Laughter Therapy – The New Health Routine Sweeping The World
STRESS AND LAUGHTER
Laughter is the opposite of stress. When we stress our brains release a ‘toxic cocktail’ of stress hormones and chemicals into the bloodstream. In today’s world we are exposed to ongoing stressful events so these toxic chemicals never have time to dissipate. They remain in our bodies at dangerously high levels and attack our health and immune systems. Stress also reduces our breathing and starves the body of oxygen, further promoting the spread of illness.
When we laugh a ‘happy cocktail’ of chemicals and hormones is released that instantly reduces the stress chemicals in the bloodstream by at least fifty percent. Laughter flushes our lungs and super-oxygenates our blood and major organs. Scientific studies show that laughter boosts the levels of immune cells that attack cancer, infection and viruses, improves cardiovascular health and reduces blood pressure. Laughter also stimulates the lymphatic system that further boosts the immune system.
The History of Therapeutic Laughter and the Laughter Yoga Movement
In March 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor in Mumbai, India, decided to write an article called ‘Laughter - The Best Medicine’ for a health magazine. Through his research he discovered a large number of modern scientific studies that described in great length the many proven benefits of laughter on the human mind and body. In particular, Dr. Kataria was impressed by Norman Cousins' book ‘Anatomy of an Illness’ and the research work by Dr. Lee Berk.
Profoundly inspired and being a man of action rather than an academic, Dr. Kataria immediately decided to field-test the impact of laughter on himself and others.
At 7 am on 13th March 1995 he went to his local public park and managed to persuade four people to join him in starting a ‘laughter club’. They laughed together in the park that day to the amusement of bystanders, but the small group quickly grew to more than 50 participants within a few days.
In the initial meetings they stood in a circle while one person would step to the centre to tell a joke or a funny story. Everybody enjoyed and felt good for the rest of the day. After two weeks they hit a snag. The stock of good jokes and stories ran out, and negative, hurtful and naughty jokes started to emerge. Two offended participants complained that it would be better to close the club than to continue with such jokes.
Dr. Kataria asked the club members to give him just one day in which he would give them a ‘breakthrough’ that would resolve the crisis. That night he reviewed his research and finally found the answer he was looking for: the body cannot differentiate between acted and genuine laughter. Both produced the same ‘happy chemistry’.
The next morning he explained this to the group and asked them to try something new. They were to laugh without jokes. He asked everyone to laugh with him for one minute. Amid skepticism they agreed to try.
The results were amazing. The group acted out laughter, but after a moment a few people burst into real laughter at their group ‘silliness’ --- this was contagious and very soon others followed. Soon the group was laughing like never before. The hearty laughter that followed persisted for almost ten minutes.
This was the breakthrough and the birth of laughter yoga. Realizing that there were ways other than humor to stimulate laughter, Dr. Kataria developed a range of laughter exercises including elements of role-play and other techniques from his amateur dramatics career as an actor. He realized the importance of childlike playfulness and thus developed techniques to stimulate this in the group.
As yoga practitioners, Dr. Kataria and his wife Madhuri Kataria (co-founder of laughter yoga) saw the similarities between laughter and the yoga ‘pranayama’ exercise and incorporated elements from this into laughter yoga. He included the deep breathing techniques between laughter exercises to deepen the impact.
The resulting laughter yoga technique is a blend of yogic deep breathing, stretching, laughter exercises and cultivated child-like playfulness.
The Laughter Club Movement started with just five people in 1995. It spread across India like wildfire and in 1999 Dr. Kataria made his first foreign tour to America at the invitation of US psychologist Steve Wilson. Madhuri Kataria supported Dr. Kataria through the following years of intense travel as they were invited to dozens of countries to spread the message and techniques of laughter yoga around the world. Today laughter yoga is a worldwide movement, with more than 5,000 clubs in over 55 countries.
Many other individuals have contributed to the history of therapeutic laughter. Only three are mentioned below.
In 1979 celebrated writer Norman Cousins published a book ‘Anatomy of an Illness’ in which he described a potentially fatal disease he contracted in 1964 and his discovery of the benefits of laughter and positive emotions, in battling with it. He found, for example, that ten minutes of mirthful laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. The story of his recovery baffled the scientific community and inspired a number of research projects.
Norman Cousins inspired Dr. Lee Berk and his team of researchers from the field of psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI) at Loma Linda University Medical Center (California USA) to study the physical impact of mirthful laughter. For one of their tests they took heart attack patients and divided them into two groups. While one group was placed under standard medical care, the other half watched humorous videos and laughed for thirty minutes each day. After one year the ‘humor’ group had fewer arrhythmias, lower blood pressure, lower levels of stress hormones, and required lower doses of medication. The non-humour group had two and a half times more recurrent heart attacks than the humour group (50% vs. 20%).
Psychiatrist Dr. William Fry of Stanford University (California, USA) began to examine the physiological effects of Laughter in the late 1960s, and is considered the father of gelotology (the science of laughter). He demonstrated that most of the body’s major physiological systems are stimulated by mirthful laughter. One of his most famous studies confirmed that 20 seconds of intense laughter, even if ‘faked’, can double the heart rate for three to five minutes. Dr. Fry proved that mirthful laughter provides good physical exercise and can decrease your chances of respiratory infections. He also showed that laughter causes our body to produce endorphins (natural painkillers).
Why more and more people are joining in
Anyone can do laughter yoga and benefit, young, aged, fit or infirm. It is fun and easy. There are no postures or skills to learn and the benefits are instant.
Laughter yoga in companies
Companies are also using and benefiting from laughter yoga as it is an ideal ice-breaker, teambuilding and de-stressing exercise. Corporate laughter yoga sessions are available in South Africa.
Laughter yoga "Nature's Stress Buster"
Laughter yoga is a unique health routine that combines unconditional laughter with yogic breathing (Pranayama). Anyone can laugh without relying on humor, jokes or comedies. Participants simulate laughter as a body exercise in a group. With eye contact and childlike playfulness it soon turns into real and contagious laughter. The concept of laughter yoga is based on the scientific fact that the body cannot differentiate between simulated and real laughter.
It is the only system that allows adults to achieve sustained hearty laughter without involving cognitive thought. It bypasses the intellectual systems that normally act as a brake on natural laughter. Children laugh on average 400 times a day without humor, comedy or jokes. They laugh with their bodies. Adults laugh a mere 5 – 10 times a day. The reason for this is that adults are programmed to evaluate and judge situations before deciding whether a situation is worth laughing about or not.
Laughter yoga sessions start with gentle warm-up techniques including stretching, clapping and body movement. These help break down inhibitions and develop feelings of childlike playfulness. Breathing exercises are used to prepare the lungs for laughter, followed by a series of ‘laughter exercises’ that combine the method of acting and visualization techniques with playfulness.
These exercises, when combined with the strong social dynamics of group behavior, lead to hearty unconditional laughter. Laughter exercises are interspersed with breathing exercises. Twenty minutes of laughter is sufficient to receive the full physiological benefits.
Some laughter yoga sessions may finish with a ‘laughter meditation’ session. This is a session of unstructured laughter whereby we allow natural laughter to flow from within us like a fountain. This is a powerful experience that often leads to a healthy emotional catharsis and also a feeling of release and joyfulness that can last for days. This can be followed by guided relaxation exercises.
Laughter yoga is normally performed in a group under the direction of a trained and certified laughter yoga leader. No special clothing or equipment is required although comfortable clothes that allow free movement are recommended.
Janine Grobler is a Certified Laughter Practitioner and also a Certificated Laughter Yoga Teacher. She was one of the first laughter practitioners to be trained by Dr. Kataria during his visit to South Africa in February 2007. Janine went on to qualify and become the first Laughter Yoga teacher in South Africa. This means that Janine can train and certificate laughter practitioners for Laughter Yoga International and Dr. Kataria’s School of Laughter Yoga. Janine also travels across South Africa to conduct laughter sessions at Corporate events. For more information, contact Janine: cell 082 516 7047; e-mail: or go to www.LaughSA.com