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Different people react in different ways when faced with adversity. Some find solace by being alone with their thoughts; others choose to escape the world through various means. And then there are those who do the most unexpected things. Meet Belachew Girma, world laughter master, Ethiopian laughter therapist in Ethiopia and holder of the world record for the longest continuous laughter - three hours!
Belachew Girma, whose first name in Amharic means "perform it," has had his fair share of life challenges. His wife died from HIV complications and his hotel business and home were destroyed twice - by fire and then by flood. In spite of these tragedies, he uses laughter as a tool for healing himself and others and has established Ethiopian Laughter Day with support from the Ethiopian government.
"Laughter is now my full-time job," Girma says in a phone interview.
After the tragedies befell him, he had felt hopeless. "I turned to addictions to deal with the pain of my losses," Girma admits, "but then I started to read psychology books and the Bible. There I found a connection through Proverbs 17:22."
To save you a trip to your bookshelf, one reading of the verse is "A happier heart is the best medicine."
Girma has been using "natural indigenous laughter" for the past four years in his work and private life.
"I have seen how laughter therapy improves one's quality of life," he notes. "I worked with orphan children in Ethiopia, and after several laughter sessions their weight increased, their general health improved and the children became communicative."
While Girma discovered therapeutic laughter through life experience, others in the world had already put a name to the technique.
In 1995 Madan Kataria, a doctor from Mumbai, wanted to bring the health benefits of laughter to his patients and others and thus founded the Laughter Yoga Clubs movement. Laughter Yoga is "a unique exercise routine that combines group laughter exercises with yoga breathing, which allows anyone to laugh without using jokes, humor or comedies." With the inspiration of Kataria, there are now more than 6,000 Laughter Yoga clubs in over 60 countries.
Alex Sternick, a certified laughter yoga instructor under the direction of Kataria, is the initiator of Laughter Clubs in Israel. Sternick is seeing his five-year plan come to fruition - bringing Belachew Girma to Israel to meet his laughter yoga students, conduct workshops for healthcare professionals and teach the public how to bring laughter into their lives, as well as learn about the role of laughter in peace-building.
Laughter is contagious and infectious in a healthy way. Psychologists and hospital doctors to alternative medicine practitioners and cardiologists have witnessed the benefits of humor and laughter in their patients.
"It can also change the whole way you carry your body and instills a new sense of confidence," says Sternick. "I often suggest to those on their way to a job interview, or other potentially nerve-wracking situations, to do some laughter exercises to change their body biochemistry to feel relaxed," he notes.
The element of yoga in the therapeutic laughter relates to a yogic breathing exercise known as kapalabti - exhalation from both nostrils stimulated by the contraction of the diaphragm muscle. The laughter originates from the abdomen, not the throat, the source of a different kind of laugh.
David Chernobilsky, one of Sternick's students, has also found value in giving over what he has learned about gibberish and laughter yoga. Chernobilsky teaches a variety of subjects in a school in Kfar Saba. Four years ago, he expanded his yoga knowledge to include laughter yoga. "I also learned about gibberish and nonsense as tools for communication," he says. "With the schoolchildren, gibberish opens doors to understanding and builds trust. And laughter is a great ice breaker."
His most impacting experience with laughter to date has been assisting the elderly find their deep laughs and youthful giggles. "Being the trigger of joy for the oldest generation has been the highlight of my healing laughter career," he says.
Chernobilsky looks forward to meeting Belachew Girma and attending the workshop for health practitioners to be held in Ra'anana on December 14.
For those who have not incorporated laughter into their daily lives, Girma will speak at Merkaz Alma (Yad Harutzim 4, Talpiot) on December 10 at 8 p.m. The event is open to the public, but generous donations are requested to help cover Girma's transportation costs.
Sternick signs his e-mails with "Love Life and Laugh." Sounds like a healthy prescription.
For more information on future laughter and gibberish workshops and registration for Belachew Girma's visit, call Alex Sternick at 052-434-3964 or 077-757-0135 or visit www.laughter.co.il
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