SUN CITY CENTER
The women were demure at first, sitting in a circle with their hands folded. They seemed quiet and perhaps a little shy.
But not for long.
"Okay, everybody, hands up. Now smile as you inhale. Now let it go," said Velora Peacock, who teaches laughter yoga at Sun City Center's newest metaphysical meeting spot, the Chakra Center.
"Ahhhhhhh," the group exhaled, bending to touch their toes. They looked up, and Peacock let out a loud belly laugh.
"It won't hurt, I promise," Peacock said between chuckles.
Pretty soon, the women roared.
• • •
Weekly laughter yoga is one of many classes offered at the Chakra Center, which opened in May at 137 S Pebble Beach Blvd. Owner Doni Doty, 63, said she felt called to provide a gathering spot for people of all faiths who are curious about spirituality.
The center hosts seminars, offers hypnosis sessions and sells a variety of books and knickknacks, including bumper stickers, healing crystals and an exotic soap named Miracle II that claims to "solve problems" and lead people to the "glory to God."
Doty, of Apollo Beach, used some inheritance money to lease the shop, which is tucked away on the second story of an office building beside Winn-Dixie.
For years Doty worked as a travel agent in Sun City Center. Her brow furrows when she talks about it. She won't go into detail, but this job, she says, is better for her soul.
"I felt I was in a place in my life where I needed to give back," Doty said.
Doty first hoped the retail sales would pay the rent, but it has been tougher than she expected. Now she's trying to host more seminars and classes to augment the costs. The laughter yoga class is $5 for a 30-minute session.
Doty said she's not trying to get rich, but she hopes to at least break even.
"This was a leap of faith," Doty said. "I feel very rewarded."
• • •
Peacock, the yoga teacher, instructed her students to feign the excitement of a roller coaster.
"Whee hee hee hee hee," the group shrieked.
A woman in the corner was quieter than the others. She said she felt a little silly.
Peacock egged her on. "Faking is fine," she said. "If you just smile, even when you don't feel good, you will start to feel better."
The woman, 69-year-old Cecilia McBride, of Sun City Center, finally beamed, nodding in agreement.
This was her first class, but she has been smiling through tough days for decades. It started when two of her closest family members passed away in the early 1980s. Though it happened decades ago, McBride won't talk about it, won't even say their names.
"When you have a very serious problem, you look for something to calm you down, to relax your mind," she said.
For McBride, it was yoga and meditation. With practice, she learned to think more positive thoughts than negative ones. She learned how to live without feeling sorry for herself.
Five years ago, that mental strength was tested again. Her husband of 45 years died of a heart attack.
Again, McBride turned inward. Yoga helps her cope, she said.
"It really helps to bring your mind, you know, into another level," she said. "Not to concentrate on your aches and pains and sorrow, but shift your mind into something else."
Laughter yoga was a bit more vocal than the yoga she's used to, but she's glad she gave it a shot. "It's a happy moment," McBride said. "It works."
• • •
Between the class' many outbursts, Peacock led a clapping exercise to slow the women's breathing. Two claps to the left; three to the right: "Ho, ho; ha, ha, ha."
Then she told them to pretend they were opening bottles of "laughing pills."
Carol Delia, 63, of Sun City Center, balked.
"No pills!" she said.
"But these are good pills," Peacock said.
Delia laughed and popped a piece of air on her tongue. "Oh, all right."
Delia said she comes to the Chakra Center specifically to avoid prescription drugs. To Delia, homeopathic methods such as yoga, chiropractic therapy and positive thinking, are healthier.
She was turned on to all that 35 years ago after a divorce left her gloomy and nervous. A doctor prescribed tranquilizers, and she sedated herself for a year.
Her prescription started feeling like a crutch, so she tried biofeedback, a homeopathic therapy that uses tension sensors to teach people to relax. It changed her life, she said.
"There are some things you can do for yourself. It takes a little more effort than going to someone and saying, 'Give me a pill for this, give me a pill for that.' "
When Delia's joints hurt, or when she's coming down with a cold or has a headache, she stays away from the medicine cabinet. She thinks positive thoughts, relaxes and rests. She practices yoga and pretends to be on a roller coaster and laughs.
"It's just a little help, you know?" Delia said after class. "And it's not anything scary or mystical or anything. It's just laughing."
• • •
Before the class began, Kathy Hales smiled. She plopped down before everybody else, kicked off her sandals and bounced her toes.
Hales, 68, of Ruskin, is no stranger to the Chakra Center. Some days she just stops by for tea and conversation. On Tuesdays, it's yoga time.
"Hee haaww!" Hales belted out, poking her neighbor, Doty, in the ribs. "Whoo hoo hoo!
On Peacock's cue, she stuck out her tongue for "lion pose." She slapped her knees and threw her head back with a guffaw.
"Anything for a laugh," Hales said to everybody. Peacock grinned.
This was all that Hales, a retired human resources employee, came for, she said. Thirty minutes of fun, plain and simple.
She tried traditional yoga, with its pretzel poses and complicated breathing techniques. To heck with it, she thought. And then she found laughter yoga.
"It was no profound searching for inner peace or anything — just a little something off the beaten path," Hales said. That, plus the new friends. "I think anybody who goes out of their way to make themselves look silly like we do is bound to be interesting."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or email@example.com.