If told about an easy, natural way to improve mood, reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system, and drastically enhance well-being, all without needing money or special equipment, nor resorting to drugs, most people would probably laugh. And if they laughed hard enough—or just pretended to laugh—they would realize all the benefits described above.
And that is the secret of laughter yoga.
But laughter yoga is not a laughing matter. Premised on the finding that the human brain can’t differentiate between real laughter and forced laughter and thus releases the same beneficial chemicals, the practice attracts adherents who say it makes one feel better right away, elevating the mood and reducing stress.
Laughter yoga clubs, where practitioners spend about 30 minutes doing childlike exercises and laughing out loud, are now found worldwide and gaining popularity. The practice of laughter yoga was developed in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, a cardiologist in India researching effects of laughter on the human body. He found benefits appeared regardless of whether the subject faked the laughs or reacted to humor.
To capitalize on this trait, Kataria began hosting small groups of friends and colleagues for laughter sessions. Quickly realizing that jokes grew stale, or didn’t cross cultural and language divides, Kataria developed a physical regimen of group exercises involving stretching and fake laughing instead of relying on humor.
At first blush, It sounds too good to be true and seems too silly to be real. But the proof is in the laughing. “Fake it till you make it” is a slogan now heard at laughter clubs that have spread from Bangalore to London, and from Sydney to New York City. As the advice is followed, the laughter becomes too loud to hear slogans.
“Some people are sort of turned off at first because they think it is kind of silly,” says Liz Morfea, a Rhinebeck resident and certified laughter yoga leader who counted herself among the skeptics when she first went to a laughter yoga session, at a time, she said, she had little to laugh about.
“At first I thought they were all nutcases and it was totally crazy, but by the end, I just felt so much better, so I kept going back,” Morfea says. After training to be a laughter leader, she has lead about 100 laughter yoga sessions over the last three years, for libraries, corporations, inmates, and senior citizens. The setting is no barrier. “Everyone can do this. It’s so simple. You don’t need special treatment or special clothes; you can do it and be successful right way.”
Vishwa Prakash teaches laughter yoga in New York City and hosts a free weekly laughter club in offices on Broadway just south of Times Square. A successful business owner with offices in Hong Kong and Mumbai, Prakash describes himself as a serious man and a healer, and he has a missionary zeal for the benefits of laughter yoga sessions he leads.
The sessions can’t be called comedy unless you have the sense of humor of a two-year-old. And that is the point, says Prakash, adults rediscovering the capacity for laughing like children. “Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha!” says a clapping Prakash, starting the session with some two dozen New Yorkers who chant and clap along, doing a sort of laughing do-si-do among each other.
Prakash stresses eye contact as a powerful laugh stimulant, and indeed, any stiffness quickly dissolves in goofy fellowship, as the class performs exercises including shaking hands while looking into the other person’s eyes and laughing a greeting, drinking a laughter milk shake, engaging in a mock arguments, and wagging a finger in the face of fellow laughees while laughing loudly instead of shouting.
The effect is momentous. In a short time, a crowd of strangers has become a conspiracy of laughter, an effect that emerges as their brains are releasing beneficial chemicals, their lungs and hearts are circulating oxygen and blood at elevated levels. Laughter yoga, at the very least, is an effective workout for many crucial body components.
The “yoga” in laughter yoga, Prakash says, is prana, the breath exchange so crucial to health and mental well-being. Belly laughs, forced or real, are perhaps the most efficient air exchange human bodies do.
But to end the session, Prakash has participants lie face up in a circle on comforters and talks them through a session to “earth” them, he says, grounding the mind and the body.
In the quiet, spontaneous laughs erupts around the circle.
There will be an evening of Laughter Yoga to benefit Family of Woodstock on Friday, December 9, at the Beahive in Kingston. $10 suggested donation with LY sessions starting at 7:30 and 9 pm. www.beahivebzzz.com/events/event/laughter-yoga-benefit; firstname.lastname@example.org.