Do you ever have one of those really long belly laughs? The kind that leaves you nearly breathless, brings tears to your eyes, and makes your cheeks and abs sore? It’s the kind of laughter that can set the tone for an entire day, make your steps a little lighter, your smile a little quicker to appear, and a feeling, if only brief, that the world is going to be just fine. Those are great, aren’t they? Well it turns out, they’re actually pretty beneficial, too!
I recently covered how diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which sets off a whole chain of positive effects that can provide immediate and long term benefits. We’ve also talked about how deep belly breathing with longer exhales than inhales can lower stress, bolster your immune system, lower blood pressure, and reboot your brain. If you think about the physiological mechanics of laughing, it should become clear just how similar laughter can be to some of these tried and true breathing exercises. You take a short inhale, and then exhale forcefully through multiple, deep belly, “ha, ha, ha’s” that extend longer than the inhale.
Seeing this similarity, it’s no surprise that laughter has many of the same immediate and long-term health benefits as yogic breathing techniques. We’re familiar with the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine,” and, once again, the science backs it up. Multiple studies show that laughter, through the physical movements of the diaphragm as well as the release of endorphins and lowering of the stress hormone cortisol, helps to lower blood pressure and improve your mood and outlook. Those effects, in turn, contribute to faster healing, a boosted immune system, and relaxed muscles.
But the world can be a dark place sometimes, and finding things genuinely funny can be difficult. I hear ya. Once again, though, science is here to help. Clinical research conducted in India and the United States has proven that forced or voluntary laughter is just as effective as genuine or involuntary laughter. One study even found that simulated laughter was even more effective than genuine laughter. In other words, you can totally fake it until you make it, and your body won’t know the difference.
Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor and the “Guru of Giggling,” created a practice called Laughter Yoga that incorporates forced laughter with gentle yoga poses and other movement. In addition to teaching others how to perform and lead laughter yoga practices, he has started numerous “Laughter Clubs” where people gather in local parks, workplaces, and even online, to practice laughter yoga together. One of the biggest advantages to these laughter clubs is that they bring people together and create a connection that is deeply rooted in being vulnerable and silly in the presence of others.
If you’ve ever been in a yoga class or workshop before and glanced around the room to see others in various, semi-awkward poses and thought, “wow, that looks kinda silly,” you’re not alone. Laughter Yoga embraces that mindset. Yoga can be silly looking and silly feeling sometimes. And that’s o.k. In a laughter yoga class, you might start with some basic body movement and simple stretching, but then laughter, forced or genuine, gets to take the wheel, and students are encouraged to laugh freely. In addition to all the benefits of the laughter yoga itself, there’s a social benefit as well – that connection that comes from being a little silly, a little vulnerable, and a little more accepting with one another. Yoga can often feel like an isolating, individual practice. Laughter Yoga, while it can certainly be done on your own, is perhaps most effective when done in groups.
Think this is all a bunch of nonsense? Then have a good laugh about it. You’ll prove me right, and feel better, too!