Yoga can be so serious.
Teachers piously chant in Sanskrit, sitting in lotus pose at the front of class amid lit candles and wafts of incense. Students furrow their brows as they stretch to their max and sweat that their alignment makes them look foolish. Stack the mats and blocks incorrectly at the end of class, and you might get a stern look from the studio manager.
But there’s another kind of yoga that’s a little more, well, silly.
Laughter yoga mixes in the scientifically proven benefits of prolonged laughter with yogic breathing in a way that’s caught on in community centers, yoga studios, retirement communities, and local Laughter Clubs throughout the world.
“It’s incredibly good for your health,” said Joel Cook, a certified Laughter Yoga teacher from Port St. Lucie, Florida. “The medical research indicates it’s not about humor, it’s about laughter. We just need to laugh. It elevates the mood.”
Laughter Yoga Originated from Science
In 1995, an Indian physician named Dr. Madan Kataria was studying the medical research surrounding laughter and decide to pursue a health program based on laughing. Science showed that simply laughing caused:
- A 6% reduction in blood pressure
- A 28% drop in cortisol and epinephrine, or stress levels
- Increased production of endorphins, the chemicals that help you feel good
- Strengthening of the immune system
At first, Dr. Kataria gathered his neighbors in the park to share jokes. But eventually, they told all the jokes they knew. That’s when he realized the same benefits of laughter could be had when people voluntarily laugh, stand up, move their bodies, and give themselves permission to be a little goofy.
Focus is on Fun
Cook said he learned about Laughter Yoga in 2000, not long after he first heard about World Laughter Day. Dr. Kataria created the holiday to be celebrated on the first Sunday in May.
He loved the idea of getting people together simply to laugh, but Cook had no experience with yoga. His full-time job is working in industrial sales and engineering support. Still, he organized a local laughter club and eventually got certified to teach.
Melissa McClelland, a seasoned yoga teacher who had taken many of Cook’s classes, said it helps that he has an “infectious” laugh.
“I was a skeptic. I walked in, well, without a great attitude. But after three or four techniques, I was belly laughing. I was out of myself. I went into the energy of the group,” she said. “You have to trust and be open to the experience. Can you just be right here, right now, getting silly and childlike?”
The Laugh is the Yoga
McClelland said that, at first, she held a common misconception. But Laughter Yoga isn’t a normal yoga asana class interspersed with chuckling. Instead, the laughter is the yoga.
In fact, you don’t even need a yoga mat to participate in a class.
Teachers aren’t comedians. Rather, during a class structure, they introduce techniques that invite students to laugh for a minute or two before breaking the giggles and starting again.
In a recent class, held on Zoom, Cook started the class with some clapping and gentle standing movement. This warm up could also include dancing or just smiling and sharing eye contact.
Then, students were encouraged to dive into playfulness with gibberish talking and imaginary actions. Students pretended they were holding two big tumblers and mixing what he called a laughter milkshake. Instead of mixing up liquids, students laughed out loud as if their laughs had filled the cups.
Then students pretended to have a laughter fight. Then they forgave each other only using laughter and body movements. Ever wanted to look a lion in the face and laugh? That was next in the laughter exercises.
In between, he instructed a clearing exercise in which participants clapped in rhythm and chanted, “Very good, very good, yay!” and thrusted their arms into the air.
Deep Breathing Techniques, Too
McClelland said she was surprised by the whole-body workout that an hour of big laughs gave her. She also appreciated the deep breathing techniques that were also interwoven into the class. The pranayama is perhaps as close to a traditional asana practice as it gets.
“You get all the stale air out of your lungs, and it works your diaphragm in a lot of the ways you think of in posture yoga,” Cook said. “Everyone is really stressed and they could use a little relaxation at the end of the day.”
So, each class ends with a yoga nidra guided meditation and a deep savasana—not that it’s easy to go from laughing to being serious and silent, McClelland added.
“Have you ever been in a church, and you can’t stop giggling?” she said. “That’s what happens in the silent meditation. Next thing you know, everyone is laughing.”
It’s part of the training for teachers to move the class from contagious laughter to going inside and allowing the laughs to drop away.
Smiling as a Yoga Practice
Anyone who’s smiled at a stranger passed on the street knows the value of smiling as a method for connection. During a Laughter Yoga class, students do that and more.
“All mammals laugh. It is a physical activity of being a mammal,” Cook said. “It’s a natural pain killer.”
Speaking of, imagine your aches and pains felt and sounded like laughter. What about taking imaginary hand sanitizer made of laughter and bathing your whole body? In class, you can even take imaginary mental floss strung between your ears and give your mind a wash with laughter.
In essence, it is a complementary physical practice of pratipaksha bhavana, a lesson from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that teaches students to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. With time, you may find that frequent laughter brings even more into your life.
How to Find a Laughter Yoga Class
There are more than 20,000 Laughter Clubs in more than 100 countries, along with classes held both in person and online. To find a certified Laughter Yoga Leader near you, log on to the Laughter Yoga website to search by country and state.