We’ve all heard the famous saying “laughter is the best medicine”, but this might be truer than you realise. As well as increasing mood and encouraging a positive mental outlook, laughter can strengthen your immune system, reduce pain, and improve cardiovascular health.

A woman facing the camera laughing with her eyes closed, with one hand on her hip and the other on her stomach

Photo by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

The idea of laughter as a medicine is not novel. In 1979, whilst suffering from a painful connective tissue disease, novelist Norman Cousins wrote “10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep”. Importantly, our bodies cannot tell the difference between genuine or forced laughter, so we can receive all of these benefits from merely pretending to laugh. And this is the principal behind the global phenomenon, Laughter Yoga.

“I made the discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep”  
Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness

How did Laughter Yoga begin?

In 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from Mumbai, began a laughter club after learning about the health benefits from laughing. The club began with 5 people in a public park telling jokes and making each other laugh. Quickly, they ran out of jokes to tell, and Dr. Kataria had a new idea – to remove the humour and instead try to laugh without stimulus. These laughter exercises became interspersed with deep breathing techniques, and thus, Laughter Yoga was born.

We spoke with Lotte Mikkelsen, Laughter Ambassador and Laughter Yoga Master Trainer in the UK, to learn more about this zen practice.

What is Laughter Yoga?

“Laughter Yoga combines breathing exercises that are usually used in yoga practices with our playfulness and playful exercises. Often, we forget our playfulness when we grow up because life becomes full of commitments and challenges, so this is a great way of recreating the connection to our playful self.”

What benefits do we feel from Laughter Yoga?

“There are so many, where do I start! Your mood changes when you laugh. The endorphins we produce put us in a good frame of mind, and counterbalance stress hormones like cortisol. When we reduce stress, our immunity and ability to fight illness is boosted in a really good way. In addition to all this, we breathe in a lot of fresh air, which we may not be used to as our normal breath tends to be shallow and only circulating in the top of our lungs.

There are truly many benefits to laughing and some relate to how we are with other people. Laughing together brings us closer and makes it easier to maintain and build friendships. Life is full of ups and downs and having a daily Laughter Yoga practice does not mean those challenges disappear, but what happens is that we shift our focus, seeing things in a different perspective. We become more resourceful and resilient to the changes the inevitably happen in life.”

Are there any simple exercises that we can add to our day?

“My favourite is to start as you venture into the bathroom, for many people this is first stop in the morning. When your bare feet touch the bathroom floor you can do a little tap-dance there with quick steps and an ‘eeehhh heeheeheehahahahaha’."

"Next is to look in the mirror and give yourself thumbs up with ‘hahahaha’. These are just little things we can do to start our day with laughter. When we look in the mirror or when we laugh with others the pretend ‘ha ha ha’ very quickly turns into real, contagious laughter. Simply give yourself permission to be playful.”

A photo of Lotte Mikkelsen laughing and giving two thumbs up to a women facing away from the camera wearing a blue t-shirt that says Team Carfest on the back.

Lotte Mikkelsen

Laughter Yoga as a therapy

There are lots of ongoing studies looking at the effectiveness of Laughter Yoga on health. Laughter Yoga has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, including reducing anxiety and depression. Dr. Kataria wrote in his book “Laugh for No Reason” that Laughter Yoga can increase self-confidence and self-esteem, and this has since been proven experimentally in cancer patients and in individuals suffering with addiction.

Laughter Yoga can also improve physical health. In one study looking at stress levels in first-year nursing students, levels of the stress hormone cortisol were significantly decreased after a Laughter Yoga programme. Studies have also shown Laughter Yoga can reduce insomnia severity and improve sleep quality.

Will Laughter Yoga therapy become a treatment prescribed by a doctor?

Despite all these positive outcomes, Laughter Yoga therapy is still relatively new so there is limited advice for the perfect frequency, intensity, time, and content of sessions to support health. But with classes and videos available online, prescribed laughter therapy is a cheap (sometimes free), easily accessible form of relief with no negative side effects and the potential to support overall wellbeing.

About the Author

Poppy Nathan is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham studying immunology and inflammation. In particular, her research focusses on an immuno-regulatory molecule called PEPITEM and how it can be used to help treat disease. Poppy is passionate about science communication and public engagement. You can find her on twitter @poppynathan
Lotte Mikkelson can be contacted via [email protected]

Featured photo by Rodolfo Quiros from Pixabay