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A laughing matter?

Cancer survivor Ros Ben-Moshe knows the healing power of a good laugh.


It’s been over a decade since Ros Ben-Moshe became interested in laughter therapy. She first heard about the “delightfully wacky practice” at a health conference. “It was just crazy,” she says. “I couldn’t quite make sense of it but I knew that it was really powerful and really fun.” Laughter yoga is a practice that involves laughter exercises, deep breathing and clapping.

A year after her first experience with laughter yoga, Ros decided to train as an instructor. And it wasn’t long before she was thrown the ultimate curveball; in the weeks leading up to her 43rd birthday, Ros was diagnosed with bowel cancer and told she would have to undergo surgery.

Face your fears

Ros found it diffi ult to maintain a sense of humour in the face of her diagnosis. “Your whole world just falls apart,” she says. “My first thought was to my ageing parents. I was really concerned about what the shock might do to their health.” After removing the cancer in her bowel, doctors told Ros there was a three to five per cent chance the cancer had spread to her lymphatic system. To remove all doubt, Ros opted to have a full bowel resection.

The first time Ros laughed after her diagnosis, it wasn’t by choice. Ros was booked to run a laughter yoga session at a lingerie party three days before she was due to go under the knife. While she was reluctant at first, Ros proceeded with running the session and left feeling astonished by the results. “I was amazed at how different I felt from the beginning of the session to the end,” she says.

Unfortunately, Ros’s love of laughter was soon snatched away from her. “Laughter is innate; we learn to laugh and smile within a few weeks of being born,” she says. “Anyone who’s had any form of stomach or bowel surgery will know you can’t laugh for several weeks afterwards. So I was robbed of something I had been taking for granted literally since birth.”

The big C

Without the ability to laugh, Ros decided to try and think of other ways to get herself into a positive mindset. “I started to experiment with different ways that I could orient my mind and body to be positive,” she says. That meant changing the words she used to describe her illness and the operations involved. “I would always refer to my situation by saying that I had a malignant polyp in my bowel – I would make it as small as I possibly could. There was no way I was going to go out and say ‘I’ve got cancer,’ because by saying something like that, it sounds like my whole body has cancer, when in actual fact it was a specific point in the bowel,” Ros says. “I had to have a bowel reversal. Now I never loved that term and I thought, I don’t want to go back to the way things were, I want a new beginning, so I referred to it as a bowel reconnection.”

Enjoy the little things

“Even though I couldn’t laugh, I’d really tap into feelings of joy and sit with them,” Ros says. By generating feelings of joy and happiness, Ros says she was able to trigger an endorphin response. “That’s really important in terms of pain because endorphins have 30 times more power than synthetic morphine,” she says. “I sort of experimented with different ways to generate my own endorphins.” Ros explains how, before she went to sleep, she would bring to mind at least three things that went well in her day. “They tend to be the small moments of joy and mini moments of gratitude that you can call upon,” Ros says. “It’s about bringing a conscious level of awareness and conscious gratitude to endorphine triggers. It’s about choosing to laugh, not just waiting for it to happen.”

Take a deep breath

As a laughter yoga practitioner, Ros is a strong proponent of one of the practice’s core tenets: deep breathing. “When we slow our breathing down, and take deeper breaths repetitively, we actually start to signal the parasympathetic nervous system and put that system into action. Even 10 minutes of conscious breathing helps generate a relaxation response.”

Ros advises laughing to yourself when you drive somewhere by yourself. “It’s really powerful,” she says. “And no one will know if you’re laughing because you’re on hands-free talking to a friend, or if you’ve decided to just laugh for a few moments.” Ros says laughter can be especially helpful as you get older. “As people age they get a bit more sedentary or start having chronic health issues,” she says.  “They’re not necessarily getting that aerobic activity that they’re used to.

If you can laugh out loud for a few moments a day, that’s an aerobic activity you can build on.”

The benefits of laughter can also be multiplied by joining a club or yoga group. “Social connection is really important, especially as you get older. Any activities that can socially connect people are really good for health,” Ros says.

“It doesn’t seem to matter what group, whether it’s a group of lawyers, whether it’s a group of kids in preschool or whether it’s people in aged care facilities. You see a difference between before and after a laughter session.”

According to Ros Ben-Moshe, here are the five main health benefits of laughter:

1. Releases endorphins

2. Improves immune function

3. Anchors you to the present moment and gives a meditative effect

4. Stimulates social connection
5. Can lower blood pressure


Earlier this year, Ros Ben-Moshe conducted a study on the impact of laughter yoga on aged care residents. Twenty-eight individuals aged between 61 and 96 engaged in laughter yoga sessions, with researchers from La Trobe University measuring their moods, levels of happiness, pulse and blood pressure.  The study found that laughter helps reduce stress, blood pressure and stress hormones, as well as increasing muscle flexion and triggering the release of endorphins. It also found that laughter yoga can help stimulate circulation and breathing.