“It Gives Me Joy to Make People Laugh Out Loud”: Up-Close and Personal with Ute Devika Meinel

Wednesday August 28, 2019                   By: Alexandra Kinias

DSC_0018 EBelieving in the healing powers of laughter, Dr. Ute Devika Meinel, Certified Laughter Yoga Teacher, initiated a movement called Cairo Laughers. For two years, Devika together with a group of her students, offered laughter sessions for free at Al Azhar Park every Friday morning. Many people attended with the sole purpose of laughing. “Laughing is the most precious thing in life. It gives me a tremendous joy to get people to laugh out long and loud in groups.” Dr. Ute Devika Meinel tells WoE.

Devika who spent part of her childhood in Cairo, has been permanently living in Egypt since 2000. She introduced Laughter Yoga in Egypt for the first time in 2013 in a spiritual retreat in Fayoum, organized by Dr. Magda Serry. The session she delivered was a great success. “We were roaring with laughter, and the positive feedback afterwards amazed me. Two elderly widows walked up to me and told me that they hadn’t laughed since their husbands passed away. I got goose bumps and felt that if Laughter Yoga can do that, I had no choice but to start offering sessions,” she says.

Devika with Dr. Madan Kataria

Laughter Yoga is a worldwide movement created in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from Mumbai, India.  Following in his footsteps, Devika has trained and certified 65 Laughter Yoga Leaders in Egypt, including a few expats. She also traveled to Sudan and trained 27 people there. “The world at this point is upside down and many people are suffering. We really need more laughter to lighten up. Laughing is the easiest way to let go of stress and tension,” she says.

Devika feels dedicated to spread Laughter Yoga in Egypt. For the past four years, she has been collaborating with the Egyptian Breast Cancer Foundation, offering Laughter Yoga sessions for free for women with breast cancer.  She dreams that many Laughter Yoga Leaders will bring joy and laughter to orphanages, schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly, and civil society organizations. “Laughter is the solution to so many problems.”

Getting Involved With Laughter Yoga
Devika Graduating from the  University of Laughter

After her father passed away, Devika went through a period of intense grief. Looking for ways to “break free from the sorrow in her heart,” she enrolled in a training course for Laughter Yoga Teachers in India in 2012. “It didn’t occur to me then that I would be teaching Laughter Yoga, nor that I would become so passionate about it. I was surprised how this course changed my life, and how much lighter and happier I became through practicing laughter as an exercise,” she explains.
Up Close and Personal

Ute Devika Meinel’s Early Years in Egypt

An Egyptian at heart, Meinel was born in India in 1963. By the age of nine, she had already lived in three countries. Her family moved to Cairo from Beirut in 1973, few months before the war broke. Prior to moving to Egypt, her father worked as the Director of the Goethe Institute in India, Turkey and Lebanon. In Cairo, he became the Director of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which offers scholarships for Egyptian students to study in Germany and supports dialogue among academics.

Her family had just settled into “a beautiful house with a large garden” in Maadi when the war started. Devika experienced the war first hand like most Egyptians, “I vividly remember the windows at home and at school painted with blue-violet color to prevent light from showing through them. One day the blasting bomb alarm sirens went off during the day, and my brother was at the club.” Her father rushed to bring her brother home, to find him with his friends at the far end of the club, watching the planes flying over.  Back at home Devika and her mother heard bombs exploding in the desert of Degla. “We didn’t have bomb shelters. It was scary,” she remembers.

Foreign missions in Egypt started evacuating the women and children. Devika’s mother refused to leave without her husband, and her family was among the few who stayed. Devika, who went to the German School in Zamalek, DEO, enjoyed taking time of school. “I was skinny and shy and felt a bit afraid of the teachers in this strict school, so I was happy there was no school and I could stay home.”

Life of An Expat Child in Egypt in The Seventies

Egypt in the seventies was where Devika developed her childhood memories, and she vividly remembers these years with nostalgia. She remembers watching Western movies on weekends in the open-air cinema at the Maadi club, and horseback riding in the vast deserts of the pyramids like the cowboys in these movies. “I loved the Bimbo cookies, wrapped in a simple golden foil that I would buy in the breaks at the school gate for a few piasters whenever I could. I still love those Bimbo cookies.”

On her first trip to Upper Egypt, she sailed from Aswan to Luxor “on one of the old boats.”  As the boat glided down the Nile, she sat on the upper deck inhaling the scenery in awe and painting it with water colors. “My mom kept those paintings and framed them. Some of them are still hanging in our house in Germany.”

Among her cherished memories in Egypt are the outings to the bazar with her mother, a talented painter and who was also “very good at bargaining.” Her mother loved to wear “big chunky silver pieces.” Mother and daughter frequented the silver market at Khan El Khalily, where Devika sat next to her, “watching her sipping tea from small glasses, sifting through big sacks of Bedouin silver, carefully choosing some beautiful items and haggling while she smiled with delight.”

Fearing to lose her mother in the crowds, the young girl learned her way through the narrow alleys of the bazar by heart. Until today, Khan El Khalily is one of her favorite places in Cairo. “I have excellent relations to many vendors since I take all my visitors to them. I know all the back alleys, I never got tired of looking at silver jewelry, and I enjoy taking time to drink tea, chat and bargain just like she [her mother] did.”

Starting a New Life in Germany

Up to the age of 13, Devika had spent her entire life living outside of Germany, and her parents decided it was time for her and her brother to know their home country. She regretted the move, but she had no choice. Her family settled in a small town outside of Cologne, but the young teenager kept the Egyptian dream alive inside her. “The flame of longing for Egypt in my heart never stopped burning. I just never stopped missing it. I would listen to a record of Um Khultum every night and cried my eyes out. At that age, I couldn’t put in words that it was the spirit of the Egyptians that I missed so much. Whenever my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas or my birthday, I told them I wanted a flight ticket to Egypt. I told my parents that the moment I grew up I would move to Cairo again. I was that determined at an early age. And what we set our minds on and repeat many times, is eventually going to happen.”

After she finished high school in Germany, Devika interned for six months at the SOS Children’s Village in Medinet Nasr. Over the years, she stayed in touch with her friends, and kept applying for jobs in Egypt, and “when the time was right” she moved back. Ute returned back to Egypt 23 years after she left as a child, this time “with the intention to stay.” She hasn’t left since then other than for business or vacations. Many people both in Egypt and Germany don’t understand why she decided to leave Germany and settle in Egypt, her brother included. “I can’t think of any other place where I would rather live,” she explains.

Professional Career

DSC_0140Before starting Laughter Yoga, in Egypt, Devika taught German for a few years. She also worked as a consultant in the field of international development cooperation. “I was an expert in the area of communications as well as organizational development in a number of projects on various levels, including the grass roots level in informal settlements, as well as more strategic levels.”

She was keen to explore ways to empower people and came across coaching. Devika enrolled at the Coaching Academy in London and studied for three diplomas: Personal Development Coaching, Corporate Executive Coaching as well as the new field of Coaching within Education for students, teachers, and parents. She enjoys coaching teenagers as much as housewives, managers or couples. “I discovered that I really love coaching people of all ages and backgrounds. Coaching is the most effective way I have come across that helps people to overcome challenges, move forward and become happier and successful.”

DSC_0139In addition to coaching, and Wellness Therapies Devika offers workshops on a variety of pertinent issues in various centers. That includes: Authentic Communication, Boosting Self-Esteem, The Power of Emotions, Healing the Inner Child, Playful Parenting, and others. “How to effectively reduce stress has become my specialty, because I believe this is the most important issue to tackle in the time we live in.” She uses a system that was developed by the HeartMath Institute in California aimed at optimizing human performance. One of their research based findings is that emotions determine what happens in our bodies and minds. “And the great thing about it is that you can learn to shift into uplifting emotions within minutes. Once you know how to do that, life becomes much easier and way more enjoyable,” she adds.

IMG_8013Devika is also the author of Lighthearted: Breaking Free from Heaviness. In her book, she offers knowledge, insights into a variety of ways to live an enchanted life while building resilience to anxiety, as well as practical exercises bound to ignite the zest that helps with breaking free from heaviness.Moreover, she offers her workshops in a “few carefully selected” centers in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. But what she is most passionate about is training more people to become Laughter Yoga Leaders. “My vision and my hope is that I find a way to train hundreds of young engaged Egyptians to carry laughter into schools, kindergartens, orphanages, hospitals, non-governmental organizations, as well as into fitness studios and businesses. Egyptians used to be remarkably lighthearted and ready to make fun of just about anything, whatever the hardships they faced. While arriving later than in many other places, unfortunately the post-modern sicknesses of depression and anxiety have not spared this country. It’s time to revive the uniquely beautiful Egyptian spirit by actively spreading laughter and joy. Imagine how Egypt would change, if people would laugh more often and feel happier. Everybody and everything would flourish,” Devika concludes.

Ute Devika’s Book “Lighthearted” is available on amazon. For more about Laughter Yoga, check Ute Devika’s website and Facebook Page.

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