HA HA HA: The Healing Art of Laughter

Yogis find health in laughing your head off

They say laughter is the best medicine and there’s a growing trend in yoga around the globe that shows a good laugh can have seriously healthy results.

Yogis find health in laughing your head off     

They say laughter is the best medicine, but in today’s ever-faster, ever-changing world, sometimes laughing is the last thing you want to do. However, there’s a growing trend across the globe — and in Victoria — that tackles this lack of mirth head on, with seriously healthy results.

The art of laughter yoga was developed in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician practicing medicine in India. Intrigued by the claimed health benefits of laughter, he started a laughter club in a Mumbai park with five people telling jokes.

“There is so much seriousness in this world,” he explains in one of his many YouTube video posts. “Now is the time we should take laughter seriously.”

However, Kataria reveals in another post that members wanted to quit because they ran out of good, positive jokes. So, the doctor decided to get them laughing for no reason at all — even if that meant faking it at first. He got the idea from reading that the body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter, and that the benefits are identical. Kataria, who practices yoga with his wife, also decided to combine the laughter with yogic breathing for even more health and stress relief.

Fast forward to 2012 and there are now over 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 different countries. This includes one run by Matti Antilla in Victoria. Antilla, a certified laughter yoga leader since 2008, follows the same laughing method developed by Kataria. Each session starts with a warm-up, which can include stretching, chanting and body movement to help break down inhibitions and develop feelings of childlike playfulness. Then yogic breathing — deep diaphragmatic breaths — is followed by group eye contact and laughter exercises.

With names like “the milkshake laugh” and “the lion laugh,” it comes as no surprise that these exercises are quite childlike. Indeed, Kataria says that laughter yoga aims to cultivate one’s childlike playfulness because “children are the best laughers, and they laugh without jokes.” Still, even if members of laughing clubs don’t find the games amusing, they’re asked to “fake it ’til [they] make it,” says Antilla.

Certified laughter yoga leader Kate Roxborough does things a little differently. While she often uses Kataria’s concept of laughter for no reason, Roxborough also draws on her background in theatre to evoke laughter. Laughter is not about rules, she says, it’s about being in the moment.

While laughter yoga — by Kataria’s definition — is non-profit, Roxborough also hopes one day to incorporate it into theatre and self-esteem workshops.

Whether a class is free or not, however, Roxborough believes that the instructor matters to the success of any class. A person can laugh alone, but the energy is better in a group, she explains; and the leader needs to bring positive energy to help their students laugh.

Nonetheless, no matter how good a teacher is, laughter yoga doesn’t work for everyone. Like hypnosis, this practice only works on the willing, Antilla says.

Kataria claims on his website that laughter results in good mood, a higher quality of life and relationships, and better ability to cope during challenging times. He also says that yogic breathing is like an aerobic exercise, which brings more oxygen to the body and brain to make one feel more healthy and energetic, and strengthens the immune system.

For the most part, these claimed health benefits are backed by medical research. For example, Lee Burke at Loma-Linda University has found laughing decreases stress hormones, improves the immune system and boosts endorphins. In 2005, a team at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine found that laughter is linked to healthy function of blood vessels. While mental stress is known to cause inflammation of the blood vessels — which can lead to fat and cholesterol build-up — laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels to dilate.

“The ability to laugh — either naturally or as learned behaviour — may have important implications in societies … where heart disease remains the number one killer,” says Michael Miller, M.D., a member of the study. “We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list.”

Neuroscientist Robert Provine also observed in his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation that, “Laughter is not primarily about humor, but about social relationships.” Provine says that laughter establishes — or restores — a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people. In fact, he claims that the much vaunted health benefits of laughter are probably simply a result from the social support it stimulates.

Excessive laughter, however, is a recognized medical symptom of neurological conditions such as manic-depressive disorder. According to W.F. Fry’s book Sweet Madness: A Study of Humor, some also believe that fits of laughter represent a form of epilepsy.

Antilla agrees to a point. “Like anything else, you don’t want to overdo it,” he says, “[but laughter] is a normal human function.” As with all forms of exercise, laughter yoga participants must go in aware, and those with conditions like epilepsy should consult their doctor first.

He adds, however, the reason laughter clubs are led by certified instructors is safety. Leaders are there to help ground participants so they can stop laughing and go about their day “normally.” Still, the biggest concern of laughter yoga instructors is not excessive laughter, but aerobic stress. As such, classes can be altered to suit age/condition — such as doing laughter exercises while sitting down.

“I wish I could get people to recognize the health benefits so they would come to a class,” Roxborough says. “[Laughter] should be a part of their diet.”

Everyone has their own definition of happiness, Antilla adds, and one of life’s challenges is figuring out how we can access this feeling more often. Personally, he has found that laughing helps people have more joy on a moment-to-moment basis.

“The world changes when we do,” Antilla says, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if we’d have a more joyous, and peaceful, world if more people did the same.

So, in the end, it seems practitioners of laughter yoga are not laughing without reason. They’re laughing for the best reasons of all: health, happiness and overall well-being. M

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