Laughter Yoga? A prescription for everyone, perhaps.
The below interview portions are taken from an interview I did with Dr. Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga, several years ago.
I love when science supports clichés. It’s fun when it works out like that.
“Everything in Moderation.”
“You are What You Eat.”
“An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure.”
Then there is, “Laughter is the best medicine.” I agree with that, though as it turns out, laughter yoga might be a close second. I’ll start by describing my first laughter yoga session.
I randomly learned about laughter yoga by surfing the internet. At first, I was puzzled. Laughter yoga? That sounds a little crazy. But, like many crazy things, it also sounded fun, so I decided to attend a session.
After more research, I read about a “laughter club” that met in Times Square, NYC every Wednesday in the early evening. It was free and open to the public- meaning, I had zero reason to not go.
At 4:45 PM on the subsequent Wednesday, I entered a fancy corporate office building, jumped in the elevator and took it to the seventh floor. When the elevator doors opened, I entered a spacious office where a few people in business attire were waiting. They looked stressed, contemplative and eager. I was confused. No one looked like they were dressed for laughter yoga, of course I had no idea if proper attire existed for laughter yoga. Clown pants, giant red shoes and a red, rubber nose? I had on a pair of yoga pants and a tank top, essentially what I wore to all yoga classes. From what the others were wearing, I started to think I had the wrong floor and was crashing an office meeting of some sort.
“Can I help you?” A secretary asked from behind a desk.
“Oh,” I muttered. “I think so. Um, I’m here, for, um.., well, this must be the wrong floor, but, I’m here for something called laughter yoga?”
I instantly felt like an awkward clown-wannabe. Clearly no one here did laughter yoga. It looked like an investment banker convention.
The secretary’s face lit up. She nodded and answered, “Of course! You have the right place. People will be filling up the room shortly, and it will start right at 5!”
My eyes bulged with surprise. I slowly nodded while glancing at the business folks again, wondering if I should bolt. This isn’t like any other yoga class I’ve attended, I thought. What if laughter yoga is code for some strange cult? I breathed in slowly, told myself I was being paranoid and ordered myself to stay and give it a chance. Besides, I’ve been recruited by cults before, and nothing terrible ever happened to me…
Within minutes, the office room filled with people of all different ages sporting a variety of wardrobes. The youngest, two girls in school uniforms, looked around 10 or 11, and the oldest participants were a few eccentrically-clad ladies in their eighties or nineties. At 5 pm, a man in a shirt, tie, and slacks introduced himself as today’s “laughter leader” and told us that we would begin with a laughter dance, which he then demonstrated. We were told to follow him and soon we were parading around in a circle while mimicking his dance, clapping and singing, “HO, HO, HA, HA, HA!”
I felt warm with weirdness, but after a few minutes, I was right at home laughing for no reason and frolicking with laughing strangers. As our laughter leader guided us through combined laughter and breathing drills (my favorite being an inhale followed by an exhale with a growl followed by a laugh), I felt a massive sense of relief. Freedom. Stress evaporing from my body. Unexpected joy spilled into my blood, and though I didn’t know any of my laughter yoga participants, I felt connected to all of them just by laughing with them. It was then that I truly learned the power of laughter.
At the completion of the session, my endorphins were soaring. Dopamine with wings. I felt better than I had in months and almost manic but manic in a good way. (Yes, I’m one of those people who believe you can be “manic in a good way.”)
As I walked back to my apartment, I asked myself, “What in the world just happened in there?” The best way to find out was to talk to the source, so a few weeks later, I wrote to Dr. Kataria, M.D., the founder of laughter yoga, and asked him if he’d be willing to do an interview with me. He responded right away and agreed. My first question to him was, “What the heck is laughter yoga?”
Dr. Kataria: “Laughter Yoga is a unique idea where anyone can laugh for no reason. We don’t need jokes, comedy or even a sense of humor to laugh. We are laughing in a group, and we share laughter and exercises by simulated laughter. And when we look at each other and make eye contact with other people, laughter becomes genuine and real laughter. The reason we call it laughter yoga is because we combine laughter exercises with deep breathing exercises from yoga, and that brings more oxygen to your body and brain and makes you feel more energized. The idea of laughter yoga is based on the science that your body can’t tell the difference between laughing for real or pretend laughter. You get the same health benefits from laughter, whether you are laughing for real or just simulating it. We started laughter yoga in India in 1995. We started laughter clubs, and now there are laughter clubs in more than 70 countries.”
“Why, as a medical doctor, would you invent something like laughter yoga?”
Dr. Kataria answered, “I was writing an article for a health magazine. I used to edit a magazine called, My Doctor, and I started writing an article, “Laughter is the best medicine,” so I was researching the benefits of laughter. I found so many benefits. Also, nobody laughs. I was stressed out too—writing a publication, and I thought, “Oh I need to laugh more,” so it came to my mind, “Why not start a laughter club?” So I went to a public park near my house and started a laughter club. People would see me and say, “Hey doc, are you okay?” and I’d say, “Yes, I’m okay.” Most people hesitate with the idea of laughing in the park. We started with 5 people, and I would tell jokes in the beginning. The attendance started growing. The jokes became negative and bad, though, and people said to stop the laughter club. I said, “No. Don’t stop the club. We’ll find a way to laugh without jokes.” Someone asked, “How?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ll find out.” I was reading a book about emotions and health, and I read something beautiful about laughter: “If you can’t laugh, begin laughing” Fake laughter. So we started faking laughter! We had about 50 people, and we would just start laughing and eventually fake laughter becomes real laughter.”
“If you can’t laugh, begin laughing”
Laughter has a plethora of physical benefits that are beyond the scope of this piece, but since our moods are best when our bodies are healthy and not sick, if you’d like to learn more about the detailed physical benefits of laughter, I recommend diving into one of Dr. Paul Mcghee’s books, looking into research by Dr. Berk from Loma Linda University, or chek out the work of Dr. William Fry. Anatomy of an Illness is a stellar book (one of my favorites) by Norman Cousins that describes how one man used laughter and humor to cope with debilitating chronic pain. I also asked Dr. Kataria to list some of the benefits of laughing.
Dr. Kataria: “Laughter can change your mood within seconds by releasing chemicals in your brain called endorphins, and if your mood is good, you do everything well. Laughter unwinds the negative effects of stress, and 80-90% of illnesses are due to stress. Laughter is also a great way to connect to people. The quality of life depends on the quality of relationships you have, and laughter builds very strong relationships. Everyone wants to be with the happy people. Nobody wants to be with the grumpy person. Laughter keeps you in a positive mental state because we are surrounded by negativity every day and if you keep your mind positive by laughing every day, you will have a better life. Laughter is not a cure for depression, but it helps. I have seen hundreds of depressed people all over the world and by joining laughter yoga classes they can release a lot of emotions and get over depression quickly. Psychiatrists are also referring patients to laughter yoga.”
Most of the clinical studies I’ve read report conflicting data on whether laughter stimulates endorphin production, however, there is enough anecdotal evidence for me to be a fan of the theory. There’s also evidence that laughter triggers our brains’ pleasure centers to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that enhances mood and reduces the sensation of pain. A hearty laugh can be a form of progressive muscle relaxation, and since our muscles become tight and tense during stressful moments, laughter can serve as a great unwinder. Laughter and humor-producing activities are great distractions too. They distract us from moodiness and push us into a positive state of being. Even sub-populations of critically ill patients benefit from laughter therapy. A small pilot study analyzing the effects of laughter yoga on patients about to undergo organ transplants found that laughter yoga caused an immediate improvement in their mood and helped them control their long-term anxiety. A study at Feinberg University in Chicago analyzed sense of humor in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and found that a high sense of humor correlated with a better quality of life and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
There’s no doubt that laughter and humor are effective coping mechanisms and great ways to manage stress. Freud considered them some of the greatest coping mechanisms, and when we can better cope with life’s obstacles, we stand a greater chance of maintaining a positive, healthy mood, of successfully overcoming obstacles, and of avoiding paralysis when met with life’s inevitable sadness. When I hear someone say, “But my life is so bad. I can’t laugh,” I point to people diagnosed with terminal illnesses who laugh, prisoners of war, severely injured soldiers and other victims of tragedies who still found a way to laugh. There’s no excuse. We can all laugh.
By: Dr. Eeks
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