Q: What is laughter yoga, and does it have actual health benefits as claimed?
A: Also known as Hasyayoga (from the word hasya, meaning laughter in Sanskrit), laughter yoga has nothing to do with downward dog, shoulder stands, or any other traditional yoga positions. Rather, the sessions involve various stretching and warm-up activities, including clapping, chanting in a “ho, ho, ho” manner (a technique with fast inhalations and exhalations), and other yoga breathing exercises, followed by all sorts of simulated laughing—such as laughing silently with an open mouth, laughing while humming or singing a silly song, or laughing heartily. Laughing may be done standing up, sitting, or lying down.
To decrease inhibitions, classes encourage a sense of playfulness and may use visualization and other techniques similar to those used in acting classes. You may be told to laugh while imagining you’re riding a roller coaster, or while thinking about a dispute you may have had with a neighbor or about being overcharged on a bill. You might feel silly at first, but this usually dissipates as the session proceeds.
Laughter yoga has become popular over the last 20 or so years, thanks to Madan Kataria, an Indian physician known as the “laughter guru,” who first promoted it in a public park in Mumbai and has a website, Laughter Yoga International. His book Laugh For No Reason was published in 1999. Scores of other books on the subject have followed.
There are “social laughter clubs” all over the world, where participation is generally free. You can also find classes at medical centers, community centers, and yoga studios. For example, the Laguna Laughter Club is a free daily meetup at California’s Laguna Beach. The Laughter Yoga Salon in New York City promotes itself to baby boomers and Gen-Xers. It’s even possible for laughter yoga classes to be conducted over the phone.
A few very preliminary studies suggest that laughter yoga may provide some health benefits, though the studies are small and have design problems. For instance, a study in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research in 2014, which included 38 male nursing students, found that those who did eight one-hour sessions of laughter yoga over four weeks had improvements in anxiety, depression, and sleep compared to a no-intervention control group.
Larger and better studies are needed to confirm such effects, but in the meantime, there’s no downside to adding more laughter to your life.
Also see Is Laughter the Best Medicine?