DUNEDIN — Laughter echoed down the hall of the Dunedin Community Center, luring the ears of visitors. In one room stood a dozen casually clad adults, mostly women, who looked into each other's eyes, clapped their hands and roared with laughter.
"Ho ho — ha ha ha — ho ho — ha ha ha," the group chanted in a mantra-like fashion.
This is the laughter yoga class, which was brought to the center last year by Sparky Lovejoy, a 46-year-old single mom.
"Eye contact makes laughter contagious," she said. "It feels good, and it's healthy."
How healthy? The former Hatha yoga instructor from California touts numerous health benefits such as relieving stress, improving the immune system and connecting to others purely on the basis of a good laugh.
Participants in Lovejoy's class, whose ages span six decades, attest to the benefits they have received since letting loose with some hearty laughter.
Nicole Kennedy, at 32 the youngest member of the class, is expecting her first child in August. Laughing with others relieves her anxiety.
"I have a sense of confidence that nothing can knock me down right now," she said.
Lovejoy has mapped out a number of ways to induce laughter during the 45-minute sessions.
"You want to laugh and feel silly?" she asked. "Take out your cell phone and laugh into it!"
The participants whipped out imaginary phones, held up their pinky fingers and roared into their hand, moving randomly around the room as they did so.
Dunedin resident Sue Vardakis is a regular in class and one who can laugh herself into tears.
"I've always had a hearty laugh," she said, "but I've had two deaths in my family this past year, and this class helps me cope with those losses."
Toward the end of a recent session, Lovejoy spread out a large, colorful mat for what she called meditation yoga. The participants lay down, head to head in a circle on the mat, their feet stretching outward like spokes from a wheel.
Lovejoy began with an uproarious laugh — triggered by nothing. In a matter of seconds the class followed suit. All were hysterical. Some clasped their legs up to their chest. Others had tears sliding down their cheeks.
Dunedin resident Elizabeth Faubert, also a student of traditional yoga, has been in the laughter class from its inception. The responsibility of caring for her 90-year-old mother, who's suffering from Alzheimer's disease, had frazzled Faubert's nerves. Traffic jams, errors on credit card bills and other frustrations of modern life got under her skin — until this class.
"After several weeks I found I was laughing aloud more spontaneously," she said. "I got less upset with things."
Lovejoy, who moved to Dunedin from California in 2009, trained with Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, who developed the concept of spontaneous laughter groups back in 1995. Today some 6,000 social laughter clubs exist in about 60 countries.
Laughter yoga is connected to traditional yoga mainly through the deep breaths that participants take as part of their laughing exercises.
Kataria's website, laughteryoga.org, states that "the body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter" and adds that "one gets the same physiological and psychological benefits" from both.
Tris Tirol, a native of Maine who moved to Dunedin in 2004, first learned of laughter yoga while serving as a tour guide in Austria over the summer. She was pleased to discover a group exists here as well.
Her first class had worked out well for her, and she was back for more laughter.
"It was great," she said. "I walked out of here feeling energized and positive."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.