Laughter yoga, a goofy but well-studied method, is spreading rapidly as more people learn of the physical and emotional benefits of belly laughs.
'Join me: 'Ha, ha! Ho, ho! Ha, ha! Ho, ho!'" says certified laughter yoga instructor Mary Margaret Anderson Fay. About 30 women slap their knees and chime in for this laughing chant. "The whole theory is based on, when you laugh, you feel better," Anderson Fay explained at the beginning of a workshop for preschool staff at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Hopkins.
A desire to feel better may be why laughter yoga has spread to more than 60 countries within 15 years without any advertising or marketing. It's not just about being silly, feeling happier, exercising and relaxing -- research shows these methods lead to notable physical health improvements. In Anderson Fay's 25 years as a fitness and yoga instructor, she's never had such high demand for an off-site class as she's experienced with laughter yoga.
Anderson Fay leads the group through a series of exercises that have the women mingling around the room, posing, acting, making eye contact and laughing. There's the "Check-out-my-mullet-and-oh-I'm-wearing-Zubaz-too laugh," and another exercise is the "I'm-having-lunch-with-Joe-Lieberman-and-am-trying-to-get-the-spinach-out-of-my-teeth-without-him-noticing laugh." At some point in each exercise, forced, fake laughter becomes genuine.
But even if the laughter is faked the entire time, laughers are still soaking up health benefits. Laughing can infuse oxygen into the blood and organs; lower blood pressure, pulse rate and cortisol levels; improve circulation; lift depression; enhance immune and digestive functioning, and boost endorphins, leading to a more positive mood.
The body doesn't know the difference between real and fake laughter, said Dr. Dale Anderson, a retired surgeon and holistic physician. As founder and owner of ActHappy.com, he uses theater, acting and laughter to help people transform their outlook.
"You don't find the chemistry of happiness -- you make the chemistry of happiness," he said. "Laughter is certainly one of those ways that we can open our inner cellular pharmacy and pull out the inner 'uppers.'" Laughing creates positive physiological changes that can be seen on PET scans and functional MRIs, he said.
Compelling research on laughter's health perks convinced Dr. Madan Kataria to found laughter yoga (www.laughteryoga.org) with his wife, Madhuri Kataria, a yoga instructor, in India in 1995. The exercises caught on "way beyond my expectations," Kataria said.
"People ask me, 'Why laughter yoga? Why don't we just laugh naturally, why do we need to do laughter as an exercise?' I have three solid reasons," he said. The first is that research shows that a few seconds of laughter doesn't create the significant physiological and biochemical changes that occur with 10 to 15 minutes of laughter. The second reason is that in order to get the full health benefits, laughter must come from the belly. It's not often that people are in a social setting where it's appropriate to roar with big belly laughs, but in laughter yoga it's the norm. Last, the laughter doesn't rely on chance or a funny person or great joke.
Sue Ansari, a registered nurse, didn't have anything to laugh about when she went through laughter yoga teacher certification in May 2005. She'd been deeply depressed for several years and had taken out a life insurance policy with plans to commit suicide once the policy covered her death. Therapists, antidepressants and a slew of other methods had failed at treating her depression.
Ansari, of Birmingham, Mich., learned laughter yoga because she was a lymphatic therapist. She'd been teaching movement classes to breast cancer survivors because exercise and breathing, along with laughter, improve the lymph system and increase cancer-fighting immune cells. After Ansari was certified to teach laughter yoga, she started leading classes twice a week. A year and a half later, in November 2006, she realized she was no longer thinking about her plans to commit suicide.
"Laughter yoga changed so much for me, I can't even begin to explain," she said. "It just opened my heart and soul, and I feel so happy. It's not like I don't get depressed or upset, but I'll just start laughing for no reason and it's like, 'Poof! It's gone,'"
Laughter yoga didn't lift the depression overnight, Ansari said, but "I can look Madan Kataria in the face and say, 'Listen, you saved my life.'"
"If we can laugh, it changes our body physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually," said Laurie Ellis Young, a well-being instructor and founder of Breathe the Change.
Breathing from the belly stimulates a relaxation response in the body, she said. To get people to breathe from the belly, "the very best way, and the most fun way, is to get them to belly laugh," she said.
Lisa Bennett, a day-care teacher, said the laughter exercises at Anderson Fay's class feel a little weird at first, but added that, "in the end you do feel better."
"I feel more awake," she said. "I feel uplifted; I'm just in a better mood."
Sarah Moran is a freelance health writer in Minneapolis.