Laughing Yoga in Calcutta
The placid water of Rabindra Sarova Lake shined like gold in the light of dawn, and standing beneath a rustling fig tree on its bank, Mr. P.N. Chettiney screamed at the top of his lungs.
“GOOD MORNING, CALCUTTAAAAA!”
In a neat circle around him, an assembly of very elderly Bengalis in various stages of deterioration screamed in response.
“Good Morning, Calcuttaaaa!”
Releasing her metal walker, an impossibly frail woman slowly lifted her arms over her head and screeched, “HAPPYYYYYY!”
Then they all raised their hands, shrieking, “Happyyyyyy!”
Their screams petered out when they noticed me standing a few yards away, staring at them in wide-eyed bewilderment.
“Laughter Yoga!” bellowed Mr. Chettiney, in response to my expression of ‘What-The-Fuck.’ He was very animated for a man in his early seventies, with a disheveled, grey comb-over and a maniacal twinkle in his eyes. “Join our Laughing Club!” he exclaimed.
I didn’t move.
“Join our Laughing Club!” they all stammered, before one of the older ladies smiled and waved again—perhaps she’d forgotten.
Over the years, I’d read articles about Laughter Yoga, and found the idea of laughing for fitness curiously amusing. But this all seemed a bit too San Francisco for my tastes.
Furthermore, I retired from my career in Yoga after my first (and last) lesson on a prior trip to India, where I spent two hours sweating, weeping, demonstrating my mastery of the Child’s Pose, and trying to convince the guru that I’m simply asymmetrical. And when the guru finally told me to go home, I spent two days limping like Richard Gere after the gerbil shop.
“Laughter Yoga is different,” proclaimed Matilda, late one night over drinks in the Chowringhee district. “It makes you feel fantastic!”
“To be honest, I think it’s quite stupid,” I admitted.
“Don’t be so closed minded,” she snapped. “Have you even tried it?”
I took a swig of beer and shook my head.
Matilda grinned, leaning across the table. “I promise it’s an experience you wont soon forget…”
And so, with much eye rolling, I pried myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 5AM. In the grey of pre-dawn, I hailed a rickshaw-wallah, and with sandals slapping on pavement, he huffed me past decaying colonial buildings and sidewalk shanties to Rabindra Sarova Park, where the Laughter Yogis flock to escape the crumbling chaos and heat of Calcutta.
But finding this wasn’t what I imagined.
“Join our Laughing Club!” croaked the geriatrics.
I awkwardly smiled and wandered into their circle, to their exuberant greetings and cheers.
“You missed the first part,” said a man with silver hair and a white, button-down shirt, shaking my hand. “Now it is very complicated…” he warned.
I grimaced as horrible memories of Sun Stretch and Downward Dog gripped me with fear like flashbacks of ‘Nam. My yogaphobia flared, and I sized up my gentle, brittle companions, trying to gauge just how humiliatingly each one could outstretch me.
“Kripaya khandije!” cried Mr. Chettiney, and the group stood in attention. He was pointing to me, babbling in Bengali, “Leecha thuna medee joodhi?”
I cocked my head.
“Char piri dhoonga baratee!” he nodded, “Tarakee bharta guriy, samjhe? Ready, BEGIN!”
Suddenly everyone began flicking their eye balls up and down.
I looked around confused.
“Up! Down! Up! Down!” they chanted.
Suppressing the cries of my inner cynic, I joined in. “Up. Down. Up. Down.”
“Good! Pandhi do jarakhay blahblahblhjknhjdh4jig– Ready, BEGIN!”
Hands shot up. Everyone gave a thumbs-up to the lake, as Mr. Chettiney counted.
“One, two, three…”
This wasn’t like yoga. This was some bizarre corruption of Jazzercise for seniors. And it only got progressively more confusing.
“One, two, three,” barked Mr. Chettiney as we tiptoed forward a few paces, and then tiptoed back. The woman with the walker stopped to catch her breath.
“You can take break,” wheezed the hunched old man to my left. Cleary this was a marathon for them.
“I’m fine,” I said, tiptoeing backwards.
“Okay…,” he panted, before pacing over to collapse on a bench.
Arms came up. We were flicking our wrists now.
“One, two, three.”
I looked past Mr. Chettiney to a group of kids working out on the grass behind him. They were about my age, doing curls with heavy bricks and impossible, muscle-shredding sit ups that employed park benches and a miraculous defiance of gravity. A few were staring at me, eyebrows raised, as I stood flicking my wrists amongst the seniors. They waved.
“One, two, three…” I nodded back, acting totally cool and nonchalant about it.
“Good!” shouted Mr. Chettiney, and the woman across from me gave me a beaming, toothless grin.
As the sun crept higher, we took a minute to press our hands against the sides of our faces. We also clapped our hands, rolled our shoulders, stopped abruptly to pray to god, and then sang a Bengali song that faintly resembled ‘Happy Birthday,’ except eight minutes long.
Finally, Mr. Chettiney tipped his head back and roared, “Ho! Ho! HA-HA-HA,” violently wagging his pointer finger.
“Ho! Ho! HA-HA-HA!” the Bengalis screamed in unison. “Ho! Ho! HA-HA-HA!”
“Ha-ha-ha,” I feebly attempted.
Suddenly everyone’s faces twisted in fear, and for a brief, horrifying moment, they let out a blood-curdling scream.
I screamed too, mostly because it was quite startling.
Then Mr. Chettiney started pantomiming brushing his teeth, which sent the group into absolute hysterics.
“Ho! Ho! HA-HA-HA!” they all screamed, mimicking his charade. “Ho! Ho! HA-HA-HA!”
I forced an uncomfortable laugh, though I didn’t see the hilarious joke in teeth brushing (yet I guess considering some the gags I’d seen in Bollywood movies, this was relatively inspired).
After a few belabored chuckles, I succumbed to my self-consciousness and stopped. For a long moment, I just stood there, watching these wonderfully eccentric, old Bengalis screaming and shaking in convulsive fits of joy over pretending to brush their teeth—and the equally wonderful expressions of the horrified joggers and passersby who had stopped to watch on in concern.
At this, I started to laugh. Really laughing, and quite hard, which made the group laugh even harder—which in turn made me laugh even harder, and then them, and then me—until after a few minutes, my lungs began to ache from breathlessly howling at the absurdity. And then one of the old men seemed to lose control, disappearing into his own little world, doing advanced Laughter Yoga double reps and spraying saliva from his mouth. He screamed, eyes bulging, and a varicose vein popped out on his forehead, at which point I stopped laughing and took a nervous step back.
Finally, the laughing diminished to sedate golf claps, and the circle dissolved to mingle over goodbyes. I picked up my pack, thanking everyone, before Mr. Chettiney approached me and took my hand in his.
“Hello sir, my name is Mr. P.N. Chettiney, and we are the Good Health Association of Calcutta,” he grinned. “We’re happy to make Laughter Yoga with many foreigners from all over the world! Canada, New Zealand, USA, England. Even Japan!”
“Even Japan?!” I cried.
“Yes,” he exclaimed, “So what do you think about Laughter Yoga?”
I checked my watch, fighting to suppress my inner cynic again.
“Laughter Yoga is proven to reduce stress and improve your immune system and cardiovascular health,” Mr. Chettiney added. “How do you feel?”
“I feel good,” I mechanically blurted. But then realized that, despite my hardline skepticism, I really did feel good.
In fact, I felt amazing. I felt wide-awake, energized, and buoyantly euphoric on serotonin.
“You must join us again tomorrow,” he insisted, and bid me farewell.
On my way back to Chowringhee, I skipped my morning chai; I didn’t need it. The Laughter Yoga buzz lasted me all day.
That night, I shamefully admitted to Matilda that maybe there was something behind the ridiculousness. If I could learn to stay as lively and spirited as those Bengalis were at seventy-plus years old (albeit less stark, raving bonkers), I would be thrilled.
Perhaps it really is healthy to laugh with reckless abandon every now and again, to indulge your weirdness, to let your inner lunatic come out and get his rocks off. You know who I’m talking about—that lunatic who screams out nonsense in the car when no one’s listening, sings La Marseillaise naked in the bathroom mirror, and makes hats out of lettuce leaves.
Or is that just me?
Doesn’t matter, I don’t care.
When I’m eighty-something years old, and tiptoeing a car’s length is a full-blown triathlon, I’m not going to give a shit about what you youngsters think about me anyways.