The first 15 minutes of a laughter yoga class are rough. Imagine yourself in a room with four adult strangers, looking each other in the face and pretending to laugh. Then you have to talk about your problems together—but you have to do it in gibberish. Meanwhile, the entire time you're swinging your arms around, making up a dance, or perhaps pantomiming a softball game. It is chronically awkward and absolutely ridiculous. Laughter yoga is not for wimps.
Two months ago, my boss sent me an article about the growing phenomenon of laughter yoga clubs, along with the simple directive: "You should do this." At the time, I had just finished writing a feature about Auschwitz tourism and was in the middle of researching another on abortion doulas. Laughter yoga sounded great. Turns out, it was. It was great, and weird, and one of the best things I've ever done for myself. So why isn't everyone doing this? Because most of us are wimps.
In 1995, Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from India, began his preliminary research on the benefits of laughter. A medical practitioner, he'd always wondered about the veracity of the old adage, "laughter is the best medicine." So he and a handful of peers met in a Mumbai park every morning to tell each other jokes for an hour. "They felt great. Then, [they] would go on about their day," laughter yoga teacher Lisa Levine explains. "But after some time, the same jokes stopped being funny," and the experiment shifted. Kataria began observing children at play, noting that, "children laugh for no reason—or no intellectual reason. They laugh simply for the joy of being alive. They look at each other and they laugh, they look at the sky and they laugh, they look at their toes and they laugh. They fall down, they cry, and then 10 minutes later they are up and they are laughing again." That's when the practice of laughter yoga began to truly take shape.
We all know it feels good to laugh. Humor is stimulating in a number of ways, but laughter itself has physical and neurological effects on the body and brain. While there are currently only a small amount of studies in the field of laughter, it's a growing area of interest in medical and psychological fields. This is perhaps because the pool of early research indicates that laughter benefits the circulatory system, immune-system response, and even blood sugar regulation. Furthermore, the endorphin response to the physical act of laughter (not the intellectual stimulation of humor, which has its own merits) has been proven to have a significant impact on both mental state and physical well-being—even to the point of pain management.
Many of these results can be chalked up to the biological similarities between laughter and exercise. Consider that a good, hard laugh leaves you catching your breath (and raise your hand if you woke up with sore abs the day after discovering "David After Dentist." No? Just me? Fine). Like a workout, laughter increases oxygen levels in the blood and effectively reduces cortisol and epinephrine (stress hormones) while increasing production of oxytocin (the feel-good, "cuddle" hormone).
"The magic behind the practice," says Levine, "is that the brain doesn’t know the difference between fake and real laughter." All laughter is "real" on a physical and neurochemical level. So it doesn't matter if you're genuinely tickled by a David Sedaris essay, or sitting in a room forcing yourself to go "ha ha ha," all the while staring at the clock and counting down the seconds until you can escape this bizarre adult play-date.
That's how I felt in my first class. Using a directory on the official laughter yoga website, I found a weekly meet-up on Manhattan's Upper West Side and reluctantly trudged uptown one afternoon, wishing I could just sit at my desk and write more about historic atrocities. Beth Bongar, a.k.a. The Laughing Diva, greeted me with exactly the bright enthusiasm you'd expect from a laughing diva, and I relaxed—for, like, eight seconds. I'd hoped the class would be full of people I could hide among, but it turns out that most people don't leave work in the middle of the day to go fake-laugh in a room with strangers. It was just me, Beth, and her middle-aged musician friend, Neil. He'd also brought his flute. [Click here to read the full story on Refinery29!]