A high-pitch electric sound suddenly brought to life the platform at Yeonsinnae Subway Station in northern Seoul on a recent Thursday.
Station employee Lee Myung-hwan belted out a medley of funny trot songs. The audience instantly swelled to about 80 as the self-styled laughter-master performed his routine.
“Let’s try this, open your mouth wide and say ‘ha-ha’ as you breathe out. Then ‘ho-ho’ when you breathe in,” he told the audience sitting on plastic stools.
During the warm up, the crowd were not shy but some were hesitant to follow his next direction.
“Let’s look at others’ eyes and make some funny gestures,” he bellowed into a microphone, demonstrating his own funny expression.
A middle-age woman chuckled, her impromptu partner giggled, and soon the entire platform was filled with a roaring laughter.
“Laughter is contagious,” Lee told The Korea Herald.
Laughter can be triggered physically through singing, dancing and playing together.
“It’s like a knee-jerk reaction. When you repeat a set of practices you can laugh without thinking. It looks easy, but you need to practice, then it will help you lead a healthier and happier life,” he said.
The 52-year-old subway worker has been leading the weekly laughter workshop at the station since April 2009. Reaching its 200th session three weeks ago, the event has become the trademark of the subway station, which some call the “Laugher Stop.”
Laughing is said to reduce stress, relive tension, improve blood circulation and help people connect. It is easy, fun and free of charge.
As demand for preventative care grows and medical costs rise, laughter therapy is fast spreading among clinics, community centers and even public places like Lee’s subway club.
One might imagine that laughing loudly and making noise with singing, clapping and chanting are not welcome in the subway station.
But when he was deployed to the station four years ago, he found it the right place to practice his lecture program.
“It’s quite spacious, and the good thing is no matter whether it is raining or snowing people always come here,” he said.
Lee first came across laughter therapy in 2008 while looking for a new career path. He got hooked instantly after taking up his first laughter class and became a certified laughter instructor.
“When I started, there was only one or two, and sometimes hardly any participants. Some commuters looked around me at shouting into the microphone, but soon continued on their way. It was very embarrassing,” he recalled.
Lee needed to something special to grab people’s attention. He began to sing, honed his speech skills, and practiced jokes.
As time went, his Subway Laughter Class began to attract increasingly large audiences, was featured in a local newspaper, and became a hit program luring at least 80 people every week.
“He is now a real star, everyone from our company knows him, and his laughter class has become the main theme of our station,” said Yang Kap-soon, the head of Yeonsinnae Station.
Participants said they had never felt better.
“I don’t remember when I laughed so much like this and I feel really good,” said Choi Ok-soon, 84, who participated in the session for the first time.
Noh Kyung-soon, 77, said she travels an hour to attend Lee’s workshop every week.
“I’m always alone at home, so hardly laugh at home. So I come here to laugh and blow away my stress,” she added.
Laughter therapy has been popular around the world. The best known is Laughter Yoga developed by Madan Kataria, a physician from India, in the 1990s. The skill is now practiced in some 5,000 clubs worldwide.
Kataria wrote in an article that he was impressed by the findings of Norman Cousins, an American journalist who was diagnosed in 1964 with a degenerative disease and given at best six months to live, yet managed to heal himself using laughter as his main form of therapy.
|People attend a laughter therapy workshop at the Korea Laughter Center in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)|
Laugher therapy was introduced to Korea in the early 2000s. Han Kwang-il, the head of Laughter Therapy Association, is one of the pioneers of the movement. He set up the association in 2001 and has since been hosting a laughter workshop at the Korea Laughter Center.
There are about 150 laughter therapy clubs in Korea according to Han. Around 30,000 people have participated in his class so far, and 1,000 of them currently work as certified laughter therapists.
To laugh, no special skill is required. Yet in this increasingly stressful and fast-changing environment, laughing is becoming something to be learned if we want to lead a healthy and happy life, Han told The Korea Herald.
“Laughter stops us from being stressed. And as the world gets more stressful, more people find it important to learn how to laugh,” Han said.
There is an increasing demand for laughter therapy workshops from many places, such as companies, institutions, hospitals and even army camps, he said.
“I travel an average 300 kilometers a day to run laughter therapy workshops across the country.”
There is no nationally authorized certification or standard qualification to become a laughter therapist. But there are now many places here, including the Korea Laughter Center, where people can take up training sessions to receive some form of certification.
On a recent Saturday, about 30 people, mostly middle-aged, gathered at the center, located in the basement of a high-rise building near Seoul Station in central Seoul.
The two-day training consists of sessions on the benefits of laughter and basic methods for how to lead a laughter class. At the end of the training the participants are certified as laughter leaders.
Han started the day with his standard warm-ups that he called the “endorphin stretching” session which includes gentle body movements with repetitive clapping and chanting together with laughing.
“Lift your shoulders up to your ears while you breathe in, then drop them while you breathe out,” Han told the class.
“When I say ‘ha’ lift your shoulders, and ‘ho’ drop them,” he said, as he repeated “Ha-ha-ho-ho.”
These simple breathing exercises help ease tension and encourage the participants to open up their mind. As the class seemed pretty relaxed, next came the laughter exercise.
“This time put both your hands on your belly, and follow this ‘ha-ha-ho-ho’ move, and while you do this, make sure to laugh as loud as you can,” Han shouted to the class, then suddenly let out a thunderous guffaw.
According to him, there are three types of laughter: a smile, a laugh and belly-driven laughter. And the belly laughter is the easiest, and still the best way to exercise your body.
“Laughter therapy is basically all about learning how to laugh with your body,” he said.
This belly-driven laughter helps boost your happy hormones, strengthen the immune system and also improve social skills, Han explained.
“I didn’t expect much from it, but it’s really more fun than I thought,” Her Je-jeong, a 50-year-old office worker, said. “I’m now seriously thinking of it as my next career after retirement,” she added.
Kim Joon-youg, 28, said he had recently quit his job as a computer programmer to be a laughter therapist.
“From my previous work, I spent most of day with my computer. There was really no one to laugh together with,” he said.
“But when I first came here I had the best laugh I have ever had, since then I’ve been taking this laughter workshop as my new career,” he added.
While weekend sessions are for aspiring laughter therapists, patients suffering from depression and cancer attend sessions every Tuesday.
Han said his goal is to encourage more people to learn the benefit of laughter therapy.
“We don’t laugh because we’re happy ― we’re happy because we laugh,” he added, citing from American philosopher William James.
He said that anyone could actually be trained to laugh at will, and once learned, anyone could laugh anytime and anywhere.
“Laughing is a simple habit that brings joy into your life. It needs to be a habit for everyone,” he added.
|Yeonsinnae Station employee Lee Myung-hwan leads his weekly laughter class at the subway station on March 28. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)|
It is also the reason for subway laughter lecturer Lee Myung-hwan continues his class and is determined not to quit despite his hard job which often requires him to work all night.
Most of the participants of his class are elderly women who live alone and suffer from depression, according to Lee.
Also, a lot of cancer patients come here as they know laughter has a good effect on them, increasing endorphins and strengthening their immune system, he said.
“It is amazing and truly moving to see people who suffer from cancer or depression having a joyful laugh. I always feel better after seeing them,” Lee said.
“And because of that I want to carry on this laughter therapy as long as I can.”
By Oh Kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org