It is twilight in the green, leafy suburb of Ra'anana - the end of a long, hot early-summer day. Lights are twinkling on in a large back room of the "Mishkan," Ra'anana's fancy new Center for Music and Arts. The big doors are thrown open, and an odd array of people begins to trickle in. First one, then one or two more - youngish adults in their late 20s and early 30s, each accompanied by a small child - enter the large room and greet each other with nods and friendly smiles. One of the young women holds a baby in addition to the little girl running in small circles around her; another of the women is pregnant. All of the adults appear to be blue-and-white "sabra" Israelis; they converse softly in Hebrew. A few minutes later, a tall, big-boned woman dramatically enters the room, with flying long, blond curly hair, a huge smile and a big voice that resonates loudly throughout the room. The others, aware of the big lady's arrival, perk up and begin to form a circle around the room - children and their doting adults - and wait for "the moment." When "the moment" comes, it is nothing less than extraordinary. The tall woman begins to laugh an almost incredible laugh, consisting of loud throaty inhaled gasps. The others begin to laugh along with her, each in his or her own style. The laughter seems tentative at first, somewhat self-conscious - almost forced. But as the tall lady's weird laugh grows louder, the others are soon laughing for real, happily and with increasing abandon. They stand there together in the circle in a back room of the "Mishkan," smack in the middle of Ra'anana, and they laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Whether they are aware of it or not, these laughing children and their parents are participating in one of the latest New Age fads to reach Israel, known as "Laughter Yoga." Among the world's newest varieties of India's ancient practice of meditative philosophy, Laughter Yoga is the creation of Dr. Madan Kataria, a family physician in Mumbai (Bombay), and his wife Madhuri, a yoga teacher. It all began in March 1995, when Dr. Kataria was writing an article called "Laughter: The Best Medicine" for a monthly health magazine. Fascinated by an overwhelmingly large body of scientific literature that described in great length the proven benefits of laughter on the human mind and body, he decided to get up from his desk and field-test the evidence on living subjects: himself and anyone else he could persuade to assist him. At 7 am the next morning, he went to his local public park and somehow managed to recruit four people to start a "laughter club" with him. Within a few days, this first fledgling group grew to more than 50 laughing participants. At first they stood in a circle and told jokes. But when the jokes began to run out and people started drifting away, Kataria hurriedly re-read the scientific literature and found exactly what he needed to know: that the human brain does not know how to distinguish between real and fake laughter. Whether spontaneous or forced, laughter makes the brain produce the same happy chemical. Katari thus realised that people can laugh for no reason - even when nothing "funny" is going on - and still feel better afterwards. When his yoga-teacher wife, Madhuri Katari, suggested that gentle breathing, stretching and rhythmic clapping would deepen the impact of the laughter, Laughter Yoga was born. Seveteen years after the formation of that first "laughter club" in a Mumbai park, there are more than 5,000 similar clubs in over 40 countries, most of them public and free of charge. Not just restricted to children and park-goers, Laughter Yoga is also finding its way into the agendas of many professional staff meetings, training sessions, corporate gatherings and executive staff retreats throughout the world. The tall lady with the big smile and peculiar laugh leading the group in Ra'anana is Mariela Netz-Kleist. Trained in Jerusalem and Majorca, Spain, by none other than "Laughter Yoga Master" Dr. Madan Katari himself, Mariela has been teaching Laughter Yoga for four years. In Ra'anana, she teaches this mixed class of children and adults, which often has as many as 40 participants, and an adult class with 20 students. "Laughter Yoga is about stress management, the health benefits of laughter, and using laughter in all areas of day-to-day life, to make us feel better and live better," she explains. "This is laughter for no reason. We don't use humor for the laughter. The humor comes after the laughter." Although essentially a gentle form of exercise with none of the body-twisting exertions associated with other forms of yoga, Laughter Yoga is not for everyone. "You have to be very careful with heart conditions and high blood pressure," notes Netz-Kleist. "Laughter Yoga can help these problems, but if you take medications, you have to check with your doctor before you begin. I am also very careful about pregnant women. I make sure they know what to expect, and when they need to rest." Netz-Kleist is a certified Laughter Yoga teacher, having first taken the standard two-day course to become a leader, enabling her to run groups like the one in Ra'anana, followed by a one-week course to become a teacher. Today, she spends much of her time teaching people to be Laughter Yoga group leaders. "When I and my colleagues do this here in Israel, we add an 'Israeli touch,'" she says. What is the Israeli touch? Netz-Kleist begins to produce her "trademark" laugh as she explains, "Oh, we are the craziest leaders. We were in Berlin last May for a Laugher Yoga leader conference. We were five Israelis. We laughed out loud, louder than anyone else, because we have very little manners. We brought a lot of energy and swept everyone away with our laughter and crazy exercises." Netz-Kleist notes that the "Laughter Yoga community here in Israel is relatively large, with more than 300 leaders. We have classical yoga teachers, doctors, even belly dancers. We try to meet at least twice a year. Everyone brings new ideas, new bits and pieces, and we learn from each other." While there is little doubt that Laughter Yoga is indeed "laughter," some purists and traditionalists question whether it is really "yoga." If we define yoga in its traditional, 5,000-year-old Indian concept of a unity of body, mind and cosmic spirit - of joining the body with the mind and then transcending both to connect with the universal energy - than Laughter Yoga clearly is something quite different. It not only lacks the ancient ideological principals of unity and transcendence, but also has none of the usual postures, or asanas, associated with other forms of yoga. Hatha yoga for example, the most popular type of yoga in the west, leads its practitioners through almost 200 postures, movements and breathing techniques. Laughter Yoga involves virtually none of these. Other authorities, however, find much of the essence of yoga in Laughter Yoga. Devon Dederich, highly acclaimed teacher of Iyengar Yoga in Austin Texas, points to Laughter Yoga's ability to break down emotional walls within oneself and lead the mind to greater stability and contentment. "Yoga acknowledges that an essential component of a stable mind is a sense of general contentment and happiness, if not joy in one's being. Further, in order to counter the bad things that the mind and body (but mostly the mind) do that obstruct the yoga process, one needs to focus on warming the heart and opening one's mind to the work ahead by benevolence, compassion, joy, and even joy amid intense suffering. Yoga expressly says that the way to enlightenment is the opposite of fear, anger, and negativity. One might well become enlightened by seeing through that fear." And laughter, says Dederich, can achieve this very effectively. However much Laughter Yoga may differ from more traditional forms of yoga, it shares with them the potential for real benefits to the practitioner's body and mind, says Netz-Kleist. "I can speak for myself. My own laugh is the reverse of everyone else's. Everyone else exhales when they laugh. I inhale. I sound like a donkey. Throughout my life - in school, in the military - my laugh was always getting me into trouble. So I began to laugh less and less, until I hardly ever laughed at all. Then I saw a Laughter Yoga session somewhere, and I joined it. In the beginning it was hard to let go and laugh. I went once, then again. The third time, when we did the laughter meditation, I just laughed and laughed to tears. That's when I noticed I was beginning to feel better." When Dr. Katari came to Jerusalem, Netz-Kleist eagerly participated in the training course and before long became a Laughter Yoga teacher herself. Today, she sees the effects of the practice in her students. "Everywhere I go to do these workshops, I see that they make people happy and feel good. That makes me feel good. It affects every aspect of my life. In the supermarket, in the street - wherever I am, I just smile at people and communicate easily." She also notes that Laughter Yoga lowers blood pressure, increases lung capacity, releases endorphins and relieves pain. As the one-hour session in Ra'anana begins to wind down, the real beauty of Laughter Yoga becomes strikingly apparent. Having spent some 60 minutes letting go of themselves, stepping outside their usual roles and putting their normal personalities aside, each of the participants looks relaxed and happy. One or two of the children, and almost all of the adults, look almost blissful as they gather themselves together and say good-bye to each other on their way out the door. Each of them has a particularly wide grin for Netz-Kleist, along with a promise to be back again next week. To find out more about Laughter Yoga, contact Mariela Netz-Kleist at tel. 054-247-9624, 077-557-0017, or visit her website at www.mariela.area.co.il http://www.mariela.area.co.il.