When I first heard about laughter yoga, I knew nothing about it. However, I envisioned a scenario involving a variety of yogic poses while laughing hysterically. It turns out I was wrong, at least about the poses. What I did discover when I went to my very first (and certainly not my last!) laughter yoga session was that it can be a remarkably freeing, relaxing, yet invigorating experience.
What is laughter yoga?
Laughter yoga is the brainchild of Madan Kataria, MD, who developed it in 1995. He realized the importance of laughter in the healing process and wanted to bring that therapeutic magic to others, but how? His first attempt involved going to a park and convincing others to join in a laughter-as-medicine session. Only four people agreed to try it that first time, and their session consisted of exchanging jokes.
Within a few week the group increased to more than four dozen people, but the group faltered when the funny jokes and stories dried up. Dr. Kataria realized this was not the answer, but he was convinced he could find one. His determination paid big dividends: he learned from his research that the body is not capable of distinguishing between real and fake laughter.
Therefore, jokes and funny stories were not necessary. Not only that, he also learned that the health benefits of both genuine and fake laughter were the same. This discovery was clearly no laughing matter!
Dr. Kataria started up his sessions again and asked the participants to act out laughter. Eventually Dr. Kataria and the group members discovered that laughter was contagious, that fake laughter transformed into genuine laughter. That’s when laughter yoga was born.
Today laughter yoga is practiced in approximately 6,000 clubs in 72 countries around the world. Sessions involve a wide range of laughter exercises that include simple and childlike (but not childish) activities that just about anyone can do. People of all ages and those with physical challenges, including individuals in wheelchairs, can join in.
About laughter yoga exercises
Dr. Kataria developed scores of laugher and role-playing exercises that can be performed during a laughter yoga session. (You can see many of them in the video below.) Some of the exercises involve breathing techniques; some exercises are done in a seated position while others are done standing (but can be done seated as well). But every one of the exercises include laughter, and lots of it!
Laughter yoga consists of four basic elements: clapping, breathing (some basic breathing exercises), childlike playfulness (essential!), and laughter exercises.
At first, you might find the childlike exercises too, well, childlike. As adults, most of us have suppressed or locked away our childlike wonder and playfulness. We believe we should be somber and serious all or most of the time—and certainly not silly or childlike in front of strangers!
Yet once you let go of those negative thoughts and release your inner child, you will discover that it’s safe and fun and energizing to prance, growl like a lion, clap and shout, laughingly poke each other with your finger, pretend you’re a laughing clam, and much more. You will be surrounded by other adults who are doing the same thing and doing it gleefully. Deep breathing and short meditations also are part of the exercise routines.
Benefits of laughter yoga
Dr. Kataria has explained that sustained laughter, like that practiced during laughter yoga sessions, releases positive chemicals (endorphins, which can lift your mood), boost the immune system, help improve breathing and blood circulation, reduce stress (by lowering levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine in the blood), and lower blood pressure.
Would you like some actual scientific proof? A study published in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research evaluated the effect of laughter yoga on 38 male nursing students. Half of the students participated in two one-hour sessions of laughter yoga weekly for four week while the other half did not.
The students in the laughter yoga group showed significant improvements in general health and signs of sleep and physical disorders, reduced depression and anxiety, and better social functioning than did students in the control group.
Another study looked at the effect of laughter yoga on heart rate variability (HRV) and mood. Six individuals participated in ten 20-minute laughter yoga sessions over four weeks. The sessions involved breathing and stretching exercises, simulated laughter, clapping, and meditation. Heart rate, heart rate variability, blood pressure, and mood were measured before and after the laughter yoga and control sessions.
After the laughter yoga sessions, the participants showed an immediate improvement in mood and increased heart rate variability. This was a small pilot study, but the findings suggest laughter yoga “may improve HRV and some aspects of mood, and this topic warrants further research.”
Another study found that laughter yoga is a good way to strengthen your trunk muscles. The researchers compared the effects of laughter yoga with crunch and back lifting exercises (conventional exercises) on trunk muscles.
They discovered that the activation level of internal oblique muscles during laughter yoga is greater than it is with conventional exercises and that laughter yoga and conventional exercises provide comparable activity of the external oblique muscles. Three other trunk muscles (multifidus, erector spinae, rectus abdominis) were activated about 50 percent less with laughter yoga than with conventional exercises.
Overall, the authors concluded that laughter yoga “has a positive effect on trunk muscle activation,” and that more research is needed to see if laughter yoga is helpful for improving spine stability. Could you actually laugh your way to better posture?
One thing I discovered as soon as I walked into the laughter yoga session: the air was charged with positive, friendly energy. The smiles and laughter I witnessed on the faces of all the participants were genuine, and people reached out to each other with smiles, laughter, and hand shakes. New people were immediately made to feel at home.
When I left the laughter yoga session one hour later, I could feel the endorphins racing through my body. According to the instructor, Michele Buckler, who had just returned from a retreat with Dr. Kataria, the benefits of such a session can last for up to 72 hours. Ideally, Dr. Kataria recommends people engage in laughter every day. Specifically, choose an activity you do daily and laugh your way through it. It could be while you are taking a shower, changing the cat’s litter box, making breakfast, driving to work, or getting dressed.
Laughter yoga is an excellent example of how laughter is the best medicine. If there is a laughter yoga club near you, I encourage you to try it. If not, you could start one. (See LaughterYoga.org for more information.) Either way, please be sure to include lots of laughter into your life, and you can be healthier for it.
Dolgoff-Kaspar R et al. Effect of laughter yoga on mood and heart rate variability in patients awaiting organ transplantation: a pilot study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 2012 Sep-Oct; 18(5): 61-66
Yazdani M et al. The effect of laughter yoga on general health among nursing students. Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research 2014 Jan; 19(1): 36-40
Wagner H et al. Laughing: a demanding exercise for trunk muscles. Journal of Motor Behavior 2014; 46(1): 33-37