The Jakarta Post
By his early 50s, Anak Agung Gede Sukarena lived in a state of total panic and fear.
The middle-aged man was unable to sleep without someone holding his chest to ensure his heart would keep beating throughout the night. He could not bear to be alone, even for the time it took to go to the toilet.
'Our bathroom was 3 meters from my bed, but even that was too far to walk alone. At night I would use a bottle to pee. I felt so sorry for my wife. I didn't want to wake her to take me to the toilet,' says Sukarena, now 57 and bursting with energy and joy.
For years Sukarena did the rounds of doctors, healers, acupuncturists and alternative therapists trying to understand his ailments, which included shoulder and back pain, severe stomach cramping, migraines, insomnia and crippling phobias.
'I was so sick and it was psychosomatic. One dukung (Balinese healer) said there was black magic on me; he tried to heal me and remove that, but I was still sick: massage, medicines, nothing worked.'
Staring at a life of misery, Sukarena agreed to give laughter therapy a shot under the guidance of Kadek Suambara of Ashram Ambara in Nyuh Kuning on Ubud's outskirts.
'That was six years ago. I arrived at the village hall and there were around 700 people there. I was terrified to be in public at that time and I wanted to just run. I was so scared. I read the symptoms that other people had that had been eased and I thought, 'That's me.' Suambara said, 'I can help you.' We go step by step. I have since followed his practice and I am 100 percent. I am so good these days,' says Sukarena, who now leads Suambara's followers in fun breathing and energy-building exercises after the hundred or more people at Suambara's home spend 15 minutes laughing their heads off.
Laughter therapy was founded by the Indian doctor Madan Kataria late last century and has spread with 700 laughter groups around the globe, says Suambara, who met the doctor in 2005.
In another life, Suambara was an entrepreneur with a large staff; money was pouring in, but so were the headaches.
'I used to have a carving business with 200 carvers. So I had a lot of money, but also a lot of headaches. I used medicines that did not help, so I studied meditation and yoga and there was a change. I felt better, the illnesses went and I started to share my experiences with others,' says Suambara of the beginnings of what has grown into five laughter groups across Bali.
Suambara leads 10 sessions weekly, with payment by donation only. 'Now I work for God's company to share happiness, health and prosperity through laughter, yoga and meditation,' Suambara said, stressing these simple practices are not something for sale in the market place.
'It's by donation because I don't give any medicines; it's theory only. Here in Bali we have the belief in Yadnya, which means if you have knowledge, you must share it. We receive this from God and so we have an obligation to share ' its natural ' we give, we get.'
People receiving the simple knowledge of laughter therapy from Suambara come from all walks of life, arriving at his home or other centers with a yoga mat and a grin. There is 75-year-old Nenek Olas who has been laughing and dancing with Suambara for the past five years.
'I had trouble breathing, but I feel better and stronger with this,' said Olas, whose laugh shakes the roof during the session. There is Astin, a shy 37-year-old who suffered with a thyroid condition. 'In the past I had a thyroid problem. My throat was swelling, I was dizzy and nervous. The thyroid has a great impact on hormones. I have been laughing for six months and I am well. I will do this for the rest of my life,' said Astin, admitting to feeling very foolish and embarrassed to be laughing out loud for no reason at all on her first attempt. And that is one of the great beauties of laughter therapy: very quickly you find yourself swept up in gales of laughter, laughing at laughter itself.
'It's like a virus: when one person starts laughing, others join,' said Suambara, whose own laugh is utterly infectious, starting as a gentle trill and building to great belly-aching gaffaws; it is impossible to keep a straight face. The mind empties of all worries in an act that Suambara believes offers the easiest meditation of all.
Laughter therapy is not only for those who are suffering illness or anxiety, said devotee Dr. Swandewi, who for the past 15 years has worked in the Gianyar public hospital's emergency ward.
'Before I started laughter therapy I could not sleep. My schedule changed all the time, with night and day shifts. My mind never stopped working, so I lived under huge stressors. These days I can sleep. I feel happier and calmer and can take whatever the world throws at me,' said Swandewi, adding laughter boosts endorphin production and possibly reduces adrenalin in the body.
For 60-year-old Komang Suardika, laughter has literally saved his life. 'Twice I have been ready to kill myself. I had everything ready and some inner voice stopped me. Before coming here eight years ago I had been ill for 12 years. I was traumatised by chillis: I couldn't watch them being cut up. I was allergic to everything and had asthma so bad I was often hospitalised.'
Like so many of Suambara's followers, Suardika is now off all medications and is a happy, healthy 60-year-old looking forward to the rest of his life with laughter as the best medicine.
' Photos by JB Djwan
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