Laugh Your Way to Wellness

February 25, 2014 Updated: February 28, 2014

It’s been said that “Laugh And The World Laughs With You.” And there is much truth in this. Many comedians, for instance, will plant people amongst the audience to laugh – immediately and loudly at their jokes – in the hope that the laughter will catch on and spread like a wave through the crowd. 

There is something intrinsically contagious about laughter to human beings. People will respond with laughter much more easily at a funny film than a funny book. This is because laughter is a very social activity. 

We might on an intellectual level actually find a book really funny, but reading something hilarious usually leads to quiet mirth; seldom the LOLs (laugh out loud) that film and TV induce pretty effortlessly. This may be because the sound of laughter triggers something similar within us. Or it could be something about the sight of other people laughing (or being silly) elicits a similar response in us. 

Laughter generates laughter, which is one of the fundamental principals of Laughter Yoga, devised by Dr Madan Kataria in the early 90s. There is a vast bank of scientific research pointing to the enormous health benefits of lots of laughs. 

By some estimates, a strong bout of laughter gives a better cardiovascular workout than jogging. Not only that, it exercises the face, diaphragm and stomach muscles. Dr Kataria realised that nothing had been done to try and harness that power to systematically improve peoples’ health. So he went about developing his own system.

One of the most important ideas behind Laughter Yoga is that it doesn’t matter to the body on a physiological level if laughter is genuine or faked: It still does us an awful lot of good. We’ve all experienced that feeling of lightness, as if a weight has been lifted from our shoulders, after a good long laugh. This is because not only does laughter decrease stress hormones such as cortisol, it increases endorphins (the body’s feel-good chemicals). 

Laughter Yoga simply tries to induce that feeling through a series of assorted exercises. Long term, the positive effects on mind and body could be very far-reaching.

These are two of the genuinely funnier exercises:

Lassi (milk/yoghurt drink)
• Imagine a cup of lassi in each hand. 
• Imagine pouring the lassi from one cup to another. 
• Finally pour it down your throat then do a big belly laugh. 

Laughter orchestra
• Everyone chooses a different laughter sound, whether it’s a small chuckle or a loud bellow of Ha! 
• One person is the conductor – as he points to people, they laugh on cue and produce an original laughter soundtrack.

Jason runs a free weekly meet-up group in London’s South Bank area. “Laughter and playing is often frowned upon in our culture,” he says. “But it’s a fundamental thing for mammals.” 

When we see the ease and spontaneity with which babies and young children laugh, it’s easy to see how much we have this knack knocked out of us. But not all cultures are like that, Jason explains. 

“The Inuits, who have very long, dark nights have a game where they throw a feather in the air. They have to laugh until the feather reaches the ground. It’s almost like their version of Laughter Yoga.”

Laughter Yoga exercises have evolved and multiplied over the years. Most are silly slapstick comedy-actions combined with ritualised laughter.

One interesting exercise is when everyone gathers in a circle and each person describes a very embarrassing incident that happened to him or her, in gibberish and made-up sign-language, and then they laugh. Once they’ve laughed, everyone in the group is allowed to laugh at that person’s story too. 

Most Laughter Yoga exercises involve no thinking, which can be a huge relief. 

When Laughter Yoga really works, the enforced laughter turns into genuine laughter. A general rule of thumb is that the bigger the group, the funnier it gets. In truth, we are much, much more likely to laugh – genuinely and spontaneously – when we like and feel a connection to the people with us. 

So, on the downside, you may feel a little uncomfortable doing things such as chasing others and being chased, or rubbing backs with random people. 

Of course, learning to laugh at things you don’t completely like may be one of the more valuable lessons learnt in one of these sessions. 

7 reasons to try Laughter Yoga
• If you want to reap the many and untold health benefits of laughing.
• If you want to relieve tension and stress.
• If you want to give yourself a good physical workout.
• If you take yourself or the world too seriously.
• If you want to be able to laugh at things which irritate you.
• If you want to be more extrovert and confident.
• If you want to gather with people who just want to laugh.

Mastoor Khan is a London-based freelance writer with an interest in preventive health.