As complementary health professionals, we know mindful breathing can make a difference in how we feel and react to everyday stress—but did you know laughter can have the same simple, yet profound effect on our overall health and well-being?

Sue Kuehn first tried Laughter Yoga a few years ago because she wanted to increase her lung capacity. It was a practical choice to address a surgical complication. “I had a pulmonary embolism after knee replacement surgery,” Kuehn explained.

The theory was that laughing deeply would help her take deeper breaths—and it worked. Lowered blood pressure and de-stressing benefits are the side effects that have kept Kuehn coming back to Laughter Club, a group that practices laughter yoga.

Good Medicine

You’ve heard the cliché, laughter is good medicine—and science backs this up.

In a paper presented in an American Physiological Society session at Experimental Biology 2006, Lee S. Berk, DrPH., an associate research professor in pathology and human anatomy at Southern California’s Loma Linda University, reported that not only are there psychophysiological effects related to laughter, just the anticipation of the “mirthful laughter” involved in watching your favorite funny movie has some very surprising and significant neuroendocrine and hormonal effects.

According to Berk, “The blood drawn from experimental subjects just before they watched the video had 27 percent more beta-endorphins and 87 percent more human growth hormone compared to blood from the control group, which didn’t anticipate the watching of a humorous video.”

Berk said the strong difference between the two groups in terms of human growth hormone (HGH) and beta-endorphin blood levels was maintained from just prior to the beginning of video watching, throughout the hour of viewing and afterwards.

“Mirthful laughter diminishes the secretion of cortisol and epinephrine, while enhancing immune reactivity,” he said. “In addition, mirthful laughter boosts secretion of growth hormone, an enhancer of these same key immune responses.

“The physiological effects of a single one-hour session viewing a humorous video has appeared to last up to 12 to 24 hours in some individuals, while other studies of daily 30-minute exposure produces profound and long-lasting changes in these measures,” Berk said.

Gita Fendelman, a Laughter Yoga Teacher and Parkinson’s patient, says, “Laughter Yoga has helped me deal with having Parkinson’s disease from a lighthearted perspective. I do ‘diagnosis laughter’ all the time and it helps me make lemonade out of lemons.

“Laughter Yoga also helps me deal with chronic pain, which may be arthritis, or a Parkinson’s symptom,” she adds. “All in all, Laughter Yoga has made life wonderful and has enabled me to joke about Parkinson’s— for example, what do you call a person with Parkinson’s who’s trying to get a tan? Shake and bake!”

Intentional Laughter

Laughter Yoga is an innovative idea that anyone can laugh for no reason. Simple laughter exercises are combined with gentle, yogic breathing as a form of stress management and physical fitness.

As participants do the laughter exercises, genuine laughter is created through eye contact and childlike playfulness. This experience is more than just fun; it can be transformational.

The concept for Laughter Yoga was developed in 1995 by a Western-trained medical doctor in India: Madan Kataria, and his wife, Madhuri, a yoga teacher. It is based on the idea that the body doesn’t know the difference between a real laugh or a simulated laugh, so you get all the same physiological health benefits by faking it until it becomes real.

Motion creates emotion. By recognizing that a person doesn’t have to be in a good mood to participate in Laughter Yoga, members focus on the exercises, breathing and movement, knowing the residual effects will come after each session.

As adults, many of us wait until we perceive something as funny and amusing before we laugh. This model is based on our cognitive abilities to determine if we should laugh at a situation or not. It’s mostly conditional—and it means we may not laugh as often as we could.

Another model is child model. Children laugh most often when they play. Their laughter is not from their minds, but from their bodies. Here, the source of laughter is within the body and one can use it whenever necessary, because we can move our bodies at will.

So, intentional laughter means making the choice to laugh: To laugh instead of complain, and release negative energies before they have a chance to settle into our bodies and create sickness, unhappiness and even depression.

 “Laughter Yoga has kept me coming back because the ‘up’ feeling I take home lasts for days,” says Nancy Plato, a retired teacher who attends the Sioux Falls, South Dakota Laughter Club. “If one makes the commitment to genuinely join in the situations and participate fully in the laughter, there are definite emotional and psychological benefits.”

Laughter Yoga uses the child model, where laughter is initiated in the body through simulated laughter exercises. Once inhibitions are removed, the laughter starts to flow quite easily. The Laughter Yoga concept is based on cultivating childlike playfulness, to induce laughter in the body first, with the mind following along.

Laughter Exercises

• Cell phone laughter:Hold an imaginary cell phone; pretend it rings. Put it to your ear and laugh at what you hear. Move around and share with others as they laugh at yours, and you laugh at theirs.

• Library laughter:You’re in the library, and you have a terrific case of the giggles. You have to be quiet and the librarian is coming, so you try to stifle your giggles. Move around and say “Shhhhh” to each other.

Benefits of Laughter

The physical benefits of Laughter Yoga include increased endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers; increased serotonin, the body’s natural antidepressant; increased lung capacity and oxygen intake; and a strengthened immune system.

Emotional and mental benefits include improved social connections, an improved overall sense of well-being and an expanded perspective on problems.

Anyone who laughs speaks the same language, and because we laugh for no reason, the benefits are felt by all who have a willingness to try it.

Laughter Yoga is effective for businesses because it levels the playing field and cultivates creativity, cooperation and joy in the workplace.

It works with cancer patients because it moves the lymphatic system and oxygenates the body. Parkinson’s patients who have depleted serotonin and dopamine enjoy Laughter Yoga because it helps create natural hormones that alleviate depression.

Laughter works for depression and grief because it creates community and fosters friendships and trust. It works for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease because the deep belly breaths strengthen and exercise the lungs.

And for the average person, it’s a way to reconnect with our inner child and to see our way through this crazy thing called life. We all can benefit from laughter.

Join a Club

Laughter clubs are the backbone of Laughter Yoga. Kataria started the first Laughter Club in India with only five people in a park. There are now thousands of Laughter Clubs worldwide.

They are independent, nonpolitical, nonreligious, noncompetitive, community-based associations of people where all are welcome regardless of gender, age, physical ability, and social or economic backgrounds.

Many laughter clubs are not for profit and are a way for individuals to give back to their community.

Nancy Dickinson, college professor and massage therapist, remembers her husband, Pat’s, first Laughter Yoga experience at the McKennan Park Summer Laughter Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“The first time I lured Pat to the park, I said we were going to smell the flowers—and, ‘Oh, by the way, there are some of my Laughter Yoga friends,” she said.

“He was a good sport, and quickly experienced the benefits of fake laughter becoming real,” Dickinson added. “We giggled all the way home, his arthritis pain temporarily reduced, and our walk was more enjoyable for it.”

The Sioux Falls Laughter Club has met weekly for many years and follows the philosophy of Kataria that “all are welcome.” Participants include people from a local group home for adults with special needs, people who come as a form of exercise and others who attend for the social connections.

It’s a wonderful way to make friends and let go of daily stress. There are clubs all over the world, and if there’s not one in your city, you can start one.

Once people get involved in the process, the laughter comes from a deeper place. It can heal emotional wounds, because when you laugh with other people, looking into their eyes, it’s hard not to feel good about them.

About the Author:

As Kataria says, “When you laugh, you change, and when you change, the world around you changes.” Jill Johnson and her husband, Dan, offer laughter-leader trainings, corporate wellness programs, laughter life coaching, laughter therapy and laughter resources. They are dynamic presenters who specialize in uplifting and experiential presentations tailored to fit any organization, whether it’s corporate executives, church personnel or chronically ill patients. Dan is also a licensed massage therapist.