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Operation Santa Claus

Hong Kong’s rheumatic disease patients laugh pain away with yoga

Centre to conduct sessions of laughter yoga, which aims to bring cheer to practitioners, to help ease patients’ suffering as part of Operation Santa Claus

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 4:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 7:10pm

Taking a breath, instructor Felice Liu Hoi-ting laughs, the “Ha! Ha! Ha!” sound echoed by three other patients with rheumatic disease during a typical session of laughter yoga.

This brand of yoga is practised through breathing and laughing in a rhythmic way, along with simple body movements.

The 37-year-old registered laughter yoga practitioner said she enjoyed her job, not only because she could have a good laugh herself, but also because she now had the ability to make people happy since her suicide attempt 23 years ago.

“I know how difficult it [can be but it is important] for patients like me to laugh,” Liu, now a freelance social worker, said.

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At the age of 13, Liu was diagnosed with Still’s disease – a kind of inflammatory arthritis – when she had just finished her first year in high school. Her disease forced her to take a year off from school, a period of time when she needed a walking stick, and her mother to help bathe her and get her into a change of clothes.

“I was an active person who loved hiking, swimming and being with friends. But at that time, I felt the disease took everything from me; I felt lonely and was miserable,” Liu said. There is no complete cure for the disease currently.

A year after her diagnosis, she tried to commit suicide, but was found and saved by her mother. She was then referred to clinical psychologists for follow-ups and gradually left those gloomy days behind.

Rheumatologist Chan Tak-hin, chairman of the Hong Kong Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation, said Liu’s case was not unusual among the 20,000 to 30,000 people in Hong Kong who suffer from various kinds of rheumatism, according to Hospital Authority statistics.

“We are talking about chronic illness patients who are suffering from muscle disease, joint disease and problems in their immune system,” Chan said. “They require long-term, if not lifelong treatment.”

Chan said these patients face a lot of psychological and social problems, such as depression and anxiety, as they suffer from pain that affects their mobility, and may be reluctant to engage in social activities. For those who have had the disease for a longer time, complications from treatments, in addition to the disease affecting their ability to work, may add to their psychological and financial burden.

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Liu said she was determined to bring laughter yoga class to patients like herself.

“Laughter yoga is good for us not only because it helps releases mental stress, but it also encourages us to do exercises that would improve our joints and limb movements,” she said. “Most importantly, it’s to build a connection with people who are also patients so they feel like they are understood.”

Liu will be holding monthly laughter yoga classes in the Hong Kong Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation’s centre in Shek Kip Mei starting next March. The yoga classes, as well as floor-curling workshops, are part of the new activities that the centre will provide, in addition to hydrotherapy sessions. These will all be supported by Operation Santa Claus – the annual charity campaign jointly organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK.