Gymbox calls itself “the antidote to boring gyms”, and busts a nut to prove it. Its timetable includes a white-collar fight club, sword play training, exercises for “cavemen and neandergals” and a class called Death Row, which sounds as much fun as long division. Most chilling of all, though, is the prospect of laughing therapy. Is there anything worse than forced fun? I have a very sophisticated sense of humour. I like Renaissance comedy. I appreciate subversion of form, meta-textuality. The prospect of Gymbox telling me what is funny is deeply painful, yet a strangely logical culmination of this column: like a Turner prize judge forced to assess their own child’s drawing of a dog, painted by numbers.
And so I find myself at a class in south London, with about 12 others, plus a worryingly bubbly instructor. We start gently, lying on the floor and recalling a funny memory. Immediately I’m in trouble. I second guess my choice, try to find something better and come up blank. Everyone is moving on, warming up their laughs, chuckling then guffawing. I’m faking it, full of anxiety. Not only is it dawning on me that nothing funny has ever happened to me in my life, I also look out of place. I have a photographer with me, which is probably ruining the experience for others. I’m the only man here, and feel as if I’ve clodded into a female space. I’m wearing a Christmas T-shirt that reads: “Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-llama”, because I didn’t have anything else clean.
I start to do better once the emphasis isn’t on laughter. There is a freestyle dance section, which is much more my thing. There is a bit where we move like chimps, which is very satisfying. There is a lot of downward dog, which gets me sweating and out of my head. Essentially this is a light yoga class, interspersed with group work and laughter exercises. It all hangs together because of the instructor, sly and mischievous, not like any yoga teacher I’ve ever had.
It is odd that the world of wellness is mostly a po-faced one. Because the phenomenon of laughter should be a trump card in the industry’s semi-defiant, semi-craven relationship with science. While studies indicate a strong link between laughter and the release of endorphins, decreased cortisol, muscle relaxation and cardiovascular health, the exact mechanisms of this are little understood. The evidence is wide, not deep, yet laughter hurdles the need for data-driven proof. The benefits of a good laugh are physiological, mental, psychosocial, even spiritual. Whether the purpose of a punchline is to de-escalate negative emotions, reinforce tribe bonds or expose the paradoxes of our given reality, research papers are redundant. We know laughter is crucial to our flourishing, because … we just do.
Back at Gymbox, things look pretty serious, for about 20 seconds. The class is lined up before a mirrored wall, attempting to laugh without smiling. I cackle mirthlessly, staring at my dead eyes and feeling like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Unlike the film, this is pretty funny. Why so serious? There is a canny insight at the heart of this class – that we laugh harder when we know we’re not supposed to. Let’s call the effect the Funeral Giggles, because it sounds like a garage band the Joker might have played in if he had learned to lighten up.
“Remember, if you wobble, you put the rest of the class off,” the instructor admonishes us, twinkle in her eye, as we practise one-footed balances. When she instructs us to shuffle backwards on the floor with our legs held aloft, I finally succumb. I get why this is a yoga class now. Yoga is funny. It is people in stretchy pants with their bums in the air, strenuously attempting to be at peace two doors down from a kebab shop. It is such a relief to let go of the usual anxieties of this situation, inhibitions about my ungainliness, lack of flexibility and ability to sweat from the elbows. They are the whole point here. I roll backwards like a purple-faced plum, over and over, buttocks to heaven, shrieking with involuntary cackles.
I end the hour-long class with a goofy grin on my stupid face, feeling warm toward the strangers around me, oozing benediction like a pope on grappa. I’m loose and open. The physical workout has been relatively slight, but mentally I’ve been overhauled. That’s a ratio to love. I have also realised I like drawings of dogs, I don’t actually like Renaissance comedy, and I need to wash my clothes more often. Which is three more breakthroughs than I have had in actual therapy.
Funny, that. But not ha-ha.
Apparently, fake laughter triggers the same physical effects as real. Which is oddly disturbing, isn’t it?
Wellness or hellness?
Penicillin is the best medicine, FYI. 4/5