osteopathy and then to the miracle of Traditional Chinese Medicine. All the while we continued to laugh. I began to grow stronger; I no longer had chronic flu-like symptoms, I could walk again, I had less pain, less pressure in my brain and spinal cord, my neurological system was calmer and not so prone to seizure activity. After three years of consistent improvement, I sensed there was still something more I could be doing to restore myself to full health. I asked in prayer to be guided to the next step in the healing process, and the words Tai Chi came to me.
At the conclusion of my very first Tai Chi Chuan lesson, I knew that this was what I was meant to do for the rest of my life. I had found a path and a renewed purpose for my life.
I had the opportunity to study the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Short Form at our local Junior College, and then a Dragon and Tiger Qigong class at our Community Center. One of my early teachers recommended that I apply for an upcoming Wu Style Tai Chi Retreat. I didn’t know if I would be able to manage a 5-day intensive, but I did well and loved every minute of it!
My brother, Tony, a life-long martial artist, recommended that I study with Masters Donald and Cheryl Lynne Rubbo of Rubbo Art of Energy. I met them at a World Tai Chi & Qigong Day event they were sponsoring and in the raffle I won a month of Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong classes. I had found my teachers. After a few weeks, I asked about the Teacher Training program and within the space of twelve months I was on my way.
Throughout my years of study, laughter in our classes, workshops and training programs was emphasized over and over again. Sometimes, our teachers would do funny things just to make us laugh and lighten the ‘concentrated seriousness’ that can sometimes accompany the learning of new movements. I often heard them say that everyone—particularly the elderly and those suffering from illness—should have at least nine good belly laughs per day, and we would always end our Wellness classes with nine rounds of Laughing Qigong.
In addition to producing a general sense of joy and well-being, laughter has many health benefits, including:
Purifies the entire system and helps to flush toxins, similar to deep breathing
Massages the organs
Lowers blood pressure
Engages and relaxes the diaphragm, increasing lung capacity and oxygenation of the blood
Increases healthy cell metabolism
Stimulates production of pain-suppressing hormones, endorphins (3)
Reduces certain stress hormones such as cortisol, dopac and epinephrine (4)
Activates the immune system by increasing the response of tumor- and disease-killing cells such as Gamma-interferon and T-cells (5)
Improves alertness, creativity, and memory
The practice of Laughing Qigong is very simple and can be employed at any time, alone or in a group!
Laughing Qigong Practice:
Sit or stand comfortably. Place the palms, left over right, over the lower belly, just beneath the navel.
Smile inwardly, authentically and inhale deeply into your lower abdomen without strain or tension, feel the belly rise against your palms.
Exhale as you make a jolly Ha, Ha, Ha, sound. Gently pressing the palms into the belly with each Ha sound. Exhale fully and allow the belly to be relaxed.
Inhale and repeat a minimum of nine times. Do this every day and notice how you feel today, next month, next year!
Laughter as medicine has been recognized for centuries. The following paragraph is taken from one of my favorite books, Healthforce:
“Chinese Taoist physicians say that the liver churns and exercises when we laugh. The liver circulation is quickened, the respirations are deeper and more profound, and we feel warmer all over. Mirth promotes digestion, while gloom and depression of spirits will produce dyspepsia and indigestion. He or she who is habitually joyful, calm and happy will generally possess good health. A philosopher once said that he would always trust one who whistled while working. . .Of all man’s functions that affect the body and soul together, laughter is the healthiest. Laughter aids digestion, circulation, sweating, and has a refreshing effect on the strength of all organs. Cheerfulness and gladness are not only of value in preserving health, but they are of equal service as a remedy in disease. No one should visit a hospital who is gloomy or despondent; the patient will pick up the vibrations and feel more depressed and ill. A calm, happy and positive attitude lifts the soul and body, and inspires all who come in view of such a person. The longest lived and healthiest people throughout the world are always happy and full of inspiration and good cheer.” (6)
The intentional choice of living every aspect of our lives from a place of joy and love and hope is vital, particularly for those suffering from illness. Personal experience has shown me that illness never strikes a single person; it strikes everyone who cares for that one, unique person. All individuals suffering from life-threatening illness, and their loved ones, tend to live in a contracted environment that can impede hope and the free flow of life force energy (chi). The healing power of laughter helps us break free from the physical and emotional shackles of illness and stimulates the strength, flow and function of chi; laughter is an uplifting, expansive tide that floods the body, mind and soul with hope, and brings miraculous life and health-enhancing benefit to all.
Laugh well, and laugh often!
(1) Wikipedia article on Norman Cousins http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Cousins
(3) Findings based on the research conducted by Dr. Lee Berk and fellow researcher Dr. Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University in California on the benefits of laughter. For additional information on their work, please consult this article on Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100426113058.htm
(6) Healthforce, The Health Books’ Health Book, by Robert T. Lewanski and Robert A. Zuraw, p. 62, Taoist Publishers, Waterford, MI, 1982.
© 2011 Elizabeth Meloney—All rights reserved.