Laugh yoga practitioners guffaw their way to good health

Is laughter really the best medicine?

In an open churchyard in south Minneapolis, a group of grown men and women are pretending to be airplanes.

They buzz past one another, wings outstretched, as if oblivious to how silly they look.

A woman in a purple hippie skirt and midriff-baring tank zooms toward a young man wearing shorts and two-day stubble.

Tony Nelson
Madan Kataria, of Mumbai, has convinced thousands to laugh for no reason at all
courtesy of Madan Kataria
Madan Kataria, of Mumbai, has convinced thousands to laugh for no reason at all

"Ha!" the woman greets the man.

"Ha! Ha!" he responds.

Suddenly, from deep inside the air traffic pattern, an airplane in a bright red shirt morphs into a human and begins to rhythmically clap: "Ho. Ho. Ha-ha-ha!"

The other airplanes drop their wings and turn into people, then join in the joyful refrain:

"Ho. Ho. Ha-ha-haaaa-aaaa-aah!"

A middle-aged man with floppy hair giggles. A lady in a black turtleneck and slacks lets out a deep guffaw. A bewildered young man chuckles quietly to himself.

Then they all turn into chickens: "Bock bock be-gawk!"

Who are these laughing maniacs? Think of them as enlightened.

These people are practitioners of laughter yoga, a phenomenon that has taken the self-help world by storm. Often, devotees find that what starts out as forced laughing quickly becomes genuine mirth. Proponents say even fake laughter has benefits.

"I don't think the body knows the difference between whether we're faking or whether there's an actual laughable situation occurring," says Gilbert Ellison, a psychologist at Southwestern Regional Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "The immune system—the body generally—seems to respond anyway."

The laugh-your-way-to-health message was first popularized not by a psychologist or medical doctor, but a journalist. In his influential 1979 bestseller, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, Norman Cousins claimed that laughter greatly reduced the pain he felt from severe, chronic arthritis. He said that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter guaranteed him two hours of pain-free sleep.

Cousins parlayed his writing success into a career as an adjunct professor of medical humanities at UCLA medical school, where he studied emotions and healing. His influence sparked the modern self-healing movement.

Today, whole foundations exist solely to promote the benefits of laughter, and two academic associations—the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and the International Society for Humor Studies—study therapeutic humor. Many scientific studies have attempted to quantify laughter's benefits.

The modern laughter yoga movement started in 1995. An Indian doctor named Madan Kataria decided he needed to lighten up, so he gathered a group of friends in a public park to tell jokes.

After two weeks, they ran out of material.

So Kataria replaced the standup routine with silly exercises.

Today, Kataria has become the laugh yoga movement's dalai lama, presiding over 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries from Mumbai to Minneapolis. In the United States alone, 352 clubs meet each week to laugh together.

In his lively book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, points out that it's hard to know if the benefits of laughter—if they exist at all—really come from laughing, or just from spending time with other people.

"If you find a positive effect for laughter, is it exclusive to laughter?" Provine asks. "Or would the same be true of talking, or yelling or singing—or just jumping up and down?"

The laughing yogis aren't too worried—for them that question is moot.

Two years ago, a former corporate trainer named Jody Ross stumbled across a laughter session at the Mayo Clinic. At the time, she was suffering from chronic back pain, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, and mood disorders.

Then she tried laughter yoga. She was instantly hooked. In April 2009, she drove down to Ferryville, Wisconsin, to attend Laughing Laura's Iowa School of Laughter Yoga. She became a certified laugh leader, and founded the Twin Cities' first laughter club.

Today, Ross is the biggest proponent of laugh therapy in Minnesota. She leads free laugh sessions on Monday nights and Thursday mornings and gets paid to bring laughter to senior facilities and treatment centers around the metro.

"Initially I did it because I thought it would make me feel more cheerful," she says. "But what happened is my back pain went away 100 percent. My fibromyalgia went away. I began sleeping better. My marriage improved.

"I just see the evidence for myself."


APRIL RIELAND STICKS her fingers in her armpits, brings them to her nose, and inhales deeply. She flings her hands above her head and bursts out laughing:

"Ah ha ha ha ha!"

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha-a-ah!" the others chortle with her.

It's lunchtime and Rieland, 23, is on a rooftop terrace in downtown Minneapolis. A huge smile spreads across her face. She's actually getting paid for this.

Rieland is a social worker, attending laugh club because a client made laughter part of his therapeutic routine. Since she began chaperoning him to the laugh class, Thursdays have become her favorite day of work.

"Laughter yoga Thursday mornings is so nice—it's a nice break," she says.

It's not like Rieland was having trouble finding comedy. Most nights, she came home, made dinner, and watched television with her fiancé: Drew Carey's Improv-A-Ganza, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory. Sometimes, they'd laugh so hard tears would roll down their cheeks.

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