Hands up if you love Laughter Yoga! The fun work-out that's helping a seriously ill little girl feel much better
Linda Quigley, from Antrim, tells Una Brankin how her six-year-old daughter Joy, who has leukaemia, has benefited hugely from the playful exercise craze
High on a hill farm in the Hillsborough countryside, a group of women and a little girl battling leukaemia have gathered to have a good laugh. Literally.
Among them are the organisers of Sunflowerfest, the colourful music and arts festival, where a Guinness World Record title was won last August for Largest Laughter Yoga Class.
Festival-goers turned out in droves in the blazing sunshine to support the world record attempt on the festival stage at Tubby's Farm, off the Comber Road, the sprawling venue for the popular annual event. (They needed 250 to surpass the previous record - and beat it with a whopping 398.)
Of these, there's only a handful in the field this evening, but - between yoga stretches - they're belly-laughing just as hard as they did on the stage last summer.
"The classes are half an hour to have a good laugh," says Linda Quigley, from Antrim. "One starts and we all follow suit, copying each other. You laugh at the ridiculousness of it, at how ridiculous you feel."
Leading the group in their bendy moves is six-year-old Joy, Linda's daughter. The little girl has been at death's door more than once, with a rare form of leukaemia, which specialists have found extremely difficult to treat. She's currently in remission but at high risk of developing secondary tumours. But the Laughter Yoga has helped her feel calm and more confident, too, as she learns to let go of inhibitions and have a good giggle.
Linda, Joy's full-time carer, says: "My daughter had meningitis a year and a half ago - we were told she would be blind and paralysed. She was in intensive care for four-and-a-half weeks.
"They said 'Sorry, there's no hope; we can't treat her'. So, we took her to Great Ormond Street for a second opinion and they gave her a chance. The Laughter Yoga has helped her, too, it's brought her out of herself."
Joy was only two years of age when she was diagnosed with leukaemia. Linda and her former partner, Julian, received the heart-breaking news shortly after the toddler had received her standard childhood vaccinations.
"Two years later, Joy was told she had cancer in the right eye and had to have radiotherapy every couple of weeks and very heavy chemotherapy," Linda says. "She has no spleen and will have epilepsy for the rest of her life."
Laughter Yoga has helped not just Joy, but her mother as well. The pair were introduced to it after returning from Bristol, where Joy had undergone her bone marrow transplant. A friend decided Linda needed some respite so suggested the idea of visiting Sunflowerfest. Linda went along and was struck by how peaceful and relaxing the atmosphere was at the event.
"As I enjoyed the weekend, surrounded by like-minded people, and all the fantastic activities for adults and children alike, I envisaged a perfect place for kids and as Joy was still too ill to go with me, I made a promise to myself to bring her in 2014," she says.
"I had always dreamed of a place like this to live, and to see it happening for real was the biggest spiritual lift for me and restored my faith in mankind."
Linda was so moved by the experience of the festival, she left a message on the organiser's website to thank them and when they read it, they contacted her and asked her to bring Joy to Tubby's Farm.
"I felt it was so important to let people know there is a place right here on our little island where we can go to live life in freedom, fun and friendship, for two days of the year at least," she says. "If people experience this, it might help them see better, an ideal which we all want and need in our lives. Nothing has brought this wish more than Joy's journey and her fight for life; life is so precious when we know for sure we may lose it tomorrow."
As she watches her only child swing her arms in the air and call instructions to the group, she adds: "It's really spiritually uplifting. I did a course in Laughter Yoga at a mums' weekend in Shimna Valley in Newcastle (the short-break centre built by the Cancer Fund For Children, now re-named Daisy Lodge).
"I loved it. We were all mums in the same boat; it was hilarious and supportive. I immediately wanted to volunteer and to bring Joy."
Mother and daughter joined in last summer's Laughter Yoga record-breaking attempt to raise awareness for Delete Blood Cancer, a non-profit organisation set up in the US in 1990, when a German man, Peter Harf, and his daughters went door-to-door in an effort to find a bone marrow donor match for his wife and their mother, Mechtild Harf.
Joy's life was saved when she received the bone marrow donation of a 32-year-old German girl, which now needs to be replaced.
While this evening's small gathering has an air of gaiety, there's also a tinge of sadness to the proceedings. The women are still reeling from the death on May 13 of the charismatic Siobhan Bogues, founder of the yoga and alternative therapy centre, Lighthouse, in north Belfast.
An inspirational speaker, Siobhan featured on the Ted Talks televised lectures, and wrote blogs and made videos to support fellow cancer patients.
She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last September and passed away at her home, four days after her 54th birthday. The mother-of-two was very much loved and respected by all those present this evening, none more so than Kathy Barenski, a Laughter Yoga teacher and accredited counsellor from Co Armagh.
"Without Siobhan I wouldn't be here; I wouldn't have the confidence to do what I do," says Kathy. "She wasn't afraid of dying … she was more worried about us and how we'd take it. She was totally ready for it. We went to see her when she was in a coma, and it was lovely.
"We talked to her, and cried a bit, and I kept waiting for her to jump up and tell us to stop. We're so lucky to have known her."
A former social worker, Siobhan (nee Caughey) was up on the Sunflowerfest stage with her jolly band of record-breakers just weeks before her devastating diagnosis. The year before, she was one of three nominees picked from thousands for ITV's Lorraine Inspirational Women of the Year Award, in recognition of her years of voluntary work and her "healing hub", as presenter Lorraine Kelly described the Lighthouse Centre.
Dedicated to mind, body and soul therapies, including Laughter Yoga, the centre was open to all and incorporated a non-profit making cafe and a Timebank, a community system whereby a person who volunteers one hour of their time helping someone else gains an hour time credit. They can then use that time credit or their accrued time credits to receive help from someone else. Before she died, Siobhan spoke of the benefits of Laughter Yoga in a previous interview.
"Anyone can laugh - real or imitated - and feel the benefits," she said. "We will initiate laughter as a body exercise in a group and with eye contact and childlike playfulness; it soon turns into real and contagious laughter. This results in a combination of deep breathing exercises from yoga and laughter exercises, which oxygenates our body and brain, making us feel more healthy and energetic".
Kathy says that Siobhan was touched by Joy's story and wanted to do something to help her and to support Linda, so immediately thought of using Laughter Yoga to raise funds for Delete Blood Cancer.
"Laughter Yoga has really helped both Joy and Linda, and the child's confidence is a credit to her mum," says Kathy.
"At one stage, Joy was so unwell she lost her sight but she's recovering. Laughter Yoga makes everyone feel better and more uplifted. If you are ill or if you are a carer, you can become very isolated; this is a way of connecting with others. I've two stepsons with autism and it has helped them to learn how to make eye contact and communicate."
With Siobhan's death, the future of the Lighthouse Centre isn't certain.
"We owe it to Siobhan to keep going - we've all been helped so much by her," Kathy says wistfully. "She made us think we were her family, yet she'd challenge you - she was no pushover.
"After her first chemo, I cancelled a gig I was going to, to be with her, but she told me off and insisted that I go. She just took her illness one day at a time and helped others through theirs.
"I don't know what will happen the centre but it is only a building. We are all lighthouses, keepers of the eternal flame. We will keep going, no matter what."
Get on down to Sunflowerfest
Sunflowerfest has built a reputation for being one of the friendliest and most inclusive festivals in Northern Ireland. Last year's Laughter Yoga world record-breaking feat at the festival was inspired by Jackie Ingram, an alternative therapist and musician, who passed away two years ago from cancer.
Linda Quigley says: "Joy and I were overwhelmed at the support on the day, and to stand on that stage and see 400 people laughing together for half an hour was just spectacular.
"Michael and Vanessa (Magowan), who run the festival, have a dream and are doing something about it. There is no capital profit to be gained from their festival, only enrichment of self-beliefs, and my experience with them has been the most reaffirming, spiritually lifting and strength-giving of my years."
Sunflowerfest 2015 will include performances, attractions and experiences to be enjoyed by all ages and backgrounds. An excitingly different and magical weekend of arts and entertainment, the festival aims to nurture the mind, body and soul through a wide range of music, inventive family fun, storytelling, poetry, and interactive art, dance and music workshops.
Taking place on Tubby's Farm, Cabra Road, Hillsborough, from July 31 to August 2, this year's festival will also feature local crafts, alternative therapies and theatrical performances. Camping is available. For information, visit www.sunflowerfest.co.uk
It’s no joke ... the hilarious practice that really helps
- LaughterYoga (Hasyayoga) is a practice involving prolonged voluntary laughter, based on the belief that it provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. It is done in groups, with eye contact and playfulness encouraged between participants. As witnessed at Sunflowerfest, forced laughter soon turns into real and contagious laughter
- Laughter Yoga was developed by Indian physician Madan Kataria, who wrote about the practice in his 2002 book, Laugh For No Reason. In the mid-1990s, it was practiced in the early mornings in open parks, primarily by groups of older people. Later, a more formal version was created and popularised as Laughter Clubs
- Laughter is initially simulated as a physical exercise while maintaining eye contact with others in the group and promoting childlike playfulness. In most cases this soon leads to real and contagious laughter
- Sessions start with gentle warm-up techniques like stretching, chanting and clapping. These break down inhibitions and develop feelings of "childlike playfulness". Breathing exercises are used to prepare the lungs for laughter, followed by a series of "laughter exercises" that combine the method of acting and visualisation techniques with playfulness