Better Living Through Hilarity: Looking at the Healing Power of Laughter Yoga

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When approaching the idea that “laughter is the best medicine,” I proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism. But when the idea is expanded to “anyone can laugh for no reason without relying on humor, jokes or comedy,” I’m confident we’re headed straight for quack territory. Yet this is exactly the doctrine that Laughter Clubs preach. And with 6000 strong in over 60 countries, I can hardly write off these so-called Laughter Clubs as the latest in New Age garbage.

In fact, since 1995 people have congregated in increasing numbers to engage in a series of exercises that essentially manufacture laughter. I can’t help but think of the scene from The Tin Drum in which the blasé young people of post-war Germany gather at clubs to peel onions in order to weep in each other’s company. Fake emotions to create a mutual experience. But Indian physician Madan Kataria does not necessarily see that as a bad thing. While doing research for a journal on the medicinal benefits of laughter, Kataria hypothesized that the body cannot physically differentiate between fake and real laughter. By his logic, one does not need to see Louis CK do stand-up or watch Arrested Development to attain the healing power laughter can provide.

It was upon this discovery that Dr. Kataria based Laughter Yoga. Don’t let the second part of the name fool you; Laughter Yoga is less Downward Facing Dog and more kindergarten playtime with Pranayama breathing. Get excited improvisers: this is an activity for adults that looks more bonkers from the outside than improv warm-ups. These days, Laughter Yoga could be easily confused with a demented flash mob, as the clubs often practice in public spaces. The very first Laughter Club, in Mumbai where the movement was born, started as a mere 5 people but grew to 50 when interested/amused/confused passerbys decided to join in.

I ought to put skepticism in check here, but there’s such an odd contrast between the philosophy of Laughter Yoga and most comedy. Laughter Yoga preaches laughter as key to improving one’s life and possibly even facilitating world peace. Comedy can be cynical, critical and even sometimes mean-spirited. But both ultimately share the same goal: to make people laugh. And one of my all-time favorite comedians John Cleese gave a fairly ringing endorsement for Laughter Yoga, when he reported on it from India for the BBC.

Laughter Yoga has not only been proven to boost the morale of depression-prone groups like prisoners, as seen in the video above, but also for senior citizens, businessmen, the mentally ill and cops. Take for example, this Malaysian police force recently filmed during a Laughter Yoga session.

One of the primary purported benefits of Laughter Yoga is stress reduction, so it stands to reason that cops or high-powered suits would benefit from such therapy. But really, it seems everyone these days is seeking new methods of stress-management. Some people run, some people drink, Woody Allen had analysts — so why not Laughter Yoga?

I can feel my inner-skeptic creeping back up, though, when I start hearing claims of healing powers. Dr. Kataria, a trained physician, has proposed that consistent laughter will boost one’s immune system, and even stave off minor illnesses like colds, sore throats and sinus infections. Maybe it can help stave off my bad attitude, am I right? But even modern medicine has observed the positive effects a sunny disposition can have on a person’s health. Laughter Yoga offers a solution for everyone, as Kataria claims you don’t need a sense of humor or to even be happy. Through the physical exercises, supposedly even the downest of Debbies can force herself into stitches. And while it may start out contrived, Kataria believes fake laughter almost always begets genuine laughter by the end of a session.

Another thing Laughter Yoga has going for it is that it is free. A yoga class in New York City can be as much as $20 a session. So if you’re looking for spiritual healing in these economic times, meet your new best option. Laughter Clubs are supposed to cost zero dollars and Laughter Club International will help you locate one nearest you for free.

Or if you don’t like leaving the comfort of you home, Dr. Kataria has uploaded video lessons on individual laughing exercises. Here are some examples; these are not a joke.

Laughter Cream

Electric Shock

No Money Laughter

Motorboat Laughter

There’s also “talking on your cell phone laughter.” Or, “stuck in an elevator laughter” as practiced by this group in Bangalore:

It feels borderline Tim and Eric, especially Kataria’s instructional videos above. But, they are 100% genuine. Heck, Laughter Yoga was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show (RIP), so it’s well above the radar.

When looking through the YouTube channel, what’s most surprising to me is the worldwide reach of this phenomenon. Granted, laughter might be the only thing universal about humor, but how different cultures engage in laughter varies wildly. As I have written about in the past, certain cultures do not like feeling as though they are being laughed at, nor do they want to risk looking foolish in public. For others, laughing aloud and openly is considered rude. So to see these Laughter Clubs from around the world doing the same exercises and letting go of all inhibition isn’t just surprising — it’s kind of amazing.

If founding Laughter Yoga International weren’t enough for the good doctor, he also founded World Laughter Day in 1998. It’s pretty self-explanatory, except for the fact that not only is it a day to celebrate laughter, but also to promote World Peace. This guy is really swinging for the fences, people. And, it’s somewhat popular too. Over 10,000 people gathered in Copenhagen on World Laughter Day in 2000 to set a Guinness World Record of most people laughing in one place. It’s the first Sunday of every May, so if you’re looking to participate, mark your calendars for May 6, 2012.

It’s safe to say that behind nearly every self-help fad or movement is a sweet money trail, and yet that does not seem to be the case with Laughter Yoga. Sure, you can attend the Laughter Yoga Institute, become a certified teacher or buy Dr. Kataria’s seminal book Laugh for No Reason. But, there’s no expensive auditing courses, no $4,000 teacher training (I’m looking at you, regular yoga) and no requirement to purchase the book in order to be an official practitioner. Good intentions seem to abound. One of the main requirements for the teacher-training program is that you bring a costume or musical instrument for talent night. I mean COME ON.

With all this world peace and free therapy, Laughter Yoga and its prophet make little room for cynicism. And if you watch the exemplar exercise videos, it’s difficult to not laugh. I’m sorry, but laughter cream is hilarious. Perhaps not for the reasons that Dr. Kataria intended, but who cares? Laughter is laughter, right?

To me, Laughter Yoga is not just about releasing your inhibitions; it’s about embracing sincerity. Which is not only difficult for the skeptics and the cynics, it’s scary. After all, a lot of great comedy is born from great insecurity. Sincerity is the enemy and jokes are the fortress we build around ourselves for protection. Buy my book.

In the end, comedians shouldn’t lose any sleep over the threat of “Laugh For No Reason” — they’ve got plenty of other neuroses to keep them up at night. Ultimately, earned laughter will always be more satisfying than something manufactured. But I also think writing off Laughter Yoga as corny or weird would be a mistake. For starters, laughing is far superior as a collective experience than as a singularity.

Dr. Kataria claims Laughter Yoga is about spreading joy. And at its most sincere core, so is comedy. Good luck getting any comedian to admit that, though. But we like our comedians in various shades of crusty and cutting. Nobody wants to see Ned Flanders: Stand-up Comedian. But what’s the harm in seeking out both kinds of laughter?

Maybe a healthier life can be attained with two healthy doses: one of skepticism, the other of sincerity. I’m already uncomfortable, saying this. Life’s a journey, you guys. Jokes.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.