American humourist and writer Mark Twain got it right: “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”
You can laugh at a Seinfeld episode, giggle at your friend Sue’s punny wordplay- but you don’t actually need a reason to laugh.
You can … just … laugh.
Welcome to laughter yoga, a series of movement and breathing exercises to help you laugh — for no good reason!
Usually practised in a group, laughter yoga is a variety of specific exercises — simple breathing techniques, clapping and chanting — led by a trained laughter yoga instructor. Once you’re warmed up, your instructor might move to improv exercises, gentle stretching, yoga breathwork and meditation.
“The only part of yoga in laughter yoga is the breathing,” says Lillian Saggiorato, a certified laughter yoga teacher and occupational health nurse. “And we know how important breathing is, because we need to get the fresh air in and the stale air out,” she adds.
“It’s intentional laughter exercises designed to make us feel good,” says certified laughter yoga teacher Cathy Nesbitt (cathysclub.com). For example, hold an imaginary cellphone to your ear and laugh, or greet everyone — for example, shake hands — but replace words with laughter.
Laughter yoga was started in 1995 by Indian physician Dr. Madan Kataria with a few people in a park in Mumbai. It’s now practised in more than 110 countries, and there are thousands of leaders and teachers around the world.
Studies have proven that the body can’t differentiate between voluntary laughing — simulated — and the real thing; you get the same physiological and psychological benefits, regardless.
“When you fake laughter, it’s better because you’re forcing it,” says Kathryn Kimmins, a holistic professional and certified laughter yoga teacher. “When you force it, you’re bringing more oxygen in and pushing a lot of stale oxygen out. You laugh longer and louder.”
And the brain actually needs 25 per cent more oxygen than the rest of the body to function properly. “When we’re stressed, we’re not breathing properly, so our body’s not getting what it needs,” says Nesbitt.
With laughter yoga, we can boost our immune system and decrease our stress. “We need to know we need to laugh, even if we’re stressed — mostly when we’re stressed,” says Kimmins. “All those negative emotions — that’s when we need to laugh. Don’t wait until they happen.”
Because, when we’re laughing, we’re secreting the “love drugs — dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin — versus cortisol, when we’re stressed,” says Nesbitt.
Science bears this out. Laughter Yoga International studied 200 IT professionals in Bangalore, India, to see the effects of laughter on reducing stress in the workplace. The study showed that participants gained big benefits. They experienced reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure and reduced cortisol levels. Positive emotions increased by almost 18 per cent, and negative emotions decreased by almost 28 per cent.
Say you’re having one of those spiralling-out-of-control days. Laugh yourself better, says Nesbitt. “Laughter helps us to cope,” she says. “We get those synapses firing [in the brain] and we’re flooded with those love drugs to help us come up with solutions.”
And, it’s the only exercise that works the inner and outer organs, she adds. And she should know. Seniors in Saggiorato’s laughter yoga class have told her they sleep better and their bowels feel better. In some sessions, they’ve left in the middle because they have to go to the washroom. “They couldn’t handle it anymore,” she says. “It was totally hilarious.”
And, of course, laughter yoga has a social aspect. “Some people retire and that’s their life,” says Kimmins. “If they don’t have other outlets to help them to laugh, to help them be out with friends, [laughter yoga] gives them an outlet to be silly and childlike. We say laughter yoga is the ‘playground for adults.’”
This playground can be anywhere. “You don’t have to change, you don’t need a yoga mat, you don’t need a gym,” says Saggiorato.
To get started, consider joining a laughter yoga club. Nesbitt offers a Zoom Laughter Club on Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. EST. https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIqfuihrj8jGdGXpEcAbWVnXAX32PoM_DGU And Kataria offers an online International Laughter Club. (See laughteryoga.org/zoom-laughter-club for times.)
In the end, laughter yoga is about being in the moment. “It really does help us be present,” says Nesbitt. “You can’t be thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. You’re not thinking. You’re just completely laughing.”