Work stress, pandemic anxiety and the general glumness of January… it’s no joke that life can be serious. Could laughter yoga could be the medicine we need right now?
My very first laughter yoga class will stay with me for years. As someone who’s practised since their teens, I envisaged something along the lines of polite laughter and a general upbeat vibe while we work through our sun salutations and downward dogs. In reality, aside from a central focus on breathwork with meditation to finish, that is where the similarity with traditional yoga ends.
I’m an introvert with an in-built cynicism of anything ‘woo’, so the idea of spending an hour in a room with strangers, being forced to laugh with a bit of improv thrown in, made every fibre of my being want to crawl back home to a Netflix comedy special instead. However, just like my SAD lamp purchase last year, I wanted to add something new to my ‘get through winter’ mental toolkit so put scepticism aside and gave it a go.
The concept of laughter yoga was created in 1995 by Dr Madan Kataria in Mumbai, India. He found that laughter is contagious, with even fake laughter morphing into the real thing when we laugh with others. He coupled simulated laughing techniques with breathing exercises and playful movement to create laughter yoga.
Over the decades, several studies have found that the effect of laughter on the body and mind can be powerful. A Georgia State University study from 2016 found a significant improvement in mental health and aerobic endurance when participants completed a series of simulated laughter exercises. When we laugh, endorphins are released, cortisol is lowered and stress is reduced. It’s been known to alleviate anxiety and depression, improve optimism and self-esteem, and enhance social bonds.
On top of that, a good belly laugh works the diaphragm, shoulders and abs, can improve circulation, boost the immune system, increase your heart rate and burn off a few extra calories.
What does laughing yoga entail?
During my session, led by laughter therapists Lotte Mikkelsen and Melanie Bloch, we prepped our abdominal and facial muscles for laughter with a series of stretches and deep breathing exercises. Then followed a sequence of playful exercises involving a variety of laughter sounds – from the ‘ha ha’ to the ‘hee hee’, a tittering to a hearty guffaw. Then the really silly stuff began.
We clapped like children and cheered. We glugged imaginary cups of “laughter coffee”. We slathered ourselves in “laughter cream”. We pretended to be pieces of toast popping up out of toasters, giggling. Quite simply, an hour of nonsense. Did I feel silly? Yes. Did I care? Not really. I quickly discovered you’ve got to leave your ego at the door. It’s the one not laughing in this room that’s going to look a little out of place.
Lotte Mikkelsen, laughter yoga master trainer and laughter therapist tutor at UnitedMind, tells Stylist: “Laughter is one of our most natural expressions. When we chat with friends or colleagues we tend to laugh high up in our chests, but in laughter yoga we bring it down deep into the belly – laughing your true laugh from the diaphragm is where we get the real benefits. And sometimes we have to fake it a little to get started.”
Mikkelsen explains that social conditioning and our own past can often hold us back, making us wary of laughing inappropriately or being mocked for our silliness. “It’s not about laughing at each other, it’s about laughing together. There’s no right or wrong, it’s all about being willing to play. When we laugh, we don’t engage the thinking side of our brain so it’s freeing and creative. Whereas mocking laughter comes from a different place, one of thinking and judgement.”
The group aspect is important in laughter; it’s the contagious nature of it that we benefit from. Laughing with others also allows for eye contact, which helps release oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, and strengthens our social bonds (Lotte often works with companies on team-building exercises as it’s a great activity to do with work colleagues).
Although clearly beneficial for those of us needing a little mood booster in winter, there is nothing lightweight about laughter therapy. It has been used as a complementary treatment for a range of conditions including depression, dementia and menopause. A 2011 Oxford University study even found that laughter can significantly increase your pain threshold, thanks to the flood of endorphins it releases.
People who suffer from mild discomforts, such as cold hands and feet, often find that disappears after regular laughter yoga practice. Mikkelsen explains: “When we laugh, we increase our oxygen intake, our heart rate goes up and our blood pumps faster. In this freshly oxygenated blood, the blood vessels dilate, making us feel warmer as it brings the blood to our extremities.”
Laughing for post-Covid era mental health
The past two years of the Covid era have been tough, in varying degrees, for many of us, but is laughter yoga an appropriate way to tackle mental health issues beyond the January blues?
Melanie Bloch, a holistic laughter coach and laughter therapist who came to the practice after her own experience of grief and bereavement, believes so. “In the worst of times, people can find their laughter,” she explains. “With tears, we need laughter – it helps us gain balance. Throughout this pandemic, I’ve noticed in people a real desire to feel better. That’s the resilience of the human psyche, our survival mechanism. Laughter helps us survive by getting rid of the toxic thinking that gets in the way of our inner peace.”
Mikkelsen adds that the pandemic has created a “huge mental health challenge”, but believes that laughter yoga offers “an ideal opportunity to bring lightness to it. That doesn’t mean laughing at serious situations, it means laughter becomes tool that helps rewire our brains to see things from a different perspective. It’s all about changing our perspective.”
After a self-conscious start at my own laughter yoga session, I found the forced ‘ha has quickly turned into real laughs, particularly during the quieter moments when genuine giggles would ripple and amplify around the room. After a short ‘grounding’ meditation at the end, I left the session feeling pretty light-headed (all those lungfuls of oxygen) with slight jaw ache from excessive smiling. My Fitbit had registered just five minutes in the cardio zone, akin to a short brisk walk. But I felt upbeat with a clear and focused mind, alongside a strange but pleasant sensation of vibrating internally like I was a cartoon jelly, still quivering.
Can laughter yoga give us the resilience to push through the winter blues? As Mikkelsen puts it: “We need to be silly now and then to stay sane in this world.”
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