By William Thomas

Would you drive seven hours from Northern Ontario to Niagara Falls just for a laugh?  Kari Sterling did and she’ll no doubt do it again.  As a devotee of the Laughter Yoga movement and a former mental health worker, Kari knows firsthand the power laughter has to break through to patients, to connect with them, to heal them.

Flashback to 1995 when Dr. Madan Kataria of Mumbai, India became haunted by the human misery that beset his city and founded the Laughter Yoga movement.  Confirming the lack of laughter in the world, the movement spread quickly.  There are now 8,000 laugh clubs in 100 countries around the world.  I attended World Laughter Day on the first Sunday of May in Niagara Falls with almost 60 laugh club members coming from as far away as New Liskeard, Ontario and Rochester, New York.

I spent one hour with these dedicated laughers on the grass of a small park just 10 strides from the brink of the Horseshoe Falls and I’m here to tell you —we need to be very, very afraid of these people.

According to Dr. Kataria:  “The celebration of World Laughter Day is a positive manifestation for world peace intended to build a global consciousness of brotherhood and friendship through laughter.”  That’s all well and good, but what I saw was a mass display of public silliness that … that sadly happens far too seldom in a staid country like Canada, in a world that needs a great big laugh the way Africa could use a hug.

The gathering at the Falls began with the beating of a drum, as the group enthusiastically clapped hands and chanted the Laughter Yoga mantra — “Ho! Ho! … Ha! Ha! Ha!” – several hundred times.

First “Laugh Captain” Carlos from Toronto led things off urging his fellow gigglers in a rich Mexican accent to laugh for one minute straight.  Hands started low as did the tone of laughter until both were raised sky high.  Hilarity enveloped this sunny stretch of park land as members were waving frantically toward the heavens like they were greeting Gelos, the god of laughter himself.  They laughed at Carlos, they laughed at each other, kids in particular laughed at their parents.  All it needed was Goldie Hawn and somebody to sing “Sock it to me!” to be the original Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.  Deep breathing, light stretching – one, two, three – and laugh all over again.

Duncan, an ex-Brit from Guelph, then led the group in a self-tickling session.  This led to a lot of self-bum patting and twirling around on the lawn.  When I spotted a group of tourists from Japan watching a bunch of Canadians frisking themselves and laughing uproariously — well, even I was laughing at that point.

Another mantra was recited by the group:  “My body is strong.  My mind is peaceful.  My heart is healthy.  And I am relaxed.”  It certainly worked for Callie, the dog sitting with me at a park bench, because she went down and out like a light.

Then came the “Aloha” breathe and stretch exercises – “Alooooo” then “Haaaaa” – at which everybody dropped to their knees, failed to complete the maneuver because they were laughing too hard, and did an almost-unified face plant into the deep green grass.

A human flying exercise in which you’re supposed to soar like an eagle while laughing like a hyena disintegrated into the kind of chicken dance you see at Italian weddings.

At one point, they engaged in a laughing countdown, in which the first person laughed alone for one minute, to be joined by a second person for one minute, and on and on until the last person in the group joined the guy who started it off, who was then rushed to the Niagara General in an ambulance.  Still laughing.

The “pull the lawn mower cord” tactic started everybody laughing again and I wondered how the “pull the finger trick” would work with this group but no, nary a dirty joke to be told.  All clean.  All good.  All as ridiculous as you can imagine and absurd as planners hoped for.

By the time Carolyn presented her Bunny Rabbit Laughter Exercises – “Paws up.  Side to side.  Ho! Ho! Ho! Wiggle your tail “Hee Hee Hee” – it was all over.  Although the dog showed particular interest in the rabbit bit, everybody was laughed out.  They all packed up and went home … many in tears.

Before they left the park, they spread themselves out on the lawn for the traditional team photo.  And trust me, when this group gets its picture taken, nobody has to say “smile.”

I couldn’t’ help but lean toward the serious side of all this.  How did we as adults become such a serious lot?  Responsibility and maturity taken, perhaps, way too far.  It’s important to remember that kids do not have a monopoly on silliness and playtime.

The science is in and there is little doubt that laughter makes you calmer, happier and healthier than you would otherwise be.  These people who belong to Laughter Yoga are adding years to their lives.  Unfortunately, when they do die, everybody who attends their funeral will be laughing.  They just can’t help themselves.For comments, ideas and

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