Some years ago my best friend from high school moved to Los Angeles. Months into her move, she called me gushing about a yoga class she took on the sandy beaches of southern California. "You have to try it!" She was was so stoked about this new yoga style, but she failed to mention exactly what it was. After some probing she finally told me. It’s called laughter yoga. And then she started laughing. Which made me start laughing.
This chain reaction of laughter that infects us all when we’re around other laughing people is exactly what laughter yoga is all about.
Why Laughter Yoga?
Laughter is contagious. There’s no doubt about. Originating in India, laughter yoga, also known as hasya yoga, because hasya means laughter in Sanskrit, has been around for over two decades. Dr. Madan Kataria began teaching laughter yoga in 1995, and it has spread around the world since. The idea here is that we can ‘fake it ‘til we make it.’ In other words, when we willfully force ourselves to laugh, natural laughter eventually takes over. Forced laughter becomes very real after a short period of time. Play acting that you’re happy, eventually creates the internal chemistry of happiness—the biochemicals that have been scientifically proven to be really, really good for your health. (Learn more in How to Open Your Mind to a Healthier and Happier Life.)
While this laughter yoga thing may sound a bit kooky, the science behind this craze is very real, because the healing benefits of laughter are very real. After all, laughter is the best medicine. Laughter has been shown to reduce blood pressure, prevent depression, and bolster immunity. It even helps tone our facial muscles, our intercostal muscles, and core muscles. It’s an effective workout for the heart, the diaphragm, and even the respiratory system.
Laughing has many benefits for all bodily systems because it’s a potent stress-reliever. It’s a known fact that stress is one of the primary causes of illness of every shape and size. So, reducing stress and anxiety via laughter could lower your risk for many diseases. When we immerse ourselves in a bout of serious laughter, the stress hormone, cortisol, takes a beneficial nosedive, while the feel-good hormone, serotonin, steadily climbs. This is a win-win for the nervous and circulatory systems.
If this all sounds like hogwash, pay attention to your own empirical research. Consider those days when you’re feeling blue. Then you call a friend for a good laugh and your mood gets an instant boost. Or maybe you’re at home sick, feeling listless. You make yourself watch a funny film or some comedic series and before long, you’re back to feeling like your old self again. It’s amazing what laughing can do!
What Does a Hasya Yoga Class Look Like?
If you’re wondering what a laughter yoga class actually entails, you’re not alone. It’s nothing like your typical hatha or vinyasayoga class. It has elements of kundalini, like variations on kapalbhati breathing and other pranayama techniques, but it varies greatly from a classical kundalini yoga class as well.
The outbursts of laughing you experience in a laughter yoga class are bound to be scripted, but also spontaneous. For example, the teacher might lead you through a variation on kapalbhati breathing, also known as the skull shining breath, but laughing sounds, such as “ho, ho, ha, ha" will accompany your breath. Clapping may also accompany your kapalbhati. Clapping, chanting, and moving in such a way that emulates someone falling over with laughter is what you’ll see in a laughter yoga class. The idea here is to become the embodiment of laughter. Rather than laughter that originates from the mind, this kind of laughter originates from the body, which then travels to the mind.
We travel back in time during a laughter yoga class by invoking our inner child. As adults, our laughter is typically a product of conversation. Not so with children. Children play and move and laugh as they go. Adults discern what’s funny and what’s not. In laughter yoga, we let go of that judging ego and simply will ourselves to laugh. It’s simple. And lots of fun! The idea is to laugh for no reason at all. It has to do with trusting life and being open to being light hearted and playful.
Because motions create emotions, you might act out silly improvisations like holding a pretend glass of water, while laughing into it. The absurdity of the action often creates a real response of laughter because it’s simply funny in and of itself. You might also practice a form of lion’s breath, in which you widen the eyes, stick out the tongue, claw with your hands—and laugh.
If all this sounds intriguing, find a local hasya yoga class. Like so many, you may get hooked. And who knows? Before long you might find laughter yoga becomes an important part of your spiritual practice. For as a Jewish proverb once said:
“As soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.”