A Giggle Here And a Smile There Makes Jack a Healthy Boy!

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  • We all know that nothing beats a good giggle.
  • Research shows that the physical and mental health benefits of laughter are huge.
  • Dr Madan Kataria reveals how his ‘laughter yoga’ clubs are giving the world something to feel joyful about.

“Friends, I must tell you, laughter yoga is not a comedy.” Dr Madan Kataria, a former GP and the creator of laughter yoga, an exercise programme involving prolonged laughter, is talking to more than 100 participants on one of his daily Zoom sessions. We can do laughter yoga when times are good and even when we are going through bad times. Inhale. Hold it. Hold it. And laugh it out.

Growing Popularity

Laughter yoga, a combination of breathing exercises and deliberate laughter, came from humble beginnings, but has mushroomed into a global movement. Hundreds of clubs, usually free to attend, have now been established across Asia, Europe and North America. Five people attended Kataria’s first meet-up in Mumbai in 1995. “I’d read so much about the benefits of laughter, and how acting out emotions, especially through facial expressions, can create them,” he says. That first meeting was a hit and he continued to hold daily sessions – as he still does today, 27 years later, sometimes twice a day. He initially asked participants to tell jokes to spark a chorus of infectious chortles, but as attendances grew Kataria learned that laughing for no reason at all was the simplest and least controversial method to trigger the ecstasy.

“We started just faking laughter,” he says. Ha ha ha ha ha. “And then people started laughing for real. It was contagious; we couldn’t stop.” Soon he blended in some basic stretches and pranayama Indian breathing exercises to complement the laughter, which in itself oxidizes the body and expels carbon dioxide – thus increasing energy levels. As regular participants’ lung capacity increased, so too did the longevity of their laughs. News of his events spread like wildfire.

Laughing Your Heart Out

Laughter yoga taps into a deep-seated need to laugh that, for one reason or another, is being stifled. Young children can laugh hundreds of times a day. But as we get older, the fun begins to stop – our brains learn how to temper our emotions in tune with the needs of others. We develop empathy. But so, too, are we told to stop laughing and be serious about life. Perhaps you can remember being told off by your parents or school teachers for giggling inappropriately. There’s often a sense that if you’re laughing, you’re not properly learning, or working, or focusing, or paying respect. Sometimes this is justified, but not always. Kataria, whose 1999 book, Laugh for No Reason, has been translated into Italian, French, German, Farsi, Indonesian and Korean, is of the view that laughter is central to our lived experience, and beneficial to our health. 

Laughter is a primal part of what it means to be a social animal. It is fundamental to the health of our mind and body and our relationships, and may have been crucial to evolution, enabling our ancestors to form larger tribes than the neanderthals that lived alongside them, according to one theory. It could even have evolved to enable us to be healthy. Laughing causes the body to release endorphins that act as a natural painkiller. Further research, in Nursing & Health Sciences, indicates that laughter dramatically suppresses stress hormones, such as cortisol, reduces anxiety through lowering adrenaline levels and activates the body’s natural relaxation system.

Laughter Therapy

Laughing therapy has been used for decades. Kataria’s practice essentially simplified prior incarnations after laughter first became a field of scientific study in the 1960s. In 1964, Stanford psychology professor Dr William Fry published a series of landmark studies on the physiology of laughter, becoming the first gelotologist (an expert in the science of laughter – from the Greek root gelos, to laugh) in the process. Norman Cousins, peace campaigner and editor of the American literature weekly the Saturday Review, propelled the healing power of laughter into the mainstream with his claims that it may have saved his life. He was diagnosed in 1964 with a fatal form of autoimmune arthritic disease, and his bestselling 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, advanced his hypothesis that the attitude of a patient can impact on their illness. He had begun 10 minutes of belly laughter each day 15 years earlier, which provided him with two hours of pain-free sleep after all other treatments failed.  And he did it, Cousins lived much longer than his doctors had predicted. 

His anti-scientific, irrational approach to medicine was criticized by a later editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Arnold Relman, who took umbrage at the suggestion that “an upbeat attitude will cure a dread disease”. However, Relman admitted he did agree with the basic varieties that had been articulated: “There is no doubt that an optimistic and determined patient handles the vicissitudes of illness better than one who is depressed, negative and unhappy and defeatist about his illness,” he said.

“Ha Ha Ha I Am Crying Of Laughter…”

Laughter’s benefits are increasingly being recognised. During the first Covid lockdown, Care UK, one of the largest care providers in the UK, began offering laughter sessions for its carers. The NHS has recently begun offering laughter yoga to patients through GPs as part of a social-prescribing pilot in Bristol. Professional comedians will help patients suffering with mental health issues to not just explore the nature of their issues, but look for the humor within them. Workshops were presented at a number of music and cultural festivals this summer and western yogis are increasingly offering sessions. 

“It’s about time we let go and laugh more,” laughter yoga teacher Liliana deLeo said in a Ted Talk in Montreal in 2016. “There was a time I looked for something, or someone, to make me laugh. But when I depended on those external factors, I went days without laughing.” The former fitness instructor, certified by Kataria as a laughter yoga teacher, recommends incorporating deliberate laughter into daily life. Benzine is just the latest example of how the presence of laughter yoga online has grown massively due to the pandemic as people were forced to become more self-sufficient. Kataria, who earns his living from certifying teachers and hosting events, says interest has increased amid Covid, but large numbers of people around the world could still go days without a single laugh.

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Source: TheGuardian

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