Laughter Yoga explained
Laughter Yoga (often called by the media Laughing Yoga or Yoga Laughter) is a form of exercise initially started in India akin to internal jogging that promotes the use of laughter as a form of physical exercise. Nobody really knows who invented it nor when it first appeared, and there are no mentions of it in the ancient Yogic literature. Several eye-witnesses (US and UK servicemen) reported seeing villagers gathering on daily basis just to laugh in the 1940s.
Shri Baheti, a retired Indian businessman, took on the teaching of Hasya Yoga (Laughter Yoga) as a retirement project and started to advocate and promote social laughter clubs in Jaipur, India, in 1970. His work never really gained momentum outside of his state.
Laughter Yoga owes its modern success to a family physician, Dr Madan Kataria, who promoted it in the mid 1990s as a grassroots social movement of independent laughter clubs.
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 the modern practice of 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.
Dr Kataria’s story
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 following his approach and more grew from there.
When the time is right, the time is right
Love it or hate it: Laughter Yoga is a modern grass-root success phenomenon that managed to do in a few years what other very similar methods never could despite sometimes decades of dedicated work, and it deserves full credit for that. Just like the Harry Potter books reignited the public’s interest for fiction novels and storytelling, Laughter Yoga created interest on a large scale for Laughter Therapy and this is where we are now. Other laughter approaches grew out of it, blending ancient wisdom with modern science, and the future is rich with possibilities. Laughter remains an untapped science. Expect to learn more and more about how to leverage its power and many benefits in your everyday life as the months and years go by!