Laughing Yoga: Laughable or Legit? Byrdie Tries It

Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell

I love yoga and I love laughing—on paper, these two activities combined sounded ideal, but could I keep it together in a room full of strangers? I first became aware of the laughing yoga craze after coming across a class video on Youtube. I was slightly dubious, but I was intrigued all the same. Later, I heard that luxe private island resort Niyama in the Maldives was offering laughing yoga sessions to guests. Now, a quick Google search will tell you there are classes in almost every major city in the UK, with studies endorsing the practice for its health benefits and endorphin-boosting properties. Actor and provider of wise-quotes-a-plenty Charlie Chaplin famously said “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” And we’ve all heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine.” So let’s find out, shall we?

THE HISTORY

Laughing yoga, or hasyayoga, as it’s traditionally called, is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. It’s the brainchild of Indian physician Madan Kataria, who was a doctor for 18 years before developing the practice. He initially dreamt up the idea for laughing yoga classes in the mid ’90s after observing that many of his patients who should have been improving physically were not—seemingly because of a low mood.

He decided to try a laughing exercise with his wife and four friends, standing in a circle at a park. It initially began with each telling a joke to try to make the group laugh. This worked at first, and each felt uplifted and in a better mood. But soon the jokes ran out and they found themselves “laughing for no reason.” (This would later become the title of Kataria’s book.) Studies stating the benefits of laughter were around long before the ’90s, but Kataria was aware that there was no reliable method for bringing more laughter into people’s lives. Whilst generic humour and jokes may make us smile, they don’t make us belly laugh—nor are there many day-to-day scenarios that make us laugh. Unfortunately, it’s a rare occurrence to laugh until your stomach’s sore.

The yoga aspect of laughter yoga came from Kataria’s wife, Madhuri. She had been a yoga teacher and knew the health benefits yogic deep breathing could bring to the practice. Laughing yoga is now a worldwide phenomenon. Kataria’s classes have been promoted by Oprah Winfrey (both on her show and website), and he is now referred to as the Giggling Guru. “We’re paying a high price for taking life seriously,” Kataria has said. “Now it’s time to take laughter seriously.” Ultimately, he believes happiness is dependent on the fulfilment of desires related to the past or future, hardly ever in the present. He asks if we remember “exactly how long we stayed happy after getting that car, job or new house we worked so long for.”

In contrast, “Joyfulness is unconditional commitment to be happy for the moment and to have fun despite life’s problems. It is also easily triggered by joyful activities such as dancing or singing. Laughter is purely a physical phenomenon, while happiness is a concept of the mind. The most frequently asked question is ‘How do you laugh when you are in no mood to laugh or you don’t have any reason to laugh?’ The answer is quite simple. Motion creates emotion and vice versa.” It is worth thinking about why children laugh so much and adults so little. Statistics say children laugh up to 300 to 400 times in a day, but as adults, this drops to 10 to 15 times a day.

THE SCIENCE

Studies have long shown laughter to be therapeutic to our bodies and mind. The basic premise behind laughing yoga is that the mind cannot distinguish between fake or real laughter, so you can reap the rewards anytime by incorporating laughing exercises into your life. A study by Oxford University found that when we laugh, mood-lifting endorphins are released and pain thresholds become “significantly higher” (meaning we don’t feel pain as easily). This was found to be due to laughter itself rather than the mood of the subject. The study also suggested that laughter produced an “endorphin-mediated opiate effect,” which could play a crucial role in social bonding.

It is the same with smiling. When we smile, neurotransmitters are triggered by the movements of the muscles in your face and on a biochemical level, endorphins and serotonin are released into our brain. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a fake smile or not, and it is the same with a laugh. According to a study by German psychologist Michael Titze, in the ’50s, people used to laugh for 18 minutes a day. Unfortunately today, despite the increase in the standard of living, we only laugh for up to six minutes per day.

The benefits of deep laughter, with deep inhales and exhales, has been shown to improve circulation to the lymphatic system, as well as massaging the system to promote better digestion. Better circulation leads to an immune system boost, increasing the amount of antiviral and anti-infection cells in your body. As Otto Warburg, Nobel Laureate, explains, “Deep breathing techniques increase oxygen to the cells and are the most important factors in living a disease-free and energetic life.”

Both laughter and yogic breathing exercises stimulate the movement of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles, which helps to activate the parasympathetic system (the calming branch of the autonomic nervous system). This is opposite to the sympathetic system (the stress arousal system) so essentially you can “turn off” stress arousal by learning how to move the diaphragm correctly.

Laughing also promotes a healthy heart—during a good bout of laughter, the blood vessels all over the body dilate. (You’ve probably experienced this when laughing—your skin flushing red and feeling warm.) Laughing can cause your pulse rate blood pressure to rise as the circulatory system is stimulated before settling down below the original levels. This may be why professor William Fry from Stanford University referred to laughter as “internal jogging.” Laughing is also seen as a catharsis (in short, a release feeling) to help expel emotions, stress and anger.

Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to feel angry or stressed when you’re laughing? A study in 2014 concluded that laughter therapy can improve general health in elderly people. But there’s no reason not to reap the rewards of laughing classes at any age. Though we may chuckle throughout the day, to feel the scientifically proven benefits of laughter, we need to laugh deeply and loudly (so the sound and movement come from the diaphragm) continuously for at least 10 to 15 minutes. You may think “I laugh for 10 minutes a day,” but if you counted (as I did), I think you’d be surprised at how little you laughed. Hence, a class.

THE CLASS

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve been struggling with anxiety of late, and on the day of the class, I really did not feel like going to a laughing yoga class in the snow. But in my search for a real “laugh out loud” (rather than writing the letters in a WhatsApp message), off I went. The group was friendly and welcoming. One lady had been to the class before, two people were newbies (and told me they had no idea what to expect), whilst another man explained he had been to a class years ago and had meant to return.

At the start of the day, groups meet up in any green space in the city and practise for 30 minutes before work. “Sometimes it’s an effort to come out to a class, but I’m always glad I did. I’ve never not felt better afterwards,” a retired attendee told me. Our teacher, Melissa, has been a yoga teacher since 2004, branching out with laughter sessions to encourage people to exercise all aspects of the body, mind and spirit. She finds the classes hugely beneficial to maintain equilibrium in a busy and unstable world: “Yoga and its related offshoots are a rich resource of support to help us navigate through life.”

To start, Melissa talked through a little of the history, citing Kataria, and generally put us at ease. She encouraged silliness, and gave the class a relaxed and fun atmosphere. I think the fact that people had travelled to the class despite the heavy snow supports the argument that we all needed a bit of a laugh in our lives. Next, we began a warm-up. Simple stretching mixed with clapping and synchronised movements such as swinging your arms from side to side as you clap. Melissa slowly introduced chanting—“ho, ho, ha-ha-ha”—whilst we inhaled and exhaled deeply.

I’m not socially anxious; I’ll try almost anything once, and I don’t particularly care who’s watching. But I can understand that for some, social anxiety may put them off a laughter yoga class. To this, I’d say that many newbies came in twos and were accompanied by a friend. Plus, you’re too busy following the instructions to have any time to feel worried. It’s actually quite difficult to have anxious thoughts or any thoughts at all when you’re distracted, learning something new and concentrating.

In fact, Melissa explained that your brain goes into a kind of trance-like state when deep breathing and chanting—so logical thinking goes somewhat out the window. So much so in fact that despite teaching for years, she keeps a quick list of the next activity next to her. She finds that when she’s acting out one activity, her brain is so focused on that that she needs to glance at her note to remember the next.

Because you’re being led and doing tasks, the embarrassment factor you might be fearing is largely taken away. I had envisioned standing still in front of everyone fake laughing, almost like a standup gig gone wrong. Luckily, it was nothing like this. Plus, if you think about it, you look humorous doing regular yoga—bending and stretching in odd directions—but we don’t question that as readily.

The bulk of the class was taken up following Melissa through a series of simple improv-like games. Clapping and chanting (which didn’t feel that alien if you’ve ever done yoga or meditation) were key as we moved around the room. We were led through deep breathing, placing our hands on our diaphragm to make it expand and contract. Even when we exhale, there’s still some air left in the lungs, and day to day, we’re only using about 25% of our lung capacity, so any deep breathing is beneficial.

On many exhales, we released loud “ha, ha, has,” which on paper might sound ridiculous but in practise just felt like any other word often used in yoga like “om” or “shanti.” The addition of music furthered the relaxed atmosphere. There was partner work—laughing in pitch with others, joining palms in the air as you chanted (essentially high-fiving). Positive motions or words were key; we cheered and held our arms up in a V shape in the air (I’ve read athletes do this in training to mimic winning a race, providing their brain with the positive connotations of winning). Whilst we moved our bodies a lot, they weren’t in formal yoga poses, with the exception of the warrior pose.

The best bit was that once we’d began fake laughing—we found ourselves laughing naturally at the situation and ourselves, which was refreshing. We did walk in clown shoes, make a milkshake and roll a snowman (which I realise sound utterly cringe-worthy when written down, but in the moment, they surprisingly didn’t feel it). I can’t stress enough that it is impossible to take yourself seriously in a laughing yoga class.

Which is very freeing. I felt childlike. It’s only in adulthood we stop playing and being silly for the sake of it, after all. Melissa urged us to try laughing (or chanting “ha, ha, ha”) in any scenario we found ourselves getting stressed in. Or even if we did something such as stubbing our toe—to just notice the difference it brings up. I’ve tried this since and can vouch for its effectiveness. Try it now—smile; then laugh for about 10 seconds whilst putting your arms up in the air. Do you feel that little lift of energy from your core? Imagine that for an hour.

The relaxation at the end of the class (aka the best bit of a yoga class in my eyes) felt calming after a flurry of activity.

WHAT WE THOUGHT

Despite the class being an hour long, I came out feeling as if I’d been smiled and laughing for hours on end. I was glad I made the effort, as I was remarkably less anxious than when I came. Talking to Melissa afterwards, she said whilst in no way can laughing yoga cure mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, a number of people who suffered the conditions came to classes—and the resounding feeling was that they were always glad they did. They told her of feeling better—even just for the duration of the class.

There was a lot less yoga than I imagined. I had envisioned holding yoga poses whilst laughing. In reality, it’s more a case of stretching and deep breathing, so don’t expect to swap your regular yoga class for this. Rather, see it as an add-on. I think calling the practice laughter relaxation or therapy would seem more fitting. I did feel the effects in my core, as if I’d had a great belly laugh. I was energised, de-stressed and would recommend everyone give it a try. Just no video evidence, please.

FIND A CLASS

Check out classes in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle or search Google for a class near you.