How Laughter Yoga Changed My Life & My Mind

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unnamed-2Photography by Sunny Shokrae.
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, Dr. Madan Kataria 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. Dr. 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, aka 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.

unnamed-3Photography by Sunny Shokrae.
The class began with simple warm-ups: a few rhythmic "ha ha ha"s and "ho ho ho"s, accompanied by an up-tempo playlist (and, occasionally, Neil's flute). As both the only real student and a newbie, Beth's frenetic energy was focused entirely on me — and I soon realized that if I didn't get into the swing of things, this would be a very long hour. Beth, Neil, and I ran around the room like children, tossed hula hoops back and forth, pretended we were snooty guests at a fancy party, and toasted imaginary wineglasses, punctuating every action with a resounding "ha!"

I checked my watch and saw that only fifteen minutes had gone by. Honestly, I almost cried.

Next, Beth and I sat on the floor; she asked me to tell her about something I worried about — but in gibberish. I stalled, and she took the lead, gushing a torrent of stressed-out gobbledygook. Then, she looked at me for a response. "Mishbiffduck!" I replied. And, I meant it. Beth's expression and tone had let me know she was sharing something real. The words didn't matter. In fact, without language in the way, I felt instant empathy for her plight. So, I started to babble about my current familial drama, my work stress, my stupid, teenaged neighbors who'd kept me up all week setting off firecrackers on the roof. I let it rip, and Beth responded with shock and outrage — the kind of sympathy you just can't expect when you're whining out loud in plain English.

Finally, we took a look at all these problems and grievances, and had a good, hard laugh at them. By then, my laughter was somewhere between fake, awkward, and genuine. Because, really, what's more laughable than two adult women sitting on the floor and venting unintelligibly in the middle of the afternoon?

When I left the class, I felt relief — and it wasn't because the class was over. Somewhere in all the running around and gibberish chatter, I'd cracked open a little. I'd crossed the line from grown-up into grown-up-who-was-once-a-kid. Yes, it was silly, but when was the last time I'd been just silly? I went back to the office feeling open, calm, and a little bit over myself. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been those things.

For the next couple of weeks, I decided to try using Laughter Yoga on a daily basis. Practitioners recommend 15 minutes of laughing per day in order to really get the benefits. One morning, I decided to try laughing as I got dressed for work. Again, time seemed to grind to a halt. I checked the clock after what felt like at least 10 minutes, to discover that only two had gone by.

Later in the week, I found myself running late to an event. On top of my tardiness, it was pouring rain, and I was wearing sandals. I felt the anxiety and flutter of apologies I'd have to deliver the second I arrived, soaked and slipping in my shoes. It was kind of funny, actually. Not funny enough to laugh, but I decided to laugh anyway. For 10 minutes, I sloshed across the Lower East Side, umbrella tilted down, ha-ha-ha-ing and ho-ho-ho-ing all the way. I don't know if it was the laughter that chilled me out, or the simple reminder that being late and wet isn't something to cry over. Either way, it worked.

lisaPhoto: Courtesy of Lisa Levine.
One Sunday afternoon, I headed to Greenpoint to check out another Laughter Yoga workshop at Maha Rose, a local healing center founded by Lisa Levine. The quiet, cozy vibe in Lisa's studio was different than the last class I'd taken, though she, too, greeted me with startling warmth. There were six of us in the group that day, though her regular Wednesday night class typically brings a bigger crowd. Still, I was only half as shy as I'd been the first time. When the warm-ups started, I just looked at the ceiling and ha-ha-ha'd.

Not every Laughter Yoga class teaches the same way. In Lisa's, we lightly strolled around the room rather than running. We spoke about our stressful issues, but we did so in English — the whole group laughing along as we bemoaned expensive roof repairs and nasty fights picked with parents. It was different than the experience of venting with Beth, but sitting in a group laugh-talking awkwardly in front of other women being similarly awkward was just as cathartic and liberating.

The more we laughed, the less defensive we appeared. "It’s just the mind that gets scared or doesn’t want to look silly," Lisa told me later. "When we laugh really hard, we let go of all that, and then we arrive deeply in the present moment."

After 45 minutes, it wasn't just easier to be silly; it was easier to be sad, raw, and connected to one another. The workshop ended in a kind of laughter-tantrum: all of us lying on the floor, stomping our feet and pounding our fists as we laughed maniacally at the ceiling. Some moments I'd be faking, and then the laughter turned real — loud and ridiculous. Another woman's laughter turned to tears, though that was no surprise; I had a lump in my throat myself. And, when I left, my body felt relieved and relaxed as if I'd had good, long cry. Yet, I was grounded, open, and present in a way I haven't been since the invention of the iPhone.

I hadn't expected this phenomenon, but Lisa explained that "when we laugh, we're cleaning out the emotional channels of our body. So, if there are tears that need to be shed, the laughter will bring them to the surface. Sometimes, there are emotions that we haven’t been willing to feel or haven’t had the time or space to feel. And, when we give ourselves permission to laugh, other things that are on or near the surface get released."

That's the magic at the core of this practice. Laughter Yoga seems to slough off that callus we've all developed over the course of adult life. We might need that callus in order to function in our day-to-day lives, but there's a cost as well. We may not be able to walk around feeling all damn day, but in one brief, intense hour, Laughter Yoga seems to trick our bodies and brains into letting it all out. It's part purge and part playtime.

"I've had two people pee their pants [in class]," Lisa told me. I believe it. Laughter yoga is full of surprises — sometimes you're crying and other times you're running to the bathroom. But, in our over-scheduled, over-regulated, all-too-adult lives, it's hard to come by a moment of genuine surprise. It's even harder to find a space that encourages and enables you to expose the childishness inside you. But, if you can do it — if you can just quit being such a big, bad grown-up for a minute — you'll find there's a great deal of power in laughing like a child.

During Lisa's classes, "quite often, someone will catch a deep wave of laughter, where they can’t stop. At some point, they start apologizing. I say 'Don’t apologize. Catch that wave of bliss and ride it as far as you can.'" You never know where it will take you, but it's somewhere you need to go.