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JUNE 2009: WIVB Channel 4 / Buffalo

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Buffalo News Article: May 2009

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By Jane Kwiatkowski

News Staff Reporter

It may begin with one person doing something as mundane as starting an imaginary lawn mower. Or two people feigning a snowball fight. First there’s a giggle, then a few more giggles that turn into a low rumble. Soon, everyone in the room is roaring.

They would have it no other way—laughing hysterically, filling their lungs with air, allowing their bodies to shake wildly. Meet the members of Western New York’s Laughter Club, whose meetings are, if nothing else, a hoot!

Laughter’s healing power has been documented for centuries, but now more and more people in Western New York are discovering the benefits of humor through organized laughter clubs—including one launched in July 2008 by Nancy Weil, director of Aftercare at Mount Calvary Cemetery. The group’s 60 members share a common goal.

“I wanted to bring more positive vibes in my life,” said Laughter Club member Julie Rejewski, 38, of West Seneca. “I know I need more laughter, and not to be so serious all the time.”

A typical Laughter Club meeting lasts about an hour, and leaves participants not only smiling, but sweating like they just completed a gym workout. Exercises are performed in two-minute bursts, all for the sake of laughter.

But don’t be fooled. Serious issues brought some of these people here.

Barb Cunningham, 57, a registered nurse from Kenmore, believes laughter helps her break the tension experienced by many patients. Personally, she discovered laughter therapy shortly after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2001.

“I had cancer, and I realized I wasn’t going to go through this nonsense if I couldn’t get some fun out of it,” said Cunningham, who described her laugh as a basic giggle. “For people who don’t normally go through life looking for fun and laughter, this is a place to start, and not take themselves so seriously because you know, none of us are getting out of here alive. I feel good, just like James Brown.”

‘Laughter is contagious’

The concept first started as “Laughter Yoga,” launched 15 years ago by family physician Dr. Madan Katarria in Mumbai, India. He combined yoga-breathing and stretching exercises with rhythmic clapping, and he added a mantra: “Ho-Ho-Ha- Ha-Ha,” which is shouted in unison. Today thousands of people in 53 countries have signed on to the philosophy.

Buffalo is no exception. Laughter groups include: Laughter Club, Laughter Yoga and the Humor and Health Association of Western New York.

“Laughter is contagious, and hearing it and watching other people laugh and smile causes one to laugh,” said laugh leader Dawn Werner, 58, who has practiced Laughter Yoga for three years.

Laughter leaders — including Weil, Werner and a handful of others in Western New York — complete a two-day training session that can average $300 in cost and addresses topics such as “Variations in Clapping, Laughing,” “Laughing With Seniors” and “Corporate Applications of Laughter.”

“If you are grieving, you may feel guilty if you laugh, but this is a supportive way to do that,” said Weil, 47. “And then you’ll see it leads to mirthful laughter. It’s fun to have the permission to play again, and that’s why we do this.”

Daily dose

Kurt Kojm, 55, of Cheektowaga, is a debt mediator who attends the monthly meetings.

“I’m always dealing with strange circumstances,” said Kojm. “I keep companies open, and there’s a lot of stress and a lot of desire to keep going. People take life very seriously but if you can add laughter and fun, you’re going to make it.

“My poor wife, she’s very straightforward,” Kojm added. “She works for the county Health Department — very cut and dried — very much to the point, and I’m way out there. It is entertaining just telling her about the club.”

R. Bruce Baum, a professor in the Exceptional Education Department at Buffalo State College, uses laughter as a teaching tool. Baum and other laughter leaders do not consider themselves comics, nor do they practice comedy.

“We’re not performers. We’re not entertainers,” said Weil. “I hear it all the time: ‘You’re the laughter lady; make me laugh. Tell me a joke.’ This isn’t about jokes. This isn’t about comedy. If it were, I would entertain you for an hour. You would go home and nothing would change.”

Weil is heading to a humor conference in Las Vegas soon, yet she has decided to leave her cherry-red clown nose at home.

“If I wore my clown nose, nobody would look at me differently,” confided Weil. “At any other conference, they would wonder what’s going on. This is a group that understands humor. We take life lightly, we really do, but we take humor seriously. We know how much value there is in humor.”

Laughter Club members are encouraged to laugh daily.

“Start a library of funny movies. Go online and search for your favorite comedian. Or read a funny book,” urged Weil.

Local laughers will salute World Laughter Day on May 3 by gathering in Delaware Park near the Rose Garden. Similar gatherings in Copenhagen in recent years routinely attracted thousands of people.

Juggler Nels Cremean, chairman of the Humor and Health Association of Western New York, uses laughter often.

“I never had a full-time job other than sharing laughter and play for the last 12 years,” said the husband and father of five. “Part of the ministry of laughter is that it is good for healing. It’s good for mind, body and soul.”

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