Jody Ross' story starts like many others.
For 15 years, she suffered from chronic health problems - pain, fibromyalgia, insomnia and bipolar disorder. She had searched in vain for a doctor or a treatment that could provide relief.
Two years ago, she found an unexpected resolution.
She was visiting the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. And as she left, still feeling desperate and hopeless, she passed a sign for a "Spirituality of Laughter" workshop. It was for employees only, but she ducked inside uninvited.
There she heard a Lutheran minister, Laura Gentry, discussing the medical benefits of laughter and leading the group in something called Laughter Yoga.
An hour later, Ross left the clinic feeling refreshed.
"What I noticed, aside from the fact that it was absolutely hilarious, was the connection with these people that I didn't even know," Ross said. "There's a sense of connection when you're laughing and looking into each other's eyes and having a shared experience. I felt great for hours afterward."
Ross became a certified Laughter Yoga leader and started the first Laughter Yoga Club in the Twin Cities.
Next month, she will visit Rock Hill to lead a class and a weekend workshop for anyone who wants to learn and teach this unusual exercise that got its start in India.
The exercise is appropriate for anyone, Ross said. She teaches people from age 5 to 80.
Classes incorporate light stretching and yoga breathing, but no difficult poses. No downward-facing dog. No bridge. No tree.
She starts by having people introduce themselves and laugh.
"I'm Jody. Ha. Ha. Ha."
At first, the laughter is fake, but "very quickly it becomes the real thing," she said.
Research shows that a fake laugh offers the same benefit as a spontaneous belly laugh, she added. And the benefits she lists are many - reduced stress, improved heart health, improved sleep and pain management, strengthened immune system and deeper breathing to improve bronchitis, hay fever and asthma.
"It's an incredible aerobic workout," she added.
After introductions, Ross said the class might create a "laughter car wash," with some participants moving their hands as if they're washing a car and others walking through the line, pummeled by laughter instead of water. Another exercise might involve talking in gibberish in a particular situation, such as persuading a police officer not to write a traffic ticket.
As you might guess, Laughter Yoga is not for everyone.
But Ross said even the skeptical find themselves joining in.
"In Minnesota, of course, people can be quite stoic," she said. "But it's so contagious, very quickly you lose that inhibition, and they're just in the moment. Even the ones that are really shy, they're the ones who end up laughing the most."
When she leads her Laughter Yoga Club in an outdoor park in the summer, Ross said she often sees people walking their dogs who pass by multiple times. "By the third or fourth or fifth time, they're walking by laughing with us."
Dr. Madan Katarian, the Indian physician who created Laughter Yoga in 1995, advises every Laughter Yoga professor to practice laughing daily, Ross said. She laughs alone or with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. "We laugh in the car, we laugh at the dinner table, for no reason."
"When we use laughter as a practice, we begin to find laughter throughout our day. Things we wouldn't have found very funny all of a sudden become amusing when we're in the habit of laughing as an exercise."
Before she started Laughter Yoga, Ross was in pain all the time. Today, at 40, her pain is 99 percent gone.
"I cannot tell you what a relief that is," she said. "I'm able to do so much more than I've been able to do before. I never would have thought that I would actually be able to be free of those things that plagued me for 15 years....It's very powerful stuff."