Life in Tehran is hard. From chronic air pollution and traffic jams to economic hardship and culture wars, Iranians in their mega-city capital are pressed.
So on a recent evening, 50 or so Tehranis pack into a small room in a municipal building, grim-faced and looking to make life a little easier, a little happier.
Mahro Sameni steps to the front in a bright red headscarf and a long manteau of many colors. She smiles with anticipation, and warms the crowd up with encouraging words before getting down to business.
This is a laughing class in the heart of Tehran – as unexpected as it is necessary, say its disciples, who find the hour-long session transformative.
“Today, unfortunately we forget the child within us; we need to find that and shut the rest of the brain down,” says Ms. Sameni, one of 250 laugh instructors trained across Iran in the last decade. In venues from state-run banks and health clinics to sports clubs, they help Iranians to laugh with gusto for the equivalent of a few dollars.
“This changes our view of life…the pollution, the political problems; this will help us forget all that, all the outside issues, and be with people,” says Sameni as her "students" nod appreciatively. “You see after a big laugh, we take a big breath. This cleanses our minds, so we go home with lots of good feeling.”
The students primed, Sameni starts her exercises, clapping and chortling to a rhythm, urging the others to follow.
“One, two, one-two-three! Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha!” she chants, as the group chants right along with her. They dissolve into laughter – unexpectedly, judging by the surprised looks – at the end of each chant, likely at the apparent absurdity of the whole scene.
The joviality is irresistible, and initial looks of social strain dissolve. Amid hand-clapping and uplifted arms, smiles spread uninhibited across the faces of women with headscarves and falling veils alike, the grizzled muzzles and fresh faces of old and young male participants.
Raising her arms and the quality of her own laugh, Sameni leads a chant of “Very good, very good, I am happy!”
The group is ready for the next step, and the belly laughs begin. Following Sameni’s lead, the room erupts in peals of laughter, by now nearly all of it genuine. Sameni tells them that one minute of laughter is “like 40 breaths,” “internal aerobics” that aerate the organs. There are 130 ways of laughing, each with its own name, she says.
Laughter in short supply
Laughter has been a part of Persian tradition for centuries, originating with the medieval mystic poets, according to Majid Pezeshki, the man who first brought laughing clubs to Iran. However, demonstrations of fun have been in short supply since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Two weeks ago, several young Iranians who created a “Happy in Tehran” video were arrested for dancing, and for the women not wearing headscarves. At the class, someone suggested that this foreign journalist would get the “wrong impression” from seeing so many laughing Tehranis in one place.
Even this laughing class was threatened with shutdown, after a more conservative woman took issue with the sound of men and women laughing together, saying it was immoral. The director of the city facility, himself a participant, pushed back, saying that the sounds were “no different” from men’s and women’s voices laughing together in a movie theater.
Mr. Pezeshki kicked off “laughing yoga” in Iran more than a decade ago with a book on the benefits of laughter, now in its second printing and filled with Persian poetry. Quoting the 13th-century poet Rumi, he recites, “He took me to the heart, the person who taught me laughter.”
Pezeshki got the idea from Madan Kataria, India’s guru of giggling, when he visited in 2002. Transformed by the experience and seeing a need at home, he brought the idea back to Iran.
“We live in a society full of stress, and laughter is the most powerful enemy of stress, and it is free – it is always available,” says Pezeshki, who trained the 250 teachers in Iran. “I believe that to laugh is a present from God.”
That was the view of Sameni’s ecstatic students at the end of the class. A school administrator joked about bringing her to parent-teacher meetings. As Toobah, a graduate student in Persian literature, stepped outside, back out into the reality of blaring car horns and bumper-to-bumper traffic, she said: “I feel very happy, both physically and mentally. It affects our family in a good way.”