March 19 is Let's Laugh Day, a time to take advantage of all the joy that the simple act of Laughter can bring to our lives.
So many things cause us to laugh on a regular basis - jokes shared with us by friends and family, a favorite sitcom, the silly behavior of a pet and countless others. But how often do you think of laughter as something that could make you feel better and healthier physically as well as emotionally? If your answer is "not often," you may well be fascinated to learn about Laughter Yoga.
As with all forms of Yoga, laughter yoga does involve stretching to some extent, depending on the instructor. But many of its potential physical benefits come, quite literally, from the intense laughter of participants. While relatively new by comparison to the yoga disciplines that have existed for thousands of years, a significant number of people have adopted laughter yoga as a regular practice.
Laughter yoga can function as a low-stress physical and emotional workout.
Laughter yoga: The origin and basics
Developed in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, a Mumbai-based medical doctor, laughter yoga - otherwise known as hasya yoga - has since caught on around the world.
As Kataria refined his methods, the exercise began to involve different forms of laughter: muted humming laughter, making the physical movements of laughter without producing sound, robust and loud laughter, laughter done in the yoga Lion Pose and more. The bouts of laughing last about 45 seconds each. In an interview with Yoga Journal, Kataria explained that this is best practiced in groups, to bolster togetherness.
"Laughter in laughter clubs is the purest laughter because it is not for any reason," Kataria told the news source. "It is not directed at others but we learn to laugh at ourselves."
How can laughter yoga help with your health?
Because sessions of laughter yoga involve you forcing yourself to laugh, you work out the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, as well as the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Basic stretches done in the midst of laugh sessions (or before or after) ensure that the rest of the body remains limber while you're putting the abs and chest through the most intense work.
The health benefits of laughter yoga extend throughout much more of the body, though. Speaking to CBS News, Dr. Lee Berk, a psychoneuroimmunologist and primary care physician at Loma Linda University, explained that laughter can cut down the levels of stress-inducing hormones in the body, bolster the immune system and reduce blood pressure.
"We're starting to understand laughter much better than we ever did," Berk said. "[It causes] increases in antibodies that look for germs and bacteria and so forth."
Berk spearheaded one of the major studies that quantified the effects of laughter yoga, releasing his findings in 2009. He worked with endocrinologist Dr. Stanley Tan from Oak Crest Health Research Institute in Loma Linda, California, to test a group of 20 hypertension-afflicted diabetes patients - some received standard medication, while others took medication and practiced "self-selected humor" for 30 minutes on a regular basis. The latter group saw declines in levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, hormones commonly associated with stress, and also saw increases in good cholesterol - notably more so than the medication-only group.
Tampa-based certified laughter yoga leader Victoria Dym states that the sessions, which increase the oxygen levels in the brain due to the deep breathing involved in "forcing" oneself to laugh, can help the brain operate at a higher capacity. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Dym explains that 20- to 30-minute sessions are recommended for the best laughter yoga results.
In another 2011 study, U.K. researchers based at Oxford and other universities found that laughter can even reduce pain levels: Specifically, the study's authors, publishing their work in the Proceedings of the Royal Society scientific journal, found that the act of laughing itself - not the situation causing the laughter - could increase individuals' pain thresholds. While the study is clearly not stating that laughing is a substitute for medication and treatment, it lends further validity to the operating theories behind laughter yoga. In a nutshell, this makes clear that laughing is sometimes no laughing matter!