Laugh yourself to better health in Horsmonden
"HELLO! Namaste! Ha ha ha ha!" bellows complementary therapist Shelley Sishton as she greets me. This is something of a surprise as we have already been talking for 20 minutes.
The greeting – which I find myself repeating – is one small part of the Laughter Yoga therapy Shelley and her husband Ian have been teaching at their well-being retreat in rural Horsmonden for the past six months.
LAUGH IT UP: Shelley and Ian Sishton teach reporter Oliver Frankham, right, how to laugh
Laughter Yoga was created in 1995 by Indian GP Madan Kataria after research found that laughter reduces depression and stress, lowers blood pressure and relieves allergies.
Dressed in a lime green sweatshirt emblazoned with the Laughter Yoga logo, 48-year-old Shelley explains the theory behind what she believes is the best free medicine around.
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"It involves breathing exercises, very simple movement and Dr Kataria's discovery that the body doesn't actually know the difference between real or pretend laughter.
"Scientific research has been conducted which shows laughing increases endorphin response in the body."
The doctor founded a weekly laughter club in Mumbai which yielded such good results it has spawned more than 6,000 such clubs around the world, including one at Helios Homoeopathy in Tunbridge Wells.
Shelley and Ian, who have run their complementary therapy business since 1999, trained as Laughter Yoga facilitators last year and are now looking for clients for the therapy which was recently awarded as a treat for a winning team on BBC One's The Apprentice.
"Dr Kataria introduced it to hospital staff who were under enormous amounts of stress," she says. "He got factory workers doing 20 minutes of laughter each day and found productivity increased.
"It works in prisons, in nursing homes, in children's homes. It's my interest to go out to places, especially in the corporate world, to show them how to do it. They then carry on themselves."
To fully understand what she is talking about, Shelley suggests I try a little introduction to Laughter Yoga for myself.
Kicking off my shoes, I obey Shelley's command to shake and tap every bit of my body as we prepare to laugh.
We follow this with some stretching, deep breathing and hand clapping to a 'ho, ho, ha-ha-ha' rhythm before we embark on a sequence of laughter-based exercises. These range from the aforementioned greeting routine to sticking out our tongues and shrieking and then laughing like we have hot, spicy soup in our mouths.
We laugh for about 15 minutes, as does Courier photographer Katherine Pope, although she is not participating and is almost certainly laughing at me.
For a cynical British male with no belief in anything even vaguely new age it feels slightly embarrassing.
"It's not for everyone," concedes Shelley, who was born in Australia but raised in Otford. "The things that we invite others to explore are tools and ideas that can help people live peaceful lives, but it's all about choice. People can choose to walk out of here and not take things on board. It's not up to us to change anybody's lives – change has to begin with them."
After some quiet relaxation, the session ends and I make a small joke to which Ian responds with a great guffaw of laughter.
Did he really think that was funny? Or is he just laughing at everything now?
I can't really tell.
I drive away looking for signs that something in me is different. Do I feel energised or improved in any way?
Well, not really, but then I imagine you need to persevere with this for longer than 30 minutes.
It's only later when I'm walking through Paddock Wood that I realise there is a stupid grin plastered across my face for no apparent reason.
Was it always there?
To discover more about Laughter Yoga, phone 01892 722191 or visit www.the-energy-centre.com