If you have ever spotted a group of people in a park standing in a circle clapping and laughing “ho, ho, ha-ha-ha”, you’ve stumbled across a Laughter Yoga Club in progress. Growing in popularity around the world, this wellbeing practice that comprises laughter, pranayama (breath work), Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) and meditation was founded just 16 years ago by Dr Madan Kataria, a physician in India.
I turn up to my first class, held by Laughter Yoga Teacher Kylie Willows at Sydney’s Centennial Park on a Saturday afternoon, nervous that I won’t be able to laugh on cue. As the dozen or so people of all ages form a circle under a tree, Kylie puts us at ease, explaining that everyone has the inherent capability to laugh and that as kids we often laughed at anything without the need for humour.
“The body can’t tell the difference between real laughter and fake laughter, so you still get the same physiological effects,” she says, referring to the body’s release of feel-good endorphins that occurs after a hearty laughter session. “When they talk about mind-body phenomenon, this is a perfect example of it. Things that happen in your mind influence your body and vice versa.”
Starting with some gentle stretching, this seems a lot more like yoga than what I had imagined, though the subsequent exercise is a little out of left field—a name game that is tricky enough to get us laughing at our mistakes. Kylie signals it’s time to move on with the transition exercise, saying “ho, ho, ha-ha-ha” while clapping her hands and we join in, making eye contact with others in the group as we walk around.
“Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha are sounds that come from the diaphragm, which is the main muscle involved in breathing and one of the biggest components in laughing,” says Kylie. “When you say ‘ho, ho, ha-ha-ha’ it makes the diaphragm move up and down and makes laughter flow more readily.”
The clapping, she explains, is thought to stimulate acupressure points in the hands “and the eye contact stimulates laughter, because laughter is contagious. Moving around the group clapping, it makes people start to laugh because it looks quite funny,” says Kylie.
As we soon learn, acting a little silly is a big part of the Laughter Yoga premise. “Human dodgems” sees us moving around with our hands out front, pressing into other’s and laughing as we spin around and change direction. For “the garden party laugh”, we pretend to hold a tea cup and saucer and say “Hellooooo” and laugh the way posh people do.
Laughter Yoga has 40 foundation exercises, however hundreds more have been invented by Laughter Yoga Clubs around the world. When asked which exercise is her favourite, Kylie starts to giggle, “I really like the ‘Hollywood greeting laugh’—you do three air kisses to the side of one another, then throw up your hands and laugh. I like pretending and being silly, but some people feel a bit awkward with that.”
Does the uncomfortableness go away, I wonder? “You just reach a point where you’re laughing on the way to class,” says Kylie. “As soon as I start to do one of the exercises I’m in hysterics, because my body remembers the movements and the fact that there is laughing involved—that’s muscle memory.”
Laughter Yoga Teacher Kathy Popplewell, who is based on the NSW Central Coast, agrees. “Once people have had the experience of rediscovering that childlike laughter and playfulness, which is what Laughter Yoga is all about, they’re very enthusiastic about it,” she says.
And sure enough, halfway through the one-hour class I check in with myself and notice a beautiful, light feeling. When Kylie asks us to lie down for a relaxation based on Yoga Nidra and then tells us to laugh with abandon, we do—and it’s highly contagious.
For Kathy Popplewell, Laughter Yoga provided the means to rediscover her inner joy. “I had graduated from a yoga teaching diploma and realised that I didn’t remember the last time I was really happy. I was only 22,” she says.
“I could remember being really young and joyful, dancing, singing and playing, and I’d lost that through my journey in life, through the health challenges we had within our family.” A few months later she became interested in Laughter Yoga after seeing a segment on TV. Two years later, in 2006, she attended a teacher training with Dr Kataria in Australia.
“Laughter Yoga was a big catalyst in helping me get back to that place of living through a state of joy and doing things that made me feel good and expressed who I truly was,” she says. Now Kathy is embarking on a year-long Laughter Yoga tour of Australia. “My goal is to train 1000 Laughter Yoga Leaders, just because of the massive difference it has made in my life. It’s such an accessible, simple, easy-to-do and free tool that has such multidimensional effects on us—physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and socially.”
While research on Laughter Yoga is fairly recent and ongoing, laughter has been studied widely and is known to relieve stress, headaches, pain and depression, give a significant heart rate boost, and enhance sleep and self-confidence. “It’s also great exercise,” says Kathy. “It can strengthen the respiratory system and massage the internal organs. It can also help us to be more present in the moment, and more creative and focused, because it brings us back to a state of balance.”
Laughter Yoga can also be transformational. “Some people may have a massive transformation in that first session or workshop, for others it’s like planting a seed, watching it growing and getting stronger and stronger over time as they practice and become more familiar and comfortable with the experience,” says Kathy.
“A lot of us have been conditioned out of expressing laughter, play and joyfulness, instead being conditioned into this serious, ‘life is tough, there’s so many bad things going on in society that we should feel guilty if we’re happy, being joyful or playing’.”
Kylie Willows agrees, “I feel that uncomfortableness is the only barrier to the method, because the method works effectively with nearly everybody.”
As more Laughter Yoga Leaders are trained, the practice is finding wider reach—from free clubs in local parks and corporate classes to library openings, sessions in yoga studios and one-on-one therapy. “Dr Kataria’s personal goal is world peace through laughter. When you laugh with people it connects you with them—in your mind they become your friend and you genuinely relax with them. So aiming for worldwide peace through laughter isn’t so far-fetched—it breaks down any prejudices or barriers you might have,” says Kylie.
To find Laughter Yoga near you, visit laughteryoga-australia.org.