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I love yoga and I love laughing—on paper, these two activities combined sounded ideal, but could I keep it together in a room full of strangers? I first became aware of the laughter yoga craze after coming across a class video on YouTube. I was slightly dubious, but I was intrigued all the same. Later, I heard that a luxe private island resort in the Maldives was offering laughter yoga sessions to guests. Now, a quick Google search will tell you there are classes in almost every major city in the US and UK, with studies endorsing the practice for its health benefits and endorphin-boosting properties. Actor and provider of wise-quotes-a-plenty Charlie Chaplin famously said, “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain,” and we’ve all heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Since I could use a dose of feel-good medicine, I decided to speak to a laughter yoga instructor to learn more and try out a class.
Are you in need of a good laugh? Read on for all about the benefits and science behind laughter yoga, and an honest review of my experience.
Meet the Expert
What Is Laughter Yoga?
Laughter yoga, or hasyayoga, as it’s traditionally called, is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. “Laughter yoga is a mindful-based practice that's designed to create and sustain positive energy, where we choose to laugh for all the amazing health benefits,” explains McGinley. “It's as simple as breathing in and laughing out!” Given the stress and seriousness that typifies our adult lives, it seems wise to add an activity that deliberately aims to get us to loosen up and lighten up.
There are three primary components of laughter yoga:
- Laughter exercises
“The laughter exercises are super easy, playful, joyful, childlike, fun, and designed to lead us into laughter,” says McGinley. The breathwork, like that used in more traditional styles of yoga, involves deep belly or diaphragm breathing. “The main aim is to get the exhales longer than the inhales to bring us into a calm, healthy state, and the quickest and most efficient way of making our exhales longer is to laugh it out,” explains McGinley. “It gets rid of all the stagnant, stale air in the lungs and helps the parasympathetic nervous system to relax the body and mind.” Lastly, the clapping has a specific form and function. “We clap palm to palm, finger to finger, to activate the 30+ acupressure points in the hands, which gives a boost to every organ and part of the body.”
McGinley says that laughter yoga has many health benefits. “It improves our immune system, our cardiovascular system, gets the whole body moving, creates positive energy, clears stagnant energy, releases stress and tension, [is] great exercise for the lungs, lowers blood pressure, makes us feel happier, fights illness and disease, and tones our tummies,” she explains. “It's playful, childlike, and fun—so necessary for adults.” Plus, it’s free and can help you feel more energized. “This amazing, transformative laughter yoga energy travels out of your body into the world,” says McGinley. “It has a ripple effect, spreading out to those you connect with your family, friends, and work colleagues, and it heals them, too.”
Though it’s generally safe, laughter yoga may not be suitable for everyone. “It involves some physical strain and a rise in intra-abdominal pressure,” notes McGinley. It is contraindicated for people suffering from certain diseases, especially in advanced stages, such as the following:
- Bleeding hemorrhoids
- Persistent cough
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Major psychiatric disorders
- Severe backaches or musculoskeletal injuries
- Less than three months post-op
If you have questions or concerns about your own condition or status, consult with your doctor. “Otherwise, everyone can do laughter yoga, and just be mindful of yourself and don't push yourself,” says McGinley. “Only do what feels right for you.”
Laughter yoga is the brainchild of Indian physician Madan Kataria, who was a doctor for 18 years before developing the practice. He initially dreamt up the idea for laughter yoga classes in the mid-’90s after observing that many of his patients who should have been improving physically were not—seemingly because of a low mood.
He decided to try a laughing exercise with his wife and four friends, standing in a circle at a park. It initially began with each telling a joke to try to make the group laugh. This worked at first, and each felt uplifted and in a better mood. But soon the jokes ran out and they found themselves “laughing for no reason.” (This would later become the title of Kataria’s book.) Studies stating the benefits of laughter were around long before the ’90s, but Kataria was aware that there was no reliable method for bringing more laughter into people’s lives. While generic humor and jokes may make us smile, they don’t make us belly laugh—nor are there many day-to-day scenarios that make us laugh. Unfortunately, it’s a rare occurrence to laugh until your stomach’s sore.
The yoga aspect of laughter yoga came from Kataria’s wife, Madhuri. She had been a yoga teacher and knew what the health benefits yogic deep breathing could bring to the practice. Laughter yoga is now a worldwide phenomenon.
Studies have long shown laughter to be therapeutic to our body and mind. The basic premise behind laughter yoga is that the mind cannot distinguish between fake or real laughter, so you can reap the rewards anytime by incorporating laughing exercises into your life. A study by Oxford University found that when we laugh, mood-lifting endorphins are released and pain thresholds become “significantly higher” (meaning we don’t feel pain as easily). This was found to be due to laughter itself rather than the mood of the subject. The study also suggested that laughter produced an “endorphin-mediated opiate effect,” which could play a crucial role in social bonding.
Deep laughter, with deep inhales and exhales, has been shown to improve circulation to the lymphatic system, as well as massaging the system to promote better digestion. Better circulation leads to an immune system boost, increasing the amount of antiviral and anti-infection cells in your body.
Both laughter and yogic breathing exercises stimulate the movement of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles, which helps to activate the parasympathetic system (the calming branch of the autonomic nervous system). This is opposite to the sympathetic system (the stress arousal system) so essentially you can “turn off” stress arousal by learning how to move the diaphragm correctly.
Laughing also promotes a healthy heart —during a good bout of laughter, the blood vessels all over the body dilate. (You’ve probably experienced this when laughing—your skin flushing red and feeling warm.) Laughing can cause your pulse rate blood pressure to rise as the circulatory system is stimulated before settling down below the original levels. This may be why professor William Fry from Stanford University referred to laughter as “internal jogging.” Laughing is also seen as a catharsis to help expel emotions, stress, and anger.
Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to feel angry or stressed when you’re laughing? A study in 2014 concluded that laughter therapy can improve general health in elderly people. But there’s no reason not to reap the rewards of laughing classes at any age. Though we may chuckle throughout the day, to feel the scientifically-proven benefits of laughter, we need to laugh deeply and loudly (so the sound and movement come from the diaphragm) continuously for at least 10-15 minutes. You may think “I laugh for 10 minutes a day,” but if you counted (as I did), I think you’d be surprised at how little you laughed. According to a study by German psychologist Michael Titze, in the ’50s, people used to laugh for 18 minutes a day. Unfortunately today, despite the increase in the standard of living, we only laugh for up to six minutes per day. Hence, a class.
A laughter yoga class is usually between 30-60 minutes or so. The one I went to was one hour. McGinley says the body needs “at least 10 to 15 minutes of laughter to feel it's physiological and psychological benefits.” The class began with warmups for the body and the brain and ice breaker games to relax the participants (maybe she could read my anxious body language!), and create rapport.
Next, we did simple stretching mixed with clapping and synchronized movements, such as swinging our arms from side to side while clapping and chanting—“ho, ho, ha-ha-ha”—and inhaling and exhaling deeply. Because you’re being led and doing tasks, the embarrassment factor you might be fearing is largely taken away. I had envisioned standing still in front of everyone fake laughing, almost like a standup gig gone wrong. Luckily, it was nothing like this. Plus, if you think about it, you look humorous doing regular yoga—bending and stretching in odd directions—but we don’t question that as readily.
The bulk of the class involved a series of simple improv-like games. Clapping and chanting (which didn’t feel that alien if you’ve ever done yoga or meditation) were key as we moved around the room. We were led through deep breathing, placing our hands on our diaphragm to make it expand and contract. Even when we exhale, there’s still some air left in the lungs, and day-to-day, we’re only using about 25 percent of our lung capacity, so any deep breathing is beneficial.
On many exhales, we released a loud “ha, ha, ha,” which on paper might sound ridiculous, but in practice just felt like any other word often used in yoga—like “om” or “shanti.” The addition of music furthered the relaxed atmosphere. There was partner work—laughing in pitch with others and joining palms in the air as you chanted (essentially high-fiving). Positive motions or words were key; we cheered and held our arms up in a V shape in the air (I’ve read athletes do this in training to mimic winning a race, providing their brain with the positive connotations of winning). While we moved our bodies a lot, they weren’t in formal yoga poses, except for the warrior pose.
Another clap was accompanied by the chant, “Very good, very good, yayyyy!” while reaching up with thumbs up and smiling. “I like to do this three times with thumbs up—first out towards each other, then in towards ourselves, and finally upwards and out into the universe,” explains McGinley. “This upward action alone greatly increases positivity and boosts our moods and energy. It's kind of a childlike, carefree, joyous affirmation of 'I'm ok, you're ok, we're all ok together!'”
The best bit was that once we’d began fake laughing, we found ourselves laughing naturally at the situation and ourselves, which was refreshing. I can’t stress enough that it is impossible to take yourself seriously in a laughing yoga class, which is very freeing. And, McGinley is right: I felt childlike. It’s only in adulthood we stop playing and being silly for the sake of it, after all.
The relaxation at the end of the class (aka the best bit of a yoga class in my eyes) felt calming after a flurry of activity, and it included positive affirmations like, “I feel resilient, relaxed, and joyful!”
At the conclusion of the class, we were urged to try laughing (or chanting “ha, ha, ha”) in any scenario we found ourselves getting stressed in, or even if we did something such as stubbing our toe. I’ve tried this since and can vouch for its effectiveness. Try it now—smile; then laugh for about 10 seconds while putting your arms up in the air. Do you feel that little lift of energy from your core? Imagine that for an hour.
What We Thought
Despite the class being just an hour, I came out feeling as if I’d been smiling and laughing for hours on end. I was glad I made the effort, as I was remarkably less anxious than when I arrived. There was a lot less yoga than I imagined. I had envisioned holding yoga poses while laughing. In reality, it’s more a case of stretching and deep breathing, so don’t expect to swap your regular yoga class for this. Rather, see it as an add-on. I think calling the practice "laughter relaxation therapy" would seem more fitting. I did feel the effects in my core, as if I’d had a great belly laugh. I was energized, de-stressed, and would recommend everyone give it a try. Just no video evidence, please.
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