Friends, I must tell you, laughter yoga is not a comedy.” Dr Madan Kataria, a former GP and the creator of laughter yoga, an exercise programme involving prolonged laughter, is talking to more than 100 participants on one of his daily Zoom sessions. “We don’t need to rely on jokes or humour to laugh. We initiate laughter as a form of exercise – and it turns into a form of genuine laughter when you practise.”
I soon find this out for myself. As my screen lights up with workshop participants from all over the world, a mosaic of raucous giggles, my forced chuckle swiftly becomes a belly laugh.
“It’s a simple laughing and breathing exercise,” Kataria says, while leading playful exercise routines. “We can do laughter yoga when times are good and even when we are going through bad times.” Inhale. Hold it. Hold it. And laugh it out, he instructs. A chorus of hysterical guffaws arises, some more contrived than others; but several of my fellow participants’ giggles and funny faces, plus the general hilarity of the activities, elicits real, profound laughter from within me. “It reduces stress,” Kataria goes on, following some yogic postures. “It makes your immune system stronger and keeps your mind positive!”
Laughter yoga, a combination of breathing exercises and deliberate laughter, came from humble beginnings, but has mushroomed into a global movement. Hundreds of clubs, usually free to attend, have now been established across Asia, Europe and North America. Five people attended Kataria’s first meet-up in Mumbai in 1995. “I’d read so much about the benefits of laughter, and how acting out emotions, especially through facial expressions, can create them,” he tells me. He realised then that he wouldn’t often see people laughing in Mumbai. “The idea struck me: why not start a laughter club?”
He went to the park near his house and asked people if they wanted to join a new tribe. “People started laughing at me,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I replied, ‘Yes, why don’t you give it a go?’” That first meeting was a hit and he continued to hold daily sessions – as he still does today, 27 years later, sometimes twice a day. He initially asked participants to tell jokes to spark a chorus of infectious chortles, but as attendances grew Kataria learned that laughing for no reason at all was the simplest and least controversial method to trigger the ecstasy. He also soon decided he preferred prescribing laughter to drugs.
“We started just faking laughter,” he says. Ha ha ha ha ha. “And then people started laughing for real. It was contagious; we couldn’t stop.” Soon he blended in some basic stretches and pranayama Indian breathing exercises to complement the laughter, which in itself oxidises the body and expels carbon dioxide – thus increasing energy levels. As regular participants’ lung capacity increased, so too did the longevity of their laughs. News of his events spread like wildfire. The US granted him a genius visa, allowing him to visit the country and spread the message, as well as address a 2010 senate committee. There are now clubs in 116 countries and counting.
Laughter yoga taps into a deep-seated need to laugh that, for one reason or another, is being stifled. Young children can laugh hundreds of times a day. But as we get older, the fun begins to stop – our brains learn how to temper our emotions in tune with the needs of others. We develop empathy. But so, too, are we told to stop laughing and be serious about life. Perhaps you can remember being told off by your parents or schoolteachers for giggling inappropriately. There’s often a sense that if you’re laughing, you’re not properly learning, or working, or focusing, or paying respect. Sometimes this is justified, but not always.
Kataria, whose 1999 book, Laugh for No Reason, has been translated into Italian, French, German, Farsi, Indonesian and Korean, is of the view that laughter is central to our lived experience, and beneficial to our health. Why then would we rely on external influences, forever tempered by the trials and tribulations of life, to make us laugh?
Laughter is a primal part of what it means to be a social animal (rats, chimps and bonobos laugh, too). It is fundamental to the health of our mind and body and our relationships, and may have been crucial to evolution, enabling our ancestors to form larger tribes than the neanderthals that lived alongside them, according to one theory. It could even have evolved to enable us to be healthy. Laughing causes the body to release endorphins that act as a natural painkiller. A recent study published in the journal Preventive Medicine suggests that older people who laugh regularly with friends and family could be significantly less likely to develop health problems than those who do not. Further research, in Nursing & Health Sciences, indicates that laughter dramatically suppresses stress hormones, such as cortisol, reduces anxiety through lowering adrenaline levels and activates the body’s natural relaxation system.
Does forced laughter create the same effects? Kataria, who is 66, is bullish on the benefits of his practice, which he has taught at maximum security prisons and schools for blind children. But research isn’t conclusive and only low-quality pilot studies have been undertaken. That said, if real laughter is beneficial, then laughter yoga might also offer the same benefits. After all, the fake laughter generally becomes sincere. “Laughter leads to increased heart rate and reduced heart-rate variability, which is similar to the effects of exercise,” a 2018 paper from New Zealand following an experiment with 72 participants states.
In 2005, a Scientific American article reported: “As research on the subject grows, it is becoming more evident that laughing can make us healthier physically as well as mentally.” The first meta-analysis of available studies, published in 2019, suggested that laughter-inducing therapies improve depression. But it acknowledged a lack of academic rigour in the research, and called for better investigations. “With rising healthcare costs and the increasing elderly population, there is a potential for low-cost, simple interventions that can be administered by staff with minimal training,” it concluded.
Laughing therapy has been used for decades. Kataria’s practice essentially simplified prior incarnations after laughter first became a field of scientific study in the 1960s. In 1964, Stanford psychology professor Dr William Fry published a series of landmark studies on the physiology of laughter, becoming the first gelotologist (an expert in the science of laughter – from the Greek root gelos, to laugh) in the process. His research suggested that laughter could improve the efficacy of immune cells that kill infectious pathogens after he studied blood samples of people watching comedy films.
Norman Cousins, peace campaigner and editor of the American literature weekly the Saturday Review, propelled the healing power of laughter into the mainstream with his claims that it may have saved his life. He was diagnosed in 1964 with a fatal form of autoimmune arthritic disease, and his bestselling 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, advanced his hypothesis that the attitude of a patient can impact on their illness. He had begun 10 minutes of belly laughter each day 15 years earlier, which provided him with two hours of pain-free sleep after all other treatments failed. Cousins suggested the practice, along with huge intravenous doses of vitamin C, prolonged his life. He died in 1990, aged 75.
However he did it, Cousins lived much longer than his doctors had predicted. “I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect,” he wrote. In 1989, he wrote Head First: The Biology of Hope, another best seller, in which he explored the effect of emotions on bodily resistance to disease. Cousins, who primarily used comedy films to stimulate laughter, acknowledged that “it is quite possible that this treatment – like everything else I did – was a demonstration of the placebo effect” – but even so it appeared powerful.
His “anti-scientific, irrational approach to medicine” was criticised by a later editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Arnold Relman, who took umbrage at the suggestion that “an upbeat attitude will cure a dread disease”. However, Relman admitted he did agree with “the basic verities” that had been articulated: “There is no doubt that an optimistic and determined patient handles the vicissitudes of illness better than one who is depressed, negative and unhappy and defeatist about his illness,” he said.
Kataria, who admits to not having a good sense of humour, concurs. “During difficult times, laughter gives you a coping mechanism,” he says. “It is a great exercise to elevate your mood, whatever the weather.” Studies have proven it secretes mood elevators such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Antibody levels rise, immune cell production increases and the body’s natural anti-carcinogenic response is accelerated.
Laughter’s benefits are increasingly being recognised. During the first Covid lockdown, Care UK, one of the largest care providers in the UK, began offering laughter sessions for its carers. The NHS has recently begun offering laughter yoga to patients through GPs as part of a social-prescribing pilot in Bristol. Professional comedians will help patients suffering with mental health issues to not just explore the nature of their issues, but look for the humour within them. Workshops were presented at a number of music and cultural festivals this summer and western yogis are increasingly offering sessions. Many yoga classes in India now conclude with a round of laughter, according to Kataria. It does seem that yoga classes in the US and Europe could sometimes do with a dose of lightheartedness, like activities in wider life.
“It’s about time we let go and laugh more,” laughter yoga teacher Liliana deLeo said in a Ted Talk in Montreal in 2016. “There was a time I looked for something, or someone, to make me laugh. But when I depended on those external factors, I went days without laughing.” The former fitness instructor, certified by Kataria as a laughter yoga teacher, recommends incorporating deliberate laughter into daily life. “I love funny movies, but we can’t always be behind our screens,” she tells me. “I would like people to have the power to choose to laugh, regardless of the circumstances. If you’re at home, and you’re doing some chores, think about it: inhale and exhale with the sound of laughter. Do it like an exercise with intervals.” She tells me to put my shoulders back, clap my hands and “engage in song and play”. We sing and giggle through a number of exercises, though it’s more her infectious sense of fun that makes me laugh than pretending to wave to adoring crowds.
On my own, I have begun to tease myself into a chuckle several times a day, including when I feel stressed. It certainly seems to cause me to relax, and see the funny side of things more. YouTuber Craig Benzine, AKA WheezyWaiter, recently laughed every day for five minutes over the course of a month. “I actually feel more tired now because it relaxed me so much,” he said on day one. By day 30 he concluded that laughter is always better with company, and “makes your entire body feel good, and it lasts for several hours”. Humour is what you make it, he proclaims. “Nothing is really funny, or not funny. It’s more a question of whether you can find the humour in it in yourself. Now I’ve learned another tool for when I want to, legally, feel good.”
Benzine is just the latest example of how the presence of laughter yoga online has grown massively due to the pandemic as people were forced to become more self-sufficient. Kataria, who earns his living from certifying teachers and hosting events, says interest has increased amid Covid, but large numbers of people around the world could still go days without a single laugh. “The next pandemic is going to be around mental health,” he says. “And while there are many techniques for stress management, there is nothing like laughter. Now is the time to take laughing seriously.”