WESTFORD -- Roars of laughter carry out to the street outside First Parish Church United on Tuesday nights.
Inside, instructor Cindy Brown tells her Laughter Yoga classes to "fake it" until they "make it" -- pretend to laugh until it becomes natural.
Brown, a psychotherapist and yoga instructor, brought Laughter Yoga to Westford about 2 1/2 years ago and has been holding free classes ever since.
"What I didn't know was that it would really change me," Brown says. "I remember driving away from my training classes and telling my husband, 'I never want to go another day without laughing ever again.'"
Dr. Madan Kataria, a family physician from Mumbai, India, created Laughter Yoga after studying the health benefits of laughter. Among other things, laughter improves mental functioning, promotes cardiovascular health, and reduces anxiety, stress, depression and loneliness.
Kataria created a small "Laughter Club" of four people, which has recently become a worldwide movement with more than 5,000 clubs around the world.
Brown first learned about Laughter Yoga while taking a course in advanced yoga training. A few years later, Brown began training with laughter yoga leader Sebastian Gendry, head of the laughter yoga movement in the United States.
Brown teaches regular yoga classes in Acton, Westford and at the Senior Center in Chelmsford, in addition to her 45-minute laughter yoga classes in Westford.
On a recent Tuesday night, the class begins with what seems a little awkward and forced, but quickly adjusts into a contagious wave of real laughter. Club members find themselves unable to even look at each other without giggling.
"In general, I feel a lot happier now that I started coming. I can't imagine not laughing now. It really gives you a different way of thinking," says Marybeth Bush of Tyngsboro.
Aside from what may seem a little odd to an outsider looking in, it is actually quite healing to the body and mind. Laughter, and all of its benefits, is paired with the cardiovascular exercise of various breathing techniques. The first 30 minutes of the class consists of laughter exercises.
In most basic yoga classes, the poses and breathing techniques overlap quite a bit, with students often practicing the "downward dog," "warrior" or "child" poses. In Laughter Yoga, exercises include "jack in the box," "monkey" and "elephant," each to elicit a laugh.
"Ho! Ho! Hah! Hah! Hah!" echoes through the large church ballroom between every laughter exercise. Brown's husband, Richard Davis, a music professor at Berklee College of Music, leads the group in a laughter version of the 1812 Overture.
"This class just makes you really happy," says Kathleen Feeney, a Chelmsford resident who has attended Laughter Yoga for about two years. "We meet every Tuesday and I swear, I'm still laughing by Thursday."
"I thought it was a little strange at first, but if you don't mind making a fool out of yourself, it's fun, and definitely contagious," says first-timer Maddy Bernard, 18, of Westford.
"It was a little strange at first, but I came again so I guess it wasn't too strange for me," says Laurianne Posch, 19, of Westford.
The last 10 minutes are saved for relaxing. That doesn't last long.
"Settle down and close your eyes. Just relax," Brown tells the group, whose members are laying in a circle on their backs. After about 15 seconds, the group begins to giggle again, one right after the other, until they are back to a full-blown laugh.
"It would be pretty hard not to be in a good mood right now," Brown tells the class, prompting even more laughter.
During the last few minutes, members are welcomed to share whatever troubles they may be having. Some speak about family health problems, or even feeling upset without knowing why.
"There's a time where all you have to do is look in the mirror and smile. It doesn't mean you don't feel your grief, it just means to remind yourself to laugh," Brown explains.
"It's a really powerful practice, in that, it is a body-mind practice. What your body does, your brain follows, so if your body is doing happy, your brain will start registering happy," Brown says.
"We're always here, and we're always free. All I ask is that you spread the laughter," Brown says.