Down In The Dumps? Laughing Yoga Might Be The Answer

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
Walk by Lisa Berman's yoga class in New York City, and the first thing you'll notice is the sounds. There's no calming music, no gentle swoosh of two dozen sets of hips simultaneously pushing skyward into a Downward Dog. Instead, you'll hear laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.
Berman isn't a comedian. But she teaches what's known as laughter yoga, a class dedicated to... cracking up. "You laugh as an exercise," she explains. "There are no jokes, you just laugh. You do yogic breathing, you do stretching, and you laugh."
Berman starts out each class with a quick overview of what the practice is, what the benefits are, and what the 40-minute class entails. With that out of the way, participants start laughing. The "ha ha has" forced and fake at first, Berman confirms. But, she says, laughter is contagious, and by the end of the class most of her students are genuinely cackling.
Her classes also include breathing exercises and something Berman calls laughter meditation, during which students sit in a circle, taking deep breaths, looking at one another, and guffawing. Sessions end with a few minutes dedicated to relaxation, similar to a traditional yoga class's Savasana.
It's not as woo-woo as it sounds. The practice has not been widely studied, but the research that is available is promising, seeming to back up the mental and physical benefits of fake laughter.
"Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain," Ronald E. Riggio, PhD, the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, previously told Psychology Today. "The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness."
Smiling and laughing triggers the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins that can help us feel happier for real, and more energetic too, he adds.
A recent study of 115 participants found that "simulated laughing" decreased blood pressure, caused levels of cortisol — a stress hormone — to drop, and increased participants' life satisfaction.
It's also been claimed that our body's response to repetitive laughter is similar to that of exercise. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers had participants watch scary or comedy videos, then collected blood samples. Viewers who'd been cracking up at the funny film had hormone levels that were similar to people who had just worked out.
More studies are needed to confirm these claims. But the practice may be worth a try. The only downside is that you'll likely feel a bit silly at first — but soon enough, that awkwardness might seem pretty... hilarious.
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