Chutney Chuckles 

Hasya heard the one about the Laughter Club?

(This is where the no-jokes rule comes in — the doctor, Madan Kataria, noticed that the clean jokes ran out pretty quickly at meetings of the original laughter club in Bombay.)

Tonight, in a shuttered Indian restaurant off Staples Mill Road, Vishwa and Indu will lead about 10 participants through various exercises in “stimulated laughter,” during which club members imagine themselves yukking it up through various situations.

“For every season, there is a ‘laughter,’” Vishwa explains. At sporting events, for example, there is “stadium laughter,” in which you pretend to laugh as you watch the game. “There are close to 125 or so different laughters,” Vishwa adds.

After some warm-up stretches, Vishwa and Indu lead the group in a chant that will punctuate every few exercises. “Ho! Ho! HA-HA-HA!” they shout, clapping along. The opening exercise requires participants to imagine they’re at a party.

“The first thing we do at a party is shake hands,” Indu prompts, and within seconds everyone is walking around, pressing the flesh and laughing with almost disconcerting gusto. Then Indu gives the group invisible cocktails. They circulate, pretend to hold their glasses, look one another in the eyes and laugh even more heartily.

“Ho! Ho! HA-HA-HA!” It’s time for a breathing exercise — pretend you are sniffing the cork from a freshly opened bottle of wine, Indu instructs. “Is this merlot?” Vishwa asks, keeping the illusion alive.

The Bhargavas, who emigrated to Richmond from India in 1970, became interested in the healing power of hootin’ and hollerin’ in 1995, when they began reading about how longevity varies from culture to culture. An article about Kataria’s work fascinated them, and last year they arranged to see the doctor and Steve Wilson, a self-described “Joyologist” and “Cheerman of the Bored” speak in Florida. They became Certified Laughter Leaders by attending a subsequent Wilson seminar in Columbus, Ohio, and they’ve been leading a fully sanctioned chapter of the World Laughter Tour Laughter Clubs since May of last year. Vishwa has since dedicated himself to introducing the benefits of laughter to corporate America.

“I think there’s something in it for industry,” Vishwa says. “People make stupid mistakes. The reason is they are very highly stressed. If people are losing their cool, go for a humor break. Then come back and attack the problem.” This past January, the Bhargavas put on a wellness forum at Innsbrook called “Laughter, the Best Medicine,” and Vishwa is working on a standard presentation for interested companies. The benefits of laughter — happier employees work safer and are more productive — appeal to his engineer’s temperament.

Kataria’s Web site says there are now more than 1,000 Laughter Clubs in India, and another 1,000 spread around the world. In the United States, there are 17 clubs, which have sprung up in places as far-flung as Kentucky, Alaska and Tennessee and which seem to be particularly popular in Wilson’s home state of Ohio (Canton alone boasts three).

Since 1998, Kataria and Wilson have promoted the first Sunday in May as World Laughter Day. The first World Laughter Day was a comparatively small affair, with 12,000 laughers gathering at a Bombay racetrack. Since then the event has gone international, with large gatherings in Denmark, New York City, and Berlin. You can add Richmond to that list this year, as the Bhargavas will be leading 100 people in a laugh-in at Capitol Square. (What — not City Hall?)

Accountant Bill Barrett and his wife, Siv, have been coming to the Laughter Lovers Club since the days the Bhargavas were holding it in their home (the building in which the club meets now is home to Indu’s catering company, Asiana, and will soon open as a full-service restaurant called Haveli). “It’s more a way of life than a panacea,” says Bill, who notes that the techniques he’s learned in the meetings have helped him with conflict resolution. “Once you start laughing you wonder how you ever lived without it before,” he says.

The club members work through about 20 minutes of various laughter exercises — “Electric Shock,” in which they pretend to touch one another, pull back their hands quickly and laugh; “Lassi Laughter,” which requires one to chortle and pretend to be mixing an Indian milkshake the old fashioned way; the Bill Barrett–invented “Accountant’s Laughter,” “1-2-3-ha-ha-ha!” (“Accountants laugh by the numbers,” he explains, coming dangerously close to violating Rule No. 1.)

The grand finale is “Lion Laughter.” “Laugh from your belly!” Vishwa warns beforehand. “Not the throat — you will scratch your throat.” At that, he and the group stick out their tongues, waggle their hands like big-cat paws, and loose deep guffaws.

Vishwa reads the Laughter Club values: “Laughter Club is non-political, non-religious, non-exploitative, non-perfectionist, non-threatening, non-competitive, non-cult —”

“Non-fattening!” shouts Bill to some unscheduled yuks.

“And everyone is welcome,” Vishwa finishes.

“Some people say this is fictitious laughter,” Vishwa says as the group members enjoy some delicious Indian refreshments afterward (My advice: Make your Haveli reservations now). “But the body does not know — is it fictitious, or is it something that tickles your fancy and you’re just laughing? When you interact with people, the real laughter takes place, and the benefit is the same. People are happier.” S

The Laughter Club meets every second and fourth Wednesday at Asiana, 3112-A Northside Ave. The meetings are free but there may eventually be a nominal fee for refreshments. To learn more, call Indu Bhargava at (804) 740-5529 or e-mail asiana@vcu.org. You can also visit laughteryoga.com and click on “International Clubs.”

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