If laughter is truly the best medicine, Jan Harcourt, owner of Tools for Stress, LLC, has taken it to heart. A playful interactive form of yoga, laughter yoga involves stretching and basic yoga moves but it’s also a chance for the participants to embrace their inner child.
Harcourt also leads more traditional yoga classes throughout the area, including the Jefferson City YMCA, Show Me Yoga Center, Wilson’s Yoga Studio, Missouri River Regional Library and Alley Cat Yoga. From March 2004 to September 2009, she was the director of Show Me Yoga Center.
She’s also certified as a somatic experiencing practitioner, SEP, a technique that’s used to work with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, sleep and digestive problems, and any other conditions related to chronic stress and/or trauma. She incorporates visualization techniques and other mind and body exercises with her clients and also offers light massage.
“It’s a body-focused trauma healing method that brings the autonomic nervous system back into greater ability to self-regulate,” she said. “I teach people dealing with anxiety, pain or stress coping skills.”
With a BS in art education from Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, she worked at an elementary school and a college and then received her MA in anthropology with a concentration in museum studies from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She then worked as a museum director in Rogers, Arkansas before becoming a stay-at-home mom when her daughter was born. She later moved to Jefferson City where she worked for the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education.
It was after she had foot surgery that she became interested in body work for all types of people. She began what started a journey of attending workshops and receiving many certifications. From 1998 through this year, she has given many presentations and attended workshops and retreats on stress, trauma, laughter and office yoga.
Laughter Yoga is offered free monthly, usually on the third Sunday of the month, 4-5 pm at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Jefferson City, 1021 Northeast Drive. For a yoga class schedule and more tips for handling daily stress visit Jan’s website.
Science is beginning to understand more all the time about how the mind/body connection works.
A big part of recent research has focused on the vagus nerve, a vast network of nerve fibers that run from the brain stem to the face, heart, lungs, digestive and other organs, influencing functions like heart and breath rate, digestion, the immune response and the inflammation response.
You can learn to have an effect on this important system, which operates below our awareness. The breath is a real key as we can consciously control our breath. The use of sound vibration, touch, posture, and even our thoughts can also have powerful effects.
Laughter yoga makes use of all the tips shared here. It combines good posture, easy stretches and deep breathing, smiling and making eye contact, focusing on the positive, and releasing stress through playful “pretend” laughter exercises, which generally soon transform into real, genuine deep belly laughs.
Laughter yoga has been shown to be a good cardiovascular workout that boosts the immune system, improves mood, and increases the production of endorphins which are the body’s natural pain killers. Businesses that have used laughter yoga also report that it leads to increased cooperation, productivity, and creativity among coworkers.
Practice the art of “Posturtude,” changing your attitude by changing your posture. Feeling down? Literally lift your spirits by physically lifting your rib cage, being light-hearted in your posture. You can also add stretching your arms up and out for a few breaths. Sitting up tall in this way makes more room for your breath.
Take relaxing, slow deep breaths, with slightly longer exhales encourage the “rest and digest” calming half of the autonomic nervous system, balancing out the other “fight and flight” half that responds when we are stressed. Sighing on the exhale can help lengthen it in a gentle way.
Use touch to encourage relaxation. When your muscles relax during massage it sends a message to the brain stem that encourages more relaxation throughout your system. A few moments of gentle self-massage focused on the key areas of the face, neck, and jaw can have a big effect on the vagus nerve, which is very involved with this area of the body.
Use sound to relax your body from the inside. Singing and humming can also help relax the throat, face, and jaw. For example, the long deep sound of Ohm—with the mouth relaxed and partly open, hold for a long deep tone, somewhat like a foghorn. It vibrates deep into the torso, bringing relaxation into the areas where the vagus nerve gathers feedback.
Research has shown that meditation, especially if it focuses on sending kind and loving thoughts to others actually increases vagal tone, the amount of tension in the body’s nervous system, an important indicator of health.
We are social creatures. Making eye contact and smiling and talking with others with whom we feel safe creates a feeling of safety in the autonomic nervous system. Even simply allowing a small smile on your face by yourself tends to encourage relaxation in the system.