People concerned about their health are always looking for ways to ward off disease, relieve stress and keep fit. It may sound strange, but therapeutic laughter can help with all three of these goals.
Using laughter as treatment goes back thousands of years. Recent studies support using laughter and various therapies, such as laughter yoga, as a means of improving health. Laughter is also a universal language and can improve mental health as well.
Let’s start with a look at what happens when you laugh, and how it can help your health.
What Happens in Your Body When You Laugh
Laughter transforms your body into some physical and biochemical ways, and can, therefore, be used as a treatment for a range of conditions. Here are a few of the main effects.
Endorphins are commonly referred to as “feel-good hormones.” Endorphins are natural pain relievers that also carry important messages throughout the brain, including caring and compassion, which can even lower stress. Endorphins boost mood, optimism, and self-confidence.
The movement of the body when laughing boosts the circulation. It also alters breathing, causing you to inhale deeply and exhale fully. The two, combined, mean that your circulation starts to carry fully oxygenated blood, nourishing all parts of the body from head to toe. The full exhale helps release toxins from the body.
Gives an Organ Massage
The in-and-out breathing pattern helps massage the organs and also eliminates toxins. It can improve digestion, elimination, and excretion.
Improves the Immune System
We have lymph glands throughout our body, and they will usually swell when we are ill as the lymph tries to help us fight off the infection. We have four times more lymph in our body than we do blood. Laughter helps propel lymph throughout the body even as it improves blood circulation. In this way, the immune system is strengthened, and more toxins are removed.
Muscles that tense and then release finally relax, so you become less nervous once you laugh. Less stress means greater defense against viral infections, coughs, colds and digestive issues. Laughter can also improve mood and boost sexual health.
Laughter is an excellent reliever for depression. It can also relieve anxiety and help people face challenges more efficiently, without stressing about them.
Offers Emotional Purging
Laughter to the Ancient Greeks was a “cathartic” experience, one that purged extreme emotions for the person to regain emotional balance. Laughter can unblock tension and stress, and leave people more open in their interactions with others. Those who say laughter is the best medicine could be right.
Boosts Cardiovascular Health
When you laugh, your heart rate and blood pressure lower, thus decreasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Laughter Keeps You Youthful-Looking
Some people argue that laughter causes laugh lines or wrinkles, but others say that it keeps the muscles of the face firm and toned. Laughter can tone the core as well, giving you stronger abs.
Regarding mental health, laughter offers a range of benefits, including:
It Makes You More Resilient
Laughter makes it easier to cope with life and its challenge and to bounce back when times get tough.
Laughter Helps You Live in the Moment
It’s hard to think about the past and the future when you are enjoying a good laugh. It could be considered a mindfulness meditation that helps you live and enjoy life moment by moment.
It’s hard to feel worried or stressed when you are laughing, especially when you are with friends and family. Spending quality time with people you care about is essential for mental health. So too is having a support network of people you feel emotionally connected to. Laughter connects people.
Stops You from Taking Yourself and Other People and Situations Too Seriously
Stress can make you feel as if you are living in a pressure cooker. Laughter can ease the pressure you put on yourself and not let others intimidate you or let you down. Things seem less stressful and burdensome when you are in a good mood. Laughter can help you put things in perspective and appreciate all you have, rather than dwell on being negative and feeling miserable.
Greater Emotional Intelligence
Many people worry about IQ (intelligence quotient), but there is also such a thing as EQ (emotional quotient) – that is, the ability to read the emotions of others to interact with people in a meaningful way. One’s EQ is developed in childhood. Studies have shown that those rated the top workers in their company have what is considered to be a high EQ rather than a high IQ.
Laughter helps create a connection with others, which in turn boosts EQ. Laughter also promotes the spirit of play, so people can continue to develop their EQ into adulthood – without feeling threatened by or closed off from others in social situations that a lot of people would normally be self-conscious in, such as meeting new people.
Eliminates Negative Emotions
When we laugh, we eliminate three powerful emotions which can cause us to act in certain negative ways: anger, boredom, and fear. Defusing these negative emotions means we are much less likely to behave in a problematic way, such as fighting with another person or eating out of boredom.
We have seen just how many physical and mental health benefits therapeutic laughter offers. Let’s look now at one of the main forms of therapy: laughter yoga.
The Origins of Laughter Yoga
Ayurvedic medicine (that is, traditional Indian medicine) has been around for more than 5,000 years. India is also where yoga was developed. Yoga means union: the union of mind, body, and spirit. Ayurvedic medicine is also holistic, trying to treat the whole person by keeping them in balance to prevent disease. Laughter can be one of the therapies used by an Ayurvedic healer.
The ancient Greeks also knew about the healing power of laughter as a way to free oneself from negative emotions, purging them as you would spit out the pit of an olive. Both the Greeks and the Romans believed in “a healthy mind, a healthy body.”
In modern medicine, we have documented the role stress plays in our lives, and how it can harm physical health. Those with mood disorders such as depression often do not look after their health correctly due to their condition.
Depression is the second highest cause of disability in the world now, after hearing and vision issues. Statistics show that 50% of seniors suffer from depression and up to 75% of people who have heart conditions.
Most cases of depression are due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, but studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or “talk therapy” can relieve symptoms just as efficiently as prescriptions for antidepressants.
Another noted reliever of stress, pain and depression is exercise. It boosts mood and energy levels, improves sleep and helps burn calories. Aerobic activity increases heart rate and circulation. Anaerobic activity, or strength training, helps develop long lean muscle, which boosts metabolism naturally and enables you to become toned and trim.
Yoga for Fitness and Health
Yoga is an excellent form of workout because it can combine both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. With yoga, you use your body weight to become fit. Most forms of yoga also have a meditation component, focusing the mind and easing the mood.
By combining the theories regarding holistic health, the benefit of laughter, and the need for exercise anyone can do, laughter yoga was born.
The Development of Laughter Yoga
Laughter yoga was developed by Dr. Madan Kataria in India, with the help of his wife who was a yoga teacher. In particular, he was interested in the breath work of yoga and how laughter could help enhance the way breathing works.
He thought about forming a laughter club to harness the healing power of laughter, which by then had become well-documented in research around the world. At first, they generated the laughter through joke telling, but after a while, they ran out of tasteful jokes. Then he tried laughing just for its sake. The fake laughter soon became contagious and turned into genuine laughter.
Laughter yoga was introduced to the world with a tour in 1999, and the Laughter Yoga Institute was founded in the US in 2006 with the goal of promoting classes and training teachers in this form of yoga.
Why Practice Laughter Yoga?
Laughter yoga is a combination of deep yogic breathing, easy stretching, self-generated laughter exercises, and the encouragement of playfulness as if you were a child. There doesn’t have to be a reason to laugh to have fun, and you don’t even need to feel good when you smile. The laughter triggers itself and can last for a long time, so the practitioner experiences unconditional laughter and a feeling of joyfulness.
Joyfulness, rather than happiness, is the goal of laughter yoga. It can best be described as a feeling of well-being in body, mind, and spirit. It is believed that joyfulness is the path to unconditional love and greater emotional closeness. Joyfulness brings you in tune spiritually with others, helping you form closer bonds.
Some people compare the laughter to internal jogging or massage, shaking things up and releasing toxins. If you’ve ever laughed until your sides hurt, you can also get a sense of just how much work you will be doing to develop your core muscles in the course of a laughter yoga session.
Yoga classes are great ways to meet other people. Social isolation can be a cause of mood disorders and depression. A laughter yoga class is an even better way to get to know others and socialize in a fun and non-judgmental environment. Everyone is there to have a good time.
Yoga is not a competitive exercise, so it encourages gentle acceptance of yourself and any limitations you might perceive. Some forms of yoga can be very intense in their quest for perfection, such as Iyengar. Some, like Ashtanga, and particularly Bikram (also known as hot yoga), can also be very strenuous and therefore not suited to older people or those with medical conditions. The goal of laughter yoga is to get fit and have fun, not turn yourself into a pretzel or harm yourself through too much heat and exertion.
Classes will get you out of the house, and they are often held out in the open air, giving you even more of a change of scenery.
Classes can be found in larger cities, and the Laughter Yoga Institute website also has free resources you can use at home.
Getting Started Safely
As with any new exercise routine, it’s best to start slowly to stay safe. If you have any existing pain, it is best to wait until it has cleared up, unless your goal is to relieve chronic pain.
Respect your body. Don’t do anything that causes pain. Ask your yoga teacher for adjustments to the poses or activities, such as alternatives if you have bad knees or a bad back.
Fake it ‘til you make it. Your laughter may not be genuine at first, but it will start to become easier over time. And your body doesn’t care; it will still get all the health benefits of actual laughter.
Maintain eye contact with others. It helps you stay open to laughter and not be closed off from others.
There should be no talking of any kind during a session. The goal is to generate natural, spontaneous laughter and/or focus on your laughter breath work and overall yoga practice. Talking and joking will only distract you from getting the most out of each session.
Don’t be embarrassed to act happy. Think of a child at play. Smile, maintain eye contact, interact with others, and feel the energy surge through you even as you cleanse and purge toxins.
Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and also flush out toxins.
If you have any breathing issues such as asthma, proceed at your own pace and note how you feel at the start and end of each practice. You might find that you can breathe more easily from the belly, expanding your entire diaphragm rather than taking short gasps from the upper part of your chest.
Now that you know more about laughter yoga, it might be worth trying to see if it can help relieve any pain, stress or mood issues you might be experiencing. You might also consider going for a laughter therapy session. Let’s look next at what to expect if you attend one.
What Happens in a Laughter Therapy Session?
Laughter therapy sessions vary depending on who is giving them and what the context is. There are group therapy sessions and one-on-one sessions available.
The session will start with you checking in, assessing how you feel and whether or not you have any particular health goals for the session, such as pain relief.
In most cases, you will start with introductions and then be asked to do various exercises. This might involve thinking of something funny that happened to you recently. You don’t have to discuss issues if you don’t wish to. If you do, you might prefer a solo session to do more detailed work with the therapist, free from the constraints of feeling embarrassed.
The therapist will usually encourage you to move around, with stretching and various other physical activities, including pretending to be a train or a happy puppy. You might also do breath work to help expand your laughter. This will usually be based on some of the breathing patterns you find in yoga, such as deep breathing, lion breath, happy puppy, and breath of fire.
You will usually also practice your different kinds of laughter, with a small smile or smirk to a real belly laugh. Your therapist will observe your patterns and make suggestions for improved body alignment and where to focus the laughter so you don’t tense up and your muscles can experience deep relaxation.
Laughter exercises can also have certain goals, such a stress relief or pain relief, or easing mood issues.
The session will end with your checking out – that is, seeing how you feel at the end of the session and evaluating whether or not you have made progress towards your goals.
Most people attend once or twice a week, and continue to do so until they have achieved their goals and enhanced their health and ability to laugh in a manner that is most beneficial for their physical well-being, such as breathing, stress relief and so on.
Most insurance policies cover complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), so you should be able to find therapists in the network and access their services for only the price of a co-payment. Check cognitive behavioral therapists (CBT) as well to see if any of them use laughter as part of their therapy. Note that some insurance will offer unlimited visits, while others might allocate a certain number eligible for coverage, such as three visits.
Therapeutic laughter and laughter yoga may sound a bit ridiculous, but in some senses, that is the point. Being able to laugh, and in particular, to be able to laugh at ourselves is a great stress reliever that physically and chemically alters your body and brain. In this way, you can boost energy, improve mood, increase circulation and oxygenation, and make you feel good – even if you might feel that you have little to laugh about in your life.
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