Do you remember the last time you laughed? Not a giggle. I am talking about real, deep from the belly, uncontrollable laughter. You know the type that leaves you feeling truly happy and full? Well, turns out that feeling can do a lot of good for us. There’s even a whole wellness movement dedicated to creating and sustaining the positive energy of laughter. I’d like to introduce you to laughing yoga.
What is laughing yoga?
Madan Kataria, a family physician in Mumbai, India during the mid-’90s is credited as the father of laughing yoga. Madan knew there was scientific research that showed how involuntary laughter releases the ‘happy hormones’ like serotonin and dopamine, as well as suppresses the stress hormones like cortisol. He saw within this a need for a reliable method that brought together laughter and its powers in wellbeing. This is how Madan Kataria developed a series of movements and breathing that became laughing yoga.
Now a worldwide phenomenon, let’s first clear up that it is not like traditional yoga, explains empowerment and happiness coach Anjana Lala. Anjana owns and works at The Art of Happiness Institute in Johannesburg. Laughing yoga does, however, borrow from the practice of deep breathing found in traditional yoga, says Anjana. It builds on the deep inhales and exhales that already occur naturally when we laugh – it is here that the two meet and intersect.
How does laughing yoga benefit us?
When we have a great big laugh, says Anjana Lala, our bodies are naturally giving us an opportunity to powerfully exhale and inhale . We don’t notice but they’re similar to the deep breathing associated with yoga practices. With these deep breaths of old air out and fresh air in, explains Anjana, we naturally improve our circulation giving to a host of positive side effects.
Improved circulation leads to an immune boost that can increase the count of anti-infection and antiviral cells in our bodies. Furthermore, laughter stimulates the movement of our diaphragm and abdominal muscles. This helps us activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part of the autonomic nervous system) and soothe feelings of stress, anxiety or anger.
As with traditional yoga, laughing yoga was also created as a mind-body modality. This is a practice that focuses on the structures and systems of both the mind and the body. Laughter doesn’t just relax our mind, but our bodies too, says Anjana. Therefore laughing yoga hopes to shift us psychologically and physiologically, just like a deep belly laugh does.
Laughing yoga in practice
At The Art of Happiness Institute, Anjana uses elements of laughing yoga in her holistic approach to coaching clients with anxiety. The first few sessions can be quite daunting for a client! Laughing is a great tool when tightness and resistance need to be unwound, says Anjana. she uses laughter to motivate her clients, ‘to ground them to be there in the present moment, to feel calm and safe,’ she explains.
It is also a wonderful tool for group therapy sessions and corporate wellness days. Laughing yoga is a great ice breaker here: relaxing the environment with a shift in energy where people feel calm and more themselves, despite a large group.
Laughing and social science
While laughing yoga focuses mainly on the science of laughter and breath, newer research provides another angle. Laughter has been researched in its social context as an expression of warmth. Neuroscientist Sophie Scott analysed that although we associate laughter with comedy and humour, it is more about social behaviour. ‘You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you are part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them,’ says Sophie.
So when Anjana Lala promotes laughing at The Happiness Institute, she shows her clients that this is a comfortable space, that they’re in it together. Warmth is expressed through laughter like a hand reaching out, showing someone they can be at ease.
And we tend to laugh most when we are at ease too. Robert Provine, who has worked extensively on laughter, has pointed out that you are 30 times more likely to laugh in the company of another person than on your own. Those people will more often than not be the ones you are most comfortable with.
Should laughing yoga be part of your marriage?
For her research, Sophie Scott has referenced results from a study in California that looked into married couples and how they deal with stressful situations. The study revealed some fascinating stats about couples who manage feelings of stress with laughter. Firstly, they show immediate signs of reduced stress after laughing. Secondly, ‘they are also the couples that report high levels of satisfaction in their relationships and they stay together for longer,’ says Sophie.
These studies reveal that laughter is a positive tool in many aspects and situations. Be it voluntarily with a joke, or involuntarily through a methodical laughing yoga practice.
- It can ease our mind and build physical resilience at the same time.
- Laughing puts us in a more comfortable place and show others warmth.
- It can help us make social connections, and help us maintain those connections.
- Laughing makes us and those hearing us laugh feel better.
So maybe it is true, laughter is the best medicine!