couples doing laughter yoga

Laughter yoga: Could laughter actually be the best form of therapy?

There are few better feelings in the world than a full-on belly laugh. But did you know you could get the same infectious, feel-good factor from a session of laughter yoga? Here we explore the benefits of laughter therapy and what you can expect when attending a laughter group.

Whether it’s a gentle titter, a fit of hysterics or an outburst of sniggers, the joy you feel from laughter can have a powerful effect on your mood. But finding the motivation to laugh can sometimes feel difficult. The aim of laughter yoga is to help you laugh more easily so you get all the benefits even when you’re not in a particularly perky mood.

What is laughter yoga?

Laughter yoga uses planned, simulated laughter as a form of physical exercise. During a session, a specialist practitioner guides the group through a variety of playful activities designed to encourage intentional laughter. This involves everything from clapping, chatting and chanting, to acting out visualisations. As you can imagine, it’s easy for these self-initiated giggling fits to turn into genuine, contagious guffawing as the session goes on.

Laughter yoga is built around the philosophy that combining laughter with deep yoga breathing brings more oxygen to the body and brain. This leads to biological and physiological changes that offer wellness benefits including improving mood and helping you with tension.

So why is it called ‘yoga’? The yogic aspect comes from the deep breathing and gentle stretches that are interspersed between the laughter exercises. The purpose of the yogic breathing is to deepen your laughter and increase oxygen intake, to enhance the therapeutic effects of your giggles.

How do you perform a laughter therapy?

A typical laughter yoga session  is made up of five parts:

  • Part one: The introduction. Your laughter yoga practitioner will introduce themselves, outline what the session involves and invite everyone to introduce themselves.

  • Part two: Warm up exercises. To prepare your body for laughter, you’ll be asked to perform various stretches and movements. This includes combinations of stretching, clapping, chanting, eye contact and body movement. An important part is warming up your voice and embracing a sense of playfulness. You can expect to make lots of ‘ho, hee and haa’ noises while simultaneously circling various limbs.

  • Part three: The laughter workout. You’ll be guided through various laughter exercises (combining acting and visualisation activities), rhythmic clapping and deep breathing sequences.

  • Part four: Laughter meditation. Here the focus shifts to eruptions of more spontaneous, free-flowing laughter. This can also lead to the release of other less joyful emotions too. For example, it’s normal for participants to cry floods of tears once the laughter unblocks these emotions.

  • Part five: Grounding exercise. A session usually closes by grounding the energy generated by the laughter with a period of ‘savasana’ or some form, of guided relaxation.

Who created laughter yoga?

Would you believe laughter yoga celebrated its 25th birthday in 2020?  The concept was first conceived in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria in Mumbai, India. His philosophy was that the body responds in the same way to a fake guffaw as it does to genuine giggle. He set out to test his theory by setting up a laughter club aimed to help the people of Mumbai to get some relief from the stress of living in the over-crowded city. At first this was simply a small gathering of people in a public park, sharing jokes. He noticed that although not everyone saw the humour in the actual jokes, they started to laugh when they noticed others sniggering. The visual act of laughing was contagious.

Based on this experience, Dr Kataria went on to create simulated laughing techniques and expanded the practice to include breathing exercises. This was the origin of laughter yoga. Thousands of laughter groups around the world are now using his techniques.

Why is laughter good for us?

After laughing, do your muscles feel a little less tense? You might feel more relaxed or cheerful? Over the years, scientific enquiries into these responses have unearthed potential well-being benefits triggered by laughter. In fact, did you know there’s a whole area of scientific study dedicated to investigating what makes us laugh ? It’s known as gelatology.

The benefits of laughter come from the physical and emotional changes it provokes in your body. When your senses are stimulated by something you find amusing, your nervous system is triggered as your brain interprets what it’s just observed or heard. In response, your body releases endorphins that lead to a rapid upturn in your mood. And as the act of laughter increases your intake of oxygen, it can also stimulate your heart, lungs and muscles. This prompts the physical actions associated with bursting into laughter.

But while laughter definitely has a positive effect on us, caution is generally advised before overstating the effectiveness of laughter as a therapy  designed to deliver health and wellness outcomes.

4 benefits of laughter

Laughter increases your intake of oxygen, triggers a rush of endorphins and stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles. It probably doesn’t cure any particular ailments, but it can enhance your wellness in a number of ways.

1. A natural lift for your spirits

Have you ever noticed that your spirits automatically lift after a good chuckle? But what is it that makes laughter such an effective way to lighten your mood? A rush of endorphins definitely helps to create a natural feel-good boost. These stress-busting hormones can deliver an uplift in positive emotions.

2. Provide support when you have tension

Laughter provides a physical and emotional release of emotions that can dampen your stress response. In addition, some sources suggest humour can trigger a reduction in a variety of stress hormones, including cortisol. But there are mixed opinions on whether there’s sufficient evidence to support this claim.

However, what’s more widely accepted is laughter stimulates your circulation, exercises your diaphragm, activates your abs, and even gives your shoulders a workout.  All of this can aid muscle relaxation and soothe tension. Some people find this can help to release some of the physical symptoms of stress.

3. It can dampen negative emotions

A burst of laughter can encourage a more light-hearted perspective by diverting your focus away from negative feelings, such as guilt, anger, and stress. For example, shared laughter can diffuse anger and conflict and soften feelings of bitterness.

4. It could help to decrease blood pressure

High blood pressure is a common side effect of stress and contributes to a number of cardiovascular conditions. However, as we discuss above, it’s harder to feel stressed when you're laughing. So, there’s a natural assumption that laughter therapy can have a positive effect on blood pressure. And this also seems to be backed up by scientific studies.

For example, in a 2017 study, 40 patients undergoing hemodialysis were asked to listen to a 30-minute comedy CD two times per week for a duration of eight weeks.  A decrease in blood pressure was detected across the test group.

And the founder of laughter yoga, Dr Kataria, led a study on 200 male and female participants in laughter yoga sessions. His investigations found those who laughed experienced a reduction in their systolic blood pressure of more than 6 mmHg.

What are the benefits of laughter yoga?

Do you still need convincing before you sign up for some laughter therapy? Here are a few other laughter yoga benefits:

  • It’s easy to learn, inherently fun, and the positive effects can be felt immediately.
  • Laughter groups can leave you feeling euphoric. But beware you may also be surprisingly exhausted after a session.
  • Laughter therapy trains you how to laugh even when you’re not in a happy state of mind. In time you may build up the ability to laugh in the face of anxiety, anger, stress and other negative emotions.
  • Regardless of your age or fitness, you can take part and experience an almost guaranteed uplift in your mood. Elderly groups, young people in care and mental health patients have all benefited from laughter therapy. Having a sense of humour isn’t even a requirement – your body can’t differentiate between fake and real laughter so forced laughter can be just as effective as genuine giggles.
  • Laughter is infectious. As you build up your capacity for a good chuckle, you might notice those around you benefiting too.

Laughter yoga exercises

The best way to enjoy laughter yoga is in a group led by a trained practitioner. For details of laughter events and training in the UK, you can visit laughternetwork.co.uk or search YouTube for laughter yoga videos. Here are a few examples of laughter yoga exercises to give you a taste for what’s involved.

Clap laughter

This exercise is about clapping while laughing. It’s a natural reaction for us to clap when we’re happy and when we laugh out loud, making this a great way to get into the spirit of laughter yoga.

Gradient laughter

Start by smiling. When you’re ready, increase this to a gentle giggle. Then gradually up the intensity to a full-on belly laugh. And finally, slowly bring the laugh down to a smile again. If you find it difficult to burst into a sudden fit of giggles, this can help get you into the laughter mood.

Lion laughter

This is an example of a more playful exercise. While laughing, imitate a lion by sticking out your tongue, making your hands into claws and widening your eyes.

Hearty laughter

Now this is the type of belly laugh you’d associate with Santa. It’s loud and bold, with plenty of deep ho, ho, hos.

Summary: Does laughter yoga work?

Training your body to erupt into fits of self-initiated giggles probably won’t provide any magical cure for your ailments unfortunately. However, that’s not to say there aren’t positive things laughter yoga can contribute to your general health and wellness.

There’s definitely a strong case for trying laughter yoga based purely on the benefits of laughter for lightening your mood. And as this form of therapy is 100% natural, readily available and has zero side effects, what’s the harm in giving laughter yoga a chance?

Last updated: 9 December 2020

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