Laughter Yoga explained
Laughter Yoga is a new form of exercise akin to internal jogging that promotes the use of laughter as a form of physical exercise. It was created in India in the mid-1990s. Laughter Yoga owes its success to having greatly simplified and made accessible to the common man the teachings of earlier laughter pioneers. It quickly grew as a grassroots social movement of independent community laughter clubs, promoting the ideal of a non-political, non-religious, non-racial, non-threatening, and non-competitive voluntary (simulated) approach to laughter.
Its core premise is that your body can and knows how to laugh, regardless of what your mind has to say. Because it follows a body-mind approach to laughter, participants do not need to have a sense of humor, know jokes, or even be happy. The invitation is to “laugh for no reason“, faking it until it becomes real. Laughing is an easy way to strengthen all immune functions, bring more oxygen to the body and brain, foster positive feelings and improve interpersonal skills.
Laughter and Yoga: It’s All about the Breath
Many wonder what the connection is between laughter and Yoga, and if there is one at all. There is one, and that connection is the breath (there are no contortions or fancy movements in Laughter Yoga and all can participate and benefit).
The word Yoga arises from the Sanskrit root “Yuj,” which means to get hold of, integrate, and harmonize. It means integrating all aspects of life, harmonizing our bodies with our minds, spirits, and society. There are many paths of Yoga. The most commonly known in North America is Hatha Yoga, a yoga practice concerned with balancing the body energies through physical postures of asanas. Laughter Yoga follows a very different approach.
While Laughter Yoga teaches few pranayama (Yogic breathing) exercises, it does promote the use of breathing activities in-between laughter exercises as a way to relax the body and mind. Yoga teaches that the mind and body mirror one another, and that breathing is the link between the two. This is extremely important because when you deepen your breath, you calm your body (the heart rate quickly slows down following the exercise since there is less work to do; the blood is already charged with fresh oxygen). When you calm your body, you calm your mind (you cannot be physically relaxed and mentally stressed at the same time). When your body and mind are relaxed you start becoming more aware of the present. The ability to fully live and experience the “now” is of utmost importance because it is the only moment where we can experience happiness. Being in the now frees us from the regrets of the past and the anxieties of the future and enables us to enjoy simply being.
How it all started
In March 1995 Dr. Madan Kataria, a family physician from Mumbai, India, decided to write an article called “Laughter – the best medicine”. The outcome of his research for this article surprised him greatly. Decades of scientific research had already proven that laughter has a documented positive impact as form of complementary preventive and therapeutic medicine. In particular he was impressed by the findings of Norman Cousins, an American journalist was diagnosed in 1964 with a degenerative disease and given at best 6 months to live, yet managed to heal himself completely using laughter as his main form of therapy.
Being a man of action, Dr. Kataria decided to try this out for himself and went to his local park on March 13th, 1995, with the intention of starting a “laughter club” where people would share jokes. Somehow he managed to motivate four people to laugh with him. This small group quickly grew to over 50 participants within a few days. The format was the turn-by-turn telling of jokes or anecdotes.
Within days however the stock of good jokes was depleted and participants complained. They did not want to listen and even less take part in the telling of stale or vulgar jokes. Rather than abort the experiment Dr. Kataria had the idea of dropping jokes altogether. What he had observed was that when the joke or anecdote being told was not funny, one person laughing was usually enough to get the whole group to laugh: laughter is contagious. He experimented with this idea of laughing for no reason and it worked well. Playful behaviors naturally ensued, and participants started to create their own laughter exercises: You pantomime a simple movement of daily life (e.g., you shake hands to greet someone) and simply laugh along. His wife Madhuri Kataria, a Hatha Yoga practitioner, suggested breathing exercises be included to build upon the yoga connection of laughter. A journalist heard of this unusual gathering of adults behaving like children (Laughter Yoga has a very strong focus on the expression of childlike playfulness) in a public space and wrote an article about it in the local newspaper.
The behavior was odd, but the health benefits were real. Inspired people started to come to Dr. Kataria for advice on how to start their own “Laughter Clubs”. Everything else grew from there.
Here is a quick overview of what happened in the early days:
- March 13th, 1995: Laughter Yoga day 1.
- 1997: Over 200 Laughter Clubs already exist throughout India, all free, all public, all independent. “Fake it until you make it” are easy instructions to follow. ABC news reports on “a somewhat different take on what it takes to live a better life“. Dr Kataria quits his medical practice and dedicates his life to teaching and promoting Laughter Yoga.
- 1999: Dr. Kataria travels for the first time outside of India following the invitation of American psychologist Steve Wilson. Together they tour the USA for 6 weeks. The first Laughter Clubs outside of India come into existence.
- 2000: Laughter Yoga reaches Europe. 10,000+ gather on Coppenhagen’s townsquare on January 1st and laugh for a full hour to greet the new millenium. Laughter Clubs mushroom in the EEC. World renown comic John Cleese goes to India to investigate.
- 2004: Sebastien Gendry becomes the first American to train as a Certified Laughter Yoga Teacher and the 2nd person in the world to dedicate himself full time to teaching and promoting Laughter Yoga. The American School Of Laughter Yoga is born and plays a major role in structuring and facilitating the teaching of Laughter Yoga to Western audiences. Over the next few years Sebastien will single handedly train over 1,500 Laughter Professionals, inspire the creation of hundreds of Laughter Clubs in North America, be a major influence in the creation of the Laughter Yoga master trainer program, and coordinate major exposure on the national media: CNN, ABC Dancing with the stars, Oprah Winfrey Show (49+ million viewers in the USA alone), Pangea Day (over 20 million people in 180+ countries via satellite), and many more.
- 2012: The Laughter Yoga master trainer program is launched in the USA with Sebastien Gendry and two of his students. It will steadily grow from there.
- Today: Laughter Yoga is a delightful way to promote health while playing with friends or in informal social settings. It continues to struggle however finding a place outside the (safe and accepting) world of community Laughter Clubs.