“Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” — Charlie Chaplin
Donna Hollinshead has made a habit of clowning around for the past 23 years. A professional clown, she has made joy her daily practice as well as her career path, joining a number of Asheville-area health care professionals who recognize that, along with traditional modalities, a healthy dose of laughter is incomparable medicine for the soul.
A natural performer since her formative years, Hollinshead spent her childhood regaling her family with “theme shows.” When she began her foray into professional clowning, completing a “clown internship” on the weekends, she recalls, “My mom said, ‘I think you’ve found your calling.’”
As Scribbles the Clown, Hollinshead says she finds that humor instantly opens doors of connection that would have been closed in polite society. “It’s a license to interact with people on another level,” Hollinshead says. “It’s like you transcend all the facades that happen. So in an elevator as Scribbles, I could be able to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you look so beautiful today.’ And then to get an old lady [to] say ‘Oh, thank you’ — who normally probably wouldn’t ever have looked at me.”
So why do many adults have such a difficult time embracing humor and joy in daily life? Hollinshead, a daily practitioner of meditation for over 25 years, says it has to do with the tendency of grown-ups to ruminate. Though grief and sadness are inevitable in the human experience, she points out, children don’t become mired in these emotions in the way most adults tend to do. “Kids don’t do stress,” she says. “I believe that for adults to have more joy, they have to make a conscious choice. Adults are too in their heads. Children aren’t in their heads — they’re in their hearts. Adults live from the neck up. Why is yoga so popular? Because it brings people down to their hearts.”
Melanie MacNeil, local social worker and yoga instructor at Hendersonville’s YAM (Yoga and Massage), says she seeks to bring adults into their bodies and awaken them to the transformative power of laughter, even if it doesn’t come easily at first. MacNeil became acquainted with laughter yoga at a movement workshop where she was teaching a class on dancing with hoops. Intrigued, she began to research laughter yoga and eventually felt so invigorated by the practice that she signed up to receive laughter yoga videos on a daily basis. She explains that her initial experience was colored by the same hesitation and self-consciousness many people have when invited to laugh on cue. “It starts out as contrived,” MacNeil says, “and something you force yourself to do it — you pretend. And then the authentic laughter bubbles up, and there’s this crossover — it turns into authentic laughter and joy.”
“A lot of the poses in laughter yoga are arms up and out and open,” she continues. “So we assume the posture — it’s really difficult to be in a bad mood when your arms are lifted and your chest and heart are open.”
Asheville psychotherapist Natalie Higgins utilizes humor as a natural bridge to connect with her clients. She says her unvarnished, relational approach (in which the relationship between the client and therapist forms the basis for the healing process) encourages clients to revel in the lighter side of life.
“As therapists, we have that desire to perform for our clients, to be ‘all together.’ But sometimes that seems incongruent or not genuine,” Higgins says. “I know some people who will say they ‘wear [a] different hat’ [within their work] — I wouldn’t want a therapist like that. I want a therapist to sit down on the couch and just talk about stuff. I don’t want to feel like they’re better than me or that they’re judging me. I’m very professional with my clients, but I’m not afraid to be human. I find myself being able to build rapport with clients quickly because of that. And I feel like if you’re just straight-faced all the time — I just don’t feel like that’s very therapeutic.”
MacNeil cites the profound physiological benefits of laughter: “The brain doesn’t actually know the difference between forced laughter and authentic laughter. And so when you make yourself laugh in a forced way, your brain still releases all of the hormones and endorphins and yummy, delicious reactions that happen in our bodies.” Recent research confirms her statement; even initially forced laughter, such as that produced in laughter yoga, elicits the physiological benefits of an authentic guffaw.
MacNeil says she has gleaned profound benefits from laughter yoga both on and off the mat. She’s now able to laugh off situations in which she previously found herself flustered and stressed: “I’ve found that since I took that one class and [have been] doing the research and [teaching] these few classes, when things get really hard, where normally I’d be, like, banging my head against the wall and freaking out, I’m choosing to laugh instead.”
Ultimately, MacNeil says, laughter, like joy, is a choice. “I’ve realized,” she says, “that laughter can be a coping mechanism in our lives, rather than this thing that happens inadvertently only when funny things happen.” Higgins agrees that laughter can help people cope with everyday life. She notes that the laughter-infused rapport she enjoys with her clients is “very much therapeutic, because you can pull it right back into the coping skills and be able to build on that.”
Hollinshead shares her own revelation about the benefit of laughter. “My biggest belief and experience is that joy is something we can choose,” she says, going on to compare the process to cracking open a window in a stuffy room. “You just need a crack, and then there’s relief.”
YAM (Yoga and Massage)