Feeling the Love at UK’s first Laughter Festival

Laughter yoga has become increasingly popular since it was first devised in India in the 1990s. It encompasses a range of techniques which have arisen from new insights into the mental and physical benefits of laughing.
I’d already been to a few of Jackie O’Carrol’s laughter yoga workshops in Chester. I can’t say that it was easy at first, but after a while there was a sense of stepping out of my comfort zone, into a potentially transformational world of freedom, trust and maybe…LOVE!

The first UK Laughter festival was held at Cabourne Parva, a festival site in Lincolnshire in June and offered the chance to experience a concentrated dose of these feelgood vibes.
Jackie and I arrived on Thursday night and were shown around the site by organiser Wes Floyd. Based on a farm, there are several areas laid out according to festival-goers needs: toilet block, washing complex (of which more later), a bistro operating out of the farm house, and various areas for stalls, marquees and stages where the activities took place.

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On the Friday, a series of presentations took place in the converted barn, which is used as the main venue. Several speakers explained their work around laughter, health and wellbeing. Kate Hull Rodgers, originally from Canada, was a very entertaining speaker, who recounted her young life as an aspiring actress and how her lack of success had led to a breakdown and years of being institutionalised in the mental health system, before discovering some key insights that enabled her to take control of her life and mental health. Kate managed to turn this often tragic story into a hilarious monologue. She now an international speaker who explains to large organisations the value of laughter and how “If you’re having fun, you get more done”.

There are areas of woodland around the site which are perfect for a meditative stroll whilst listening to birds singing. It was in this woodland setting that I took part in an improvisation workshop later on the same day led by Anetta Panczel, who is orginally from Hungary and now leads improvisational workshops in Bournemouth. A group of ten or so gathered and Anette set a series of exercises designed to bring out our silly selves. Advertising an imaginary product, commentating on a bizarre event, or speaking in gibberish were some of the games we played. It was nice to have a ranges of ages acting ridiculous in the workshop, from people in their seventies to an eight year old boy.

The festival site had a number of special features including an outdoor jacuzzi, infra-red sauna (not quite sure about the workings of it, but it sounded a bit like being cooked so I avoided it!) and showers powered intriguingly, by compost. Adjacent to the showers was a ten foot-high compost heap consisting largely of wood chippings (the farm produces timber), which contained water pipes for collecting the heat generated by the decomposing compost. This green technology was in keeping with earth-friendly ethos of the site.

On Saturday morning Jackie was to deliver her workshop on the theme of ‘grace’, drawing on writing she is developing for a book. I was planning on attending, but found myself checking out a gathering in the barn instead. This is very much the way I attend festivals – I go with the flow as much as possible, having found that sticking to an itinery is unneccesarily stressful for me. The session I happened upon was being led Joe Hoare – though leading is perhaps the wrong term as he tended to go with whatever energy was happening within the group at the moment. Hence, as soon as I sat down in the circle I asked the reason why he clicked his fingers as he spoke, and so he invited us all to do it for a while, effectively to find out ‘why’ for ourselves. As we all clicked our fingers, we found a sense of rhythm and connection, collectively devising rhythmic chants that evolved continuously, and moving and interacting with each physically. It was essentially all about staying in the moment.

Saturday was also the day of the music performances. Before my set, Helen Wilson played acoustic guitar and sang – in a voice reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan – some very open and honest songs. In preparing my own set I had looked through my songs and poems to choose ones that best suited the ethos of the festival. My song ‘Don’t Hide Your Light’ seemed to be appropriate in that sense.

On Sunday I had time for another workshop before packing up to leave, which was led by the bubble of joy that is Eva Provedel, an Italian based in London. After a few minutes of improvised dance and movement led by Eva in the marquee, a line of people went outside and encircled some unsuspecting festival-goers, dancing around them and closing in for a giant hug.

All these happenings I’ve described were interspersed with numerous special moments of talking around the fire, chilling out and bonding with new friends who were all on the same kind of frequency, having come together to tune in a little bit more. To be honest, I didn’t take part in any laughter yoga in the strict sense, but everything was complementary to that. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Laughter festival. This was a beautiful start.