I admit to being skeptical about “laughter yoga” before I tried it. I worried it might require pretzel-like poses I’m unable to perform even on a good day. Or someone would tell bad jokes I didn’t find funny — especially on a day when I was feeling low. Or, even worse, I would be expected to be funny. Most days it’s a struggle to be present, never mind funny.
Then I remembered feeling better when I laughed, and I decided to find out why. From research done by the late William Fry, MD, of Stanford University, I learned that laughter increases endorphins, the feel-good hormones. It also decreases cortisol, the stress hormone. Most importantly, it deepens respirations. Taking deeper breaths strengthens the immune system and provides a true aerobic workout. Fry claimed that one minute of hearty laughter was the cardio equivalent of 10 minutes of jogging or rowing. That sounded almost too good to be true for someone like me who is often too sore or too fatigued to exercise. I decided to give laughter yoga a try.
On arrival, I joined other participants sitting on chairs in a circle. We were instructed to pretend we were in a serious place where silence is expected, like a religious service or a chamber music concert. Suddenly a word or sight reminds us of something hysterically funny. It had the desired effect. Someone snickered. It spread. Snickers became giggles. Soon everyone was affected. I, too, struggled to hold back audible laughter. It couldn’t be done. Then everyone was laughing. It is contagious after all!
The harder we laughed, the funnier it became. Hilarity filled the room and continued for several minutes. Gradually the laughter receded to giggles, then to snickers. Finally, there was silence once more. Everyone sat back, tired and happy. We had just completed an exercise known as gradient laughter — one of many such techniques used in laughter yoga groups.
Laughter yoga was developed by an Indian physician named Madan Kataria. Sharing Norman Cousins‘ (author of Anatomy of an Illness) belief that laughter is the best medicine, Kataria went to a public park near his home in Mumbai and invited people to laugh with him. Only four people would join him that first day in 1995. But by the end of the week, he had nearly 20 people laughing daily. An article in a local newspaper spread the word. Today, laughter yoga groups are found worldwide. Led by certified laughter yoga instructors, they typically meet for hour-long sessions at nonprofit facilities, on beaches, or in other public places. Each session has a physical component that might include deep breathing, stretching, or balancing techniques as well as very simple yoga postures. Laughter “exercises” like the one described above are the main focus. Each session concludes with a calming meditation.
Laughter yoga is truly for everyone. There’s no need to be jolly or to be an easy laugher. The brain doesn’t know the difference between real laughter and a hearty, but sincere, “ho, ho, ho.” Pretending to laugh reaps the very same benefits as actually laughing does.
Laughter yoga is non-religious and non-political. It costs nothing, although voluntary donations may be accepted to benefit the hosting facility if there is one. Everyone is welcome. The group I attended had participants of many ages and physical abilities. Some could and did walk miles each day, others were confined to wheelchairs.
The benefits I received from this activity (like decreased pain and improved mood) were so significant that I tried to duplicate it at home. It sounded simple enough. I found an appropriate YouTube video and tried to laugh along. That experiment was a complete failure. The truth is that there is no substitute for live, smiling faces and the inspiration of other people laughing around you. Although disappointed, I realized that being in a group was a benefit in and of itself, especially for fibro people. Our illness often isolates us. Laughter yoga helps with that, too.
A weekly laughter session is an opportunity for positive human interaction that may be missing from our lives. I can think of no possible downside from trying this somewhat unusual activity. For fibro people, it’s the perfect feel-good medication with no side effects.