In Sebastopol, laughter yoga is all about the glee

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For more information, go to morejoy.org

Shoes and inhibitions are left at the front door at Monnet Zubieta’s home in Sebastopol, where laughter is contagious and mirth is palpable.

The joy is by design, with Zubieta sharing her mission to unleash bliss through her work as a certified laughter yoga instructor.

At 54, she’s as dedicated to rip-roarin’ laughter as the latest comedian on the stand-up circuit. The more, the merrier.

“My mission is to bring more joy and laughter to my life and the lives of others,” Zubieta said. “Laughter is so cathartic. It releases emotions too hard to feel.”

On a recent evening, eight adults and an 8-year-old were in stitches just moments into one of Zubieta’s sessions. Chortles, chuckles and cackles were non-stop, an occasional snort elevating the laughter.

Unlike mindful, introspective yoga classes, laughter yoga encourages participants to gleefully let go and laugh out loud — and loudly.

Exercises are designed to simulate and stimulate laughter; even forced laughter has benefits and can lead to genuine belly laughs. Both boost mental and physiological health.

“We’re going to activate our little kid and let it come out and play,” Zubieta tells those gathered at a drop-in laughter yoga “club” in her spacious, light-filled home studio.

From the first stretching and breathing exercises and the collective “ho, ho, ha, ha, ha,” the energetic Zubieta has participants chanting, cheering, jumping up and down and dancing — all engaged in playful, intentional laughter.

There are no jokes or one-liners — and a sense of humor isn’t required.

Zubieta says it’s scientifically proven that laughter is contagious, a spontaneous combustion of sorts.

An intentionally silly meet-and-greet with wild handshakes and exaggerated laughter leads to the real deal. Exercises like jackhammer and bumper car simulations have everyone moving around, gesturing freely and laughing authentically.

As Zubieta motions for her students to pull an imaginary length of “mental floss” in one ear and out the other, she encourages them to “clean out all those limiting beliefs and thoughts.” More laughter follows.

Fifteen to 20 minutes of sustained laughter can increase oxygen, boost the immune system, lower blood pressure and decrease stress, just a few of the positive effects Zubieta lists. Plus, she says, it’s genuinely fun and builds community.

Developed in 1995 by a medical doctor in Mumbai, India, and based on the theory “laughter is the best medicine,” laughter yoga is designed to promote world peace, health and happiness.

There are now programs in 80 nations. “Laughter,” Zubieta said, “is totally universal.”

Locally, programs are offered at senior centers, in private studios, through junior colleges and to various youth and community groups.

Zubieta is a laughter yoga master who has trained extensively in the Bay Area and India. She leads workshops and retreats and has certified more than 100 people as instructors since discovering laughter yoga nearly a decade ago.

She recently returned from a 16-month, 4,000 mile Walk of Hope in India with a spiritual guide and social reformer to promote interfaith harmony, community health and sustainability. The only American in the contingent, Zubieta shared the practices of laughter yoga throughout the journey across 11 Indian states.

With half the country’s population below age 30, Zubieta says the “potential for social change in India is hopeful.” She shared her message of laughter and joy as village children followed her around, initially curious about her golden brown hair and light skin.

For more information, go to morejoy.org

At home, Zubieta brings the program to Santa Rosa Junior College, where she’s been teaching public speaking for 30 years. She uses laughter yoga exercises to calm students nervous about their presentations. The process, she discovered, helps build a bond among students and keeps them attentive and engaged as peers deliver their speeches.

Andy Culbertson of Sebastopol, a registered dietitian and certified laughter yoga teacher, weaves the program into her nutrition and wellness classes.

“The beauty you see is not just the laughter and smiles. It opens hearts and people share more freely,” said Culbertson, 46.

For 33-year-old Santa Rosan Irene Van Ryckeghem, a “major regular” at laughter yoga clubs, there’s a release of tension and stress she hasn’t been able to duplicate elsewhere.

“I feel like I get something here I don’t really know where else to find,” she said. “It’s about lightness, playfulness, awakening and a sense of community.”

As Zubieta’s laughter yoga session comes to a close after a final calming exercise with participants gathered head-to-head in a circle, everyone shares thoughts about the experience.

“I was holding a lot when I came here,” Van Ryckeghem said, “and now I feel like there’s all this space.”

A holistic and spiritual healer, Van Ryckeghem says her pure, joyful laughter is sometimes hard to contain when she’s in the company of laughter yoga classmates.

“I’ve been in circles before where I’ve been out of control,” she said, laughing.

Zubieta encourages participants to spread that joy to loved ones and strangers alike. “It’s like dropping laughter bombs around the world,” she said.

Monnet Zubieta offers free laughter yoga sessions at 7 p.m. Mondays and 9:30 a.m. Thursdays, (followed by a more traditional yoga class at 10 a.m.) at her home studio in Sebastopol. Donations are accepted.

For more information, call 824-1993 or visit morejoy.org.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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