Stress Relief from Laughter


By Rachele Kanigel   |  

As I lie on a wooden floor stretched out in Savasana (Corpse Pose), my mind is calm after an hour of vigorous exercise and deep breathing. The people around me are still and the room is quiet, save for the sounds of slow, gentle inhalation and exhalation. It could be the final moments of any yoga class. But then the man next to me suddenly lets out a thunderous guffaw. Across the room, a woman giggles in response. Soon the entire room is alive with sound—chortles and chuckles, hearty laughs and howling hoots.

The whole evening has been filled with such eruptions of laughter, some spontaneous, some scripted. In fact, Madan Kataria, the leader of this class, has promised to make us all laugh harder, more deeply, and more fully than we’ve ever laughed before.

Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, is the founder of and chief proselytizer for Laughter Yoga, a movement that since 1995 has spawned 5,000 laughter clubs—in which people meet regularly just to laugh—worldwide. To date there are just 200 or so clubs in the United States, including ones in Atlanta; New York; Orlando, Florida; St. Louis; and Tucson, Arizona. But Kataria hopes to change that over the next few years, by training more teachers. “Our objective is to build an international community of people who believe in love and laughter,” Kataria says.
About 20 people—yoga instructors and health care providers, retirees and middle-aged people looking for a new life path—have gathered in a spacious 1910 Craftsman bungalow near Pasadena, California, for this workshop. The five-day training includes sessions on the health benefits of laughter, starting and running a laughter club, and working with particular populations, such as children and the elderly. But most of the time is spent on what Kataria calls his “breakthrough technology”: exercises designed to get people to laugh for no reason. These, combined with simple yoga breathing techniques and “laughter meditation,” are the heart of Laughter Yoga. Though little clinical research has been done to date, Kataria promises that Laughter Yoga relieves stress, boosts immunity, fights depression, and eventually makes people into more positive thinkers.
On the opening day of the training, Kataria, 50, greets his disciples dressed in kurta pyjamas, the traditional Indian tunic and pants. His elegant silk ensemble, combined with his erect posture, gives him the look of an Indian prince. That, or a priest, because when he walks into the room, many look to him with almost religious devotion.

How Laughter Heals

In his introductory remarks, Kataria explains why laughter is good for the body. “When you start laughing, your chemistry changes, your physiology changes, your chances to experience happiness are much greater,” he says. “Laughter Yoga is nothing more than prepping the body and mind for happiness.”

Kataria goes on to explain that laughter has two sources, one from the body, one from the mind. Adults tend to laugh from the mind. “We use judgments and evaluations about what’s funny and what isn’t,” he says. Children, who laugh much more frequently than adults, laugh from the body. “They laugh all the time they’re playing. Laughter Yoga is based on cultivating your childlike playfulness. We all have a child inside us wanting to laugh, wanting to play.”

The idea that laughter has beneficial effects is not new. Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, documented his own laughter cure in the 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. Cousins had been diagnosed in the mid-1960s with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful degenerative disease of the connective tissue that left him weak and barely able to move. Doctors gave him a 500-to-1 chance of recovery. But instead of undergoing conventional treatments, Cousins checked out of the hospital and into a hotel, where he set up a film projector and played funny movies. He took massive doses of vitamin C and submitted himself to hours of the Marx Brothers. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect,” he wrote, “and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”

Cousins recovered and lived for another 26 years. And, in part inspired by his experience, a handful of scientists began researching the healing power of laughter.

One of them was William Fry, then a psychiatrist at Stanford University. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Fry documented some of the health benefits of what he calls “mirthful laughter.” In a series of studies, Fry and his colleagues found that laughter increases circulation, stimulates the immune system, exercises the muscles, and even invigorates the brain. Other researchers have found that laughter reduces stress hormones and may even help prevent heart disease.

But can fake laughter—laughter devoid of humor, laughter that’s forced rather than spontaneous—have the same beneficial effects? Fry believes that aside from the mental stimulation that comes in the moment of discovery when you hear a good joke or appreciate a pun, the effects should be largely the same. “I think it’s definitely beneficial,” says Fry, who has heard about but hasn’t experienced Laughter Yoga. “I’m very much in favor of this program.”

Everyday laughter

Kataria himself was not always so jovial. As a young man, he admits, “I wanted to be rich and famous.” But later he hungered for something more.
In 1995, Kataria was researching an article on the health benefits of laughter for a medical magazine he edited. In the middle of the night it struck him: If laughter is so good, why not make it part of people’s daily routine? The next morning he went to a public park near his home and began talking to people who were out for their morning walk. “I want to start a laughter club. Will you join me?” Most people brushed him off—”I’m too busy,” “That’s silly.” But his wife and three others agreed to try it. They took turns standing in the center of the group and telling jokes to make the others laugh.

Kataria kept going back to the park for these “laughter club” meetings. Members told silly jokes, sexy jokes, vulgar jokes. And the club grew. Passersby would see the group of laughing people in the park and join in. But after a few weeks, people got tired of hearing the same jokes. So Kataria decided to try something new: laughter without humor. “We’re looking for the purest form of laughter,” he says.

Over time, Kataria developed a series of laughter exercises, most involving interactions with other people. Since he had practiced yoga for many years and his wife, Madhuri, was a yoga teacher, Kataria integrated stretching and yoga breathing techniques—particularly deep diaphragmatic breathing and prolonged exhalation—into the laughter sessions. He coined the term “Hasya Yoga.” (Hasya is the Sanskrit word for laughter.)

Kataria has since taken Laughter Yoga to schools and orphanages, prisons, senior homes, institutions for people with disabilities, and corporations. Though he charges for teacher training sessions, he decided not to license the Laughter Yoga brand, and most certified teachers offer sessions for free or a nominal fee.

Banishing Stress

Back at the training, Kataria begins the Laughter Yoga session with his standard warm-ups. He starts by having people clap rhythmically and chant, “Ho, ho, ha, ha, ha” several times. Then he tells us to take a series of deep breaths, filling our lungs with air and releasing with a big laugh.
Next come the laughter exercises. We are to go around the room and greet each person with a laugh. He encourages us to look into other people’s eyes and says not to worry if the laughter feels forced. “If you can’t laugh, fake it,” he says. “The body doesn’t know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter.”

I can’t help but feel a little ridiculous, laughing my way around a room full of strangers. As I gaze into each person’s eyes, I try to figure out if they are really laughing or, like me, just faking it. I think I catch a knowing, are-we-really-doing-this? glance from one woman. But after a few minutes, many of my classmates seem to be genuinely laughing. One woman, Lucia Mejia, is practically rolling on the floor during some of the exercises, her body convulsed with laughter.

“I’ve never laughed like that,” Mejia says later. A nurse from Southern California, she had impulsively signed up for the workshop after attending a lecture by Kataria the previous evening. “That night was a breakthrough, a life-transforming experience for me,” she says. Mejia, who was traumatized as a child, says she had developed a defensive approach to the world. “People would ask me, ‘Why are you so angry?’ It was like I had a mask on. Laughter Yoga broke through my body’s memories, to the point where my facial expressions changed.”

Jeffrey Briar, a boyish-looking man with an infectious giggle, says Laughter Yoga changed his life, too. He became certified to teach it in 2005 and founded a club that now meets daily in Laguna Beach, California. Though he has taught yoga for 33 years and has been trained in Ashtanga, Kundalini, Iyengar, Sivananda, and Integral Yoga, he says, “I’ve never been this enthusiastic about any technique.”

In addition to leading and attending daily Laughter Yoga sessions, Briar says he uses the techniques throughout the day to relieve tension. If he’s sitting in traffic or feeling upset, he’ll laugh. “I can laugh myself out of stress in as little as 20 seconds,” he says, and then demonstrates with an uproarious cackle.

In my two days of Laughter Yoga sessions, I never quite reach the point where my laughter “flows like a fountain from deep within,” as Kataria promised the first day. But I do get quite a workout. By the end of the second day, my belly aches from my exertions.

A few weeks after the training I’m in my car, driving my 12-year-old son, Dashiell, home from fencing class. It’s been a stressful day of deadlines, traffic jams, and nearly missed appointments, and when he says something annoying I’m tempted to snap at him. Instead, I throw my head back and let out a big laugh that reverberates deep in my belly.

“Laughter Yoga?” he asks with a smile.
I nod my head and shoot him a big grin.

How do you laugh when nothing’s funny? Just open your mouth into a wide smile and force the breath out. You may feel silly at first, but when you’re in a group of people committed to laughing, the make-believe version often transforms into the real thing. A typical Laughter Yoga session involves some warm-up clapping and chanting (“Ho, ho, ha, ha, ha”), a few deep breaths with prolonged exhalation, 15 to 20 minutes of laughter exercises interspersed with deep breathing, and then 15 to 20 minutes of laughter meditation. Here’s a primer to help you get started:

Greeting laughter Walk around to different people with palms pressed together at the upper chest in the Namaste greeting or shake hands and laugh, making sure to look into other people’s eyes.

Lion laughter Thrust out the tongue, widen the eyes, and stretch the hands out like claws while laughing.

Humming laughter Laugh with the mouth closed and hum.

Silent laughter Open your mouth wide and laugh without making a sound. Look into other people’s eyes and make funny gestures.

Gradient laughter Start by smiling and then slowly begin
to laugh with a gentle chuckle. Increase the intensity of the laugh until you’ve achieved a hearty laugh. Then gradually bring the laugh down to a smile again.

Heart-to-heart laughter Move close to a person and hold each other’s hands and laugh. If people feel comfortable, they can stroke or hug each other.

To learn more about Laughter Yoga or to find a club near you, go to www.laughteryoga.org.

Rachele Kanigel is a writer in Oakland, California.