World renowned gelotologist and social scientist Dr Gita Suraj Narayan has just made Fish Hoek her home. With her, she brings the mindset and skills, which have earned her three international awards.
Gelotology is the scientific study of the affect of laughter on the body; and what it has been found to do, is no joke. Dr Gita’s book – The Biopsychosocial Impact of Laughter Therapy on Stroke Survivors – is currently being translated into Japanese. This, after she shared her therapy with the earthquake victims.
While employed by Unisa, Dr Gita conducted laughter therapy training for staff of the United Nations. “The United Nations contacted me and so I did team-building and synergy work with their staff using laughter therapy… because a sad – or stressed – organisation is not a productive organisation,” Dr Gita says.
Laughter, it appears, has become a serious topic. For a self- proclaimed tiny person, Dr Gita is making huge waves in the medical world.
Dr Gita and her daughter, Sheroma Suraj-Narayan, have formed the African Laughter Institute. They were awarded the Change Maker award by Oprah for the detailed research they did over three years, with 10 000 disadvantaged stroke survivors. They also won the award for the best health care management research study; on laughter therapy, at the 7th Pan-Arab Critical Care Medicine Congress, the 3rd Asia-Africa WFSICCM Conference and the 7th Emirates Critical Care Conference held in Dubai. Etv has also given Dr Gita a South African Heroes award for her work over the past 15 years. The old adage of laughter being the best medicine has been put to scientific test; and passed.
“I want to change the world through laughter. I want people to know there is an affordable, natural alternative to health and wellness,” Dr Gita said.
It was the death of her own sister, to colon cancer, which drew Dr Gita into alternate ways to heal her own grieving.
“When you are in grief, you also need intervention. Family support is very good, and it can also be very subjective. People say thank God, she is no longer suffering – but it’s not okay as you have still lost somebody important.
“I cried, I went to therapy and I felt there must still be more to therapy. When you are grieving, you don’t have the energy to go to gym.”
She felt there had to be a way to fill up on something happy after releasing sad emotions.
This journey led her to laughter yoga – which she went on to study in Durban and then in Switzerland. “My sister – even through the cancer – always made us laugh. It was just part of her. When I was studying the laughter yoga, it was announced that World Laughter Day would be held on May 4. This was my sister’s birthday.
“Then I received my certificate on May 23 – the anniversary day of my sister’s death. I felt this to be so significant,” she said.
But there was more she wanted to offer. Dr Gita held 38 years of work experience in social community development, and wanted to adapt and add to the experience of the laughter yoga.
“I took regular psychotherapeutic interventions, like cognitive restructuring, mixed in some Tai Chi, drew on the psycho therapeutic models of problem solving, using the person-centred approaches and behaviour modification I drew from all the clinical interventions we use in therapy, and I integrated them with the laughter yoga – so what we have now is a therapeutic model of laughter yoga,” she said.
She chose stroke patients to work with because, she said, they have the most challenges, often can’t walk or talk, are often depressed, isolated and discriminated against.
Her results are what won her the awards. “Stroke survivors who had not spoken or walked since their strokes, began to do both. One woman who had been given an artificial limb but never used it, gained the confidence to. The laughter therapy dropped their high blood pressure, and even their blood sugar counts. It’s all documented. These were people in frail care centres who had given up or been told they wouldn’t get any better,” Dr Gita said.
She said the whole session is pure laughter; but the science of it includes the affect of the breathing techniques, cognitive restructuring. The class claps, moves, uses a laughter mantra and there is simulated laughter. “While they are laughing and moving, their body releases endorphins and they don’t feel pain. Ten minutes of good laughter will give you two hours of pain-free sleep,” Dr Gita said. For a topic she was initially ridiculed for pursuing, Dr Gita is certainly having the last laugh.
She describes most people as pop stars: have a headache? Pop a pill, have stomach ache? Pop a pill. She says some medicine and operations are necessary but that most people don’t consider the side effects of what they pop.
“Modern medicine is becoming capitalistic – it’s all about money – the biggest profit makers in the world are the pharmaceutical companies.
“I am an out of the box thinker – I don’t conform. We need newness,” she explained.
“My mission is to help people to get to the core of their own being, find their own healing within, and use laughter to bring out the joy and happiness from within them, to heal their own bodies. There is a new word in the medical field – psychoneuroimmunology – and our ability to heal is shown through this,” she said. “If you can change the way you think and feel, then you can change the way your body responds. Our brains have the ability to develop new neural pathways,” she said.
She said that laughter is a universal language which transcends any barriers – race, culture, language or age. “How do you engage with talk therapy with a child who has been raped or orphaned and who cant speak – or speak your language. You can’t. But everyone can laugh,” she said. “Because you are laughing at your problems it gives you power to have charge over your own life. You recognise that this is a problem – but the problem is not me.”
Another vital thought for Dr Gita is that the therapist offering the laughter therapy receives equal benefit – so they don’t get burnt out. For this reason she offers her work to Hospice and hospital staff too.
Dr Gita’s daughter Sheroma is a marine biologist and has started a job in Fish Hoek. Dr Gita’s close ties to her family brought her here, to be with her daugher.
“I love my profession and career but I wouldn’t sacrifice my family or quality time with family to develop a high profile career,” she said.
She turned down an offer to develop the laughter therapy module in Dubai to return to family here. “My son funds all my programmes. I don’t have the energy for writing proposals for funding.
“We don’t receive outside funding. It’s become something my whole family is involved in,” Dr Gita said. “I just want to change the world through laughter.”
Since arriving in Fish Hoek in July, Dr Gita has joined three women’s art and craft organisations. She is an artist whose chosen mediums are acrylic and oil. She has also joined the Astronomy Society. But her life’s work has already started developing roots, with invitations to do work in the community. “There are many professions where debriefing should be part of the package but resources don’t allow. And many NGOs where a little laughter is well needed,” she said.
For more information on Dr Gita’s work, visit: http://www.africanlaughter.co.za