A STOURBRIDGE laughter yoga instructor has kept people smiling throughout the pandemic by taking her sessions online.

Successive coronavirus lockdowns over the last year have taken their toll on many, thrusting problems such as loneliness, isolation and depression to the fore....but those who have tried it have hailed laughter yoga a surprising solution to the sadness.

Former champion racing cyclist ‘Merrie’ Maggie Thompson has spent more than a decade promoting the health benefits of laughter yoga - which combines laughter exercises with yoga breathing techniques.

Stourbridge News: 'Merrie' Maggie Thompson'Merrie' Maggie Thompson

Her regular sessions in Wordsley, Dudley and Halesowen had a dedicated band of followers but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit – laughter for many people across the country was in short supply.

Stourbridge-based Maggie, however, was determined to continue to try to spread cheer – something that was needed more than ever as lockdown hit – so she took her sessions online…inviting people to try out smiling for stress relief via Zoom.

The sessions, which encourage participants to lose their inhibitions and giggle and mime their way through fun, childlike exercises and movements, proved a big hit and brought laughter back to people across the borough and beyond who were able to tune in.

Stourbridge News: One of 'Merrie' Maggie Thompson's online laughter yoga sessionsOne of 'Merrie' Maggie Thompson's online laughter yoga sessions

Maggie, a grandmother-of-six, said: "Being able to share laughter on-line has been a godsend, keeping my club members in touch with each other through laughter, helping to reduce the feeling of isolation."

And she added: "One lady had been coming to in-person sessions for a couple of years and when the pandemic started we couldn’t meet anymore…so these sessions have been an absolute lifeline for her…several others have said so as well. It’s been something for them to look forward to."

In fact, the classes have proved such a hit she’s keeping them going – even though groups can now meet outdoors for exercise.

The sessions are free and are held every Tuesday and Thursday from 5pm for 20 to 30 minutes.

With the easing of restrictions Maggie is also gradually getting back to in-person smiling sessions and will be holding an outdoor class on Friday July 16 from 5pm to 6pm in Mary Stevens Park, Norton, and next month she plans to host a session in King George V Park, Wordsley.

Participants will have to socially-distance and wear face shields or masks but Maggie says people will be smiling in abundance behind them!

The 69-year-old became fascinated with laughter yoga in 2009 after playing host to a session at Age UK Dudley where she was the LEAP over 50 co-ordinator, organising gentle exercise classes for older people.

She said: "I was absolutely blown away. I’d never come across anything so wonderful in my life."

Following the event's success, she began incorporating elements of laughter yoga into her work before training as a laughter yoga leader in 2010 and starting her own laughter clubs in July 2011.

In 2013, she became a certified laughter yoga teacher and in 2017 was presented with a laughter yoga ambassador award by the founder of the laughter yoga movement Dr Madan Kataria for helping to bring more joy into people’s lives.

Stourbridge News: One of 'Merrie' Maggie's pre-Covid outdoor laughter yoga sessionsOne of 'Merrie' Maggie's pre-Covid outdoor laughter yoga sessions

She said of the movement: "It changed my life completely. I wish I’d known about it when I was a lot younger. It would have been very helpful. It helps to reduce stress and boosts your immune system.

"People come to my sessions and say 'I felt so much better from it'. It’s so powerful, it’s so exhilarating."

The classes haven’t just attracted locals either. Maggie has had participants logging in to laugh from as far afield as Berkshire, East Sussex, and even the east coast of America.

One of the participants Alex Halliday, a 60-year-old artist from Reading, Berkshire, said: "I always wanted to try laughter yoga but couldn’t find a convenient class locally, so I was very happy to be able to attend Maggie’s sessions on Zoom. The sessions are a gift; I enjoy spending time with some lovely people, and I always feel better afterwards."

Georgina Wood, a retired senior nurse lecturer who trained as a laughter yoga leader Maggie before lockdown, said: "It's been a lifeline during the pandemic and kept my own and others spirits up. I firmly believe laughter yoga is good for the well being."

Stourbridge News: Georgina Wood - laughter yoga leaderGeorgina Wood - laughter yoga leader

Maggie has also hosted laughter yoga team building sessions on Zoom during the pandemic to help businesses keep staff connected and happy.

The laughter yoga movement began in 1995 in India when Dr Madan Kataria started the first club with just five people in a public park in Mumbai.

It has since developed into an internationally renowned exercise programme for health and wellbeing - with more than 20,000 free social laughter clubs in more than 100 countries.

So what are the health benefits of laughter yoga?

Laughter yoga is described by its founder as preventive and therapeutic and suitable for anyone who wants to add more laughter and joy to their life.

On his website Dr Kataria says: "It is like an aerobic exercise and best cardio workout. It is like a breathing exercise for those suffering from bronchitis and asthma. Laughter Yoga releases endorphins which are natural pain killers, that can help those suffering from arthritis, spondylitis, chronic migraine headaches, chronic pains, fibromyalgia, autoimmune and chronic inflammatory diseases.

"It unwinds the negative effects of stress and strengthens your immune system. If you laugh every day, you will not fall sick easily.

"If you have chronic health conditions like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and even cancer, you will heal much faster. Laughter yoga increases oxygen to your body and brain, and makes you feel healthy and energetic. It is a great exercise for team building, peak performance, creativity and emotional intelligence."

The official laughter yoga website says it can promote a good mood by releasing endorphins from brain cells, boost the immune system by reducing stress, improve brain function by increasing oxygen in the body and brain, boost self confidence by reducing inhibitions and shyness and increase emotional intelligence and it adds: "The concept of laughter yoga is based on a scientific fact that the body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter. One gets the same physiological and psychological benefits."

The site adds that clinical research in Bangalore, India and the United States has proved laughter lowers the level of stress hormones (epinephrine, cortisol etc) in the blood.

Various medical research papers have also confirmed the positive effects of laughter on stress and laughter yoga teachers across the world have shared stories of the benefits they say have resulted from laughter.

Among them cancer survivor Teena Miller from California and London based Lotte Mikkelsen, a laughter ambassador and laughter yoga master trainer in the UK who credits laughter yoga with helping her enjoy great health despite having been diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis).

Their stories echo the famous tale by arthritis sufferer Norman Cousins who claimed in his book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient that 10 minutes of hearty laughter while watching funny movies by the Marx Brothers gave him two hours of pain free sleep and resulted in significantly reduced inflammation and pain.

Meanwhile, Maggie has been collecting her own data on the feel-good factor of laughter yoga - which can be seen online at https://merriemaggie.co.uk/ - although she believes more scientific research into the effects laughter has on the body would be beneficial.

Stourbridge News: 'Merrie' Maggie Thompson'Merrie' Maggie Thompson

She said: "It’s one of the things we haven’t got enough of. I’ve been collecting feedback from people documenting the benefits…based on a questionnaire asking how people felt beforehand and how they felt afterwards in terms of enthusiasm, stress levels and energy, awareness of breathing."

She describes the benefits as "phenomenal" among those who have embraced laughter yoga and says they are available for all to seize - yet the majority of class participants, 75-80 per cent, tend to be women - she said.

"It tends to appeal to women more…but there are a lot of really good male laughter yoga teachers."

Keen to see more men try it out, she added: "I’d love to do it for a football team."

Although she concedes "everybody is different and laughter yoga doesn’t suit everybody" - for Maggie herself it has been transformative.

She said: "I don’t get quite so stressed out about things anymore. It’s like an aid to mindfulness. It just helps people feel more positive.

"When you laugh you can forget all your troubles."

A recent study by the Beano revealed people in Dudley laugh just 17 times a day compared with those in Sunderland, dubbed the laughter capital of the UK, where people chuckle, on average, 33 times a day - 43 per cent more than the national average.

For Maggie and her laughter yoga chums, however, laughter is a priority and a "great way to start the day".

As well as her classes she's a regular on the Daily Giggle Channel on Facebook which people can join in from 8am on week days and 9am on weekends.

To tune in go to https://www.facebook.com/thedailygigglechannel/ and to find out more about Maggie’s sessions contact her on 07565 218567 or email maggie@merriemaggie.co.uk.