Why you should care

Because downward dog is not everyone’s idea of fun.

Laughter isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Lebanon. A country rife with Hezbollah insurgents and overflowing with Syrian refugees and border troubles isn’t exactly LOLcat material. But one yoga practitioner has made it her mission to bring smiles to the people of Lebanon … through laughter yoga.

Liliane Akiki teaches laughter yoga — prolonged, voluntary laughing combined with yogic breathing techniques — to a community that includes adolescent Syrian refugees living in camps and dealing with extreme loss. “It helps them unleash their laughter after being so busy dealing with sorrow and tears,” Akiki says. Participants range in age from 10 to 30. The children, for whom the sessions are free, find the practice — clapping hands, deep breathing, making eye contact — easy to pick up, and the resulting deep belly laughs are infectious. “Laughter is an international means of communication,” she explains.

Akiki, who lived through Lebanon’s civil war, discovered laughter yoga while working abroad as a physiotherapist. After training as a “laughter leader,” she was sold on the benefits — alleviating pain and promoting relaxation — which mirrored what she encouraged in her current work. In 2009 she returned to Beirut and established a clinic, nervous about revisiting a place where she’d experienced “tough conditions,” she says. There the focus of aid was on essentials like food and medicine, but she wanted to help heal people’s minds too. And fortunately, laughter doesn’t require much in the way of resources. Working with local NGOs, Akiki started running laughter therapy workshops. At present, there is no regular schedule; classes happen according to demand (Akiki also holds adult laughter yoga sessions in her studio). The camps are not happy places, but Akiki isn’t fazed.

But not all Lebanese appreciate laughter yoga. Akiki admits she often deals with contentious remarks, but she understands why: It’s a new concept being taught to people living in poor conditions. With children, however, it’s an easy sell, since practicing laughter yoga involves a lot of nonverbal communication. Smile, and kids smile back.

Sara Green, from Art for Refugees in Transition, has a different approach to helping refugees cope. She believes it’s important to “rebuild communities and identities through their own traditions,” like dance and other cultural arts, in which they can “find hope because they are connected with something.” Green strongly believes that keeping things relevant is key, and that’s why she works only with the refugees’ indigenous culture. Laughter yoga, while beneficial, is hardly native to Syria.

Akiki hopes that more people will appreciate the benefits of laughter and is hoping to get the practice worldwide recognition for its therapeutic benefits — she recently spoke at Spain’s Laughter Yoga Congress and is working with schools and prisons to plan classes.

Hey, he who laughs last laughs longest, right?

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