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Breathe, laugh, be happy: the science behind laughter yoga

Breathe, laugh, be happy: the science behind laughter yoga

The cackles can be heard from far beyond the brick walls of the private garden playing host to a laughter yoga session. On a bright weekend morning, a group of about 40 students is visibly invigorated. At intervals they chant or clap, frolicking in a large open circle while purposely seeking eye-contact with the nearest person - most likely someone they just met. Welcome to laughter yoga.

Breathe, laugh, be happy: the science behind laughter yoga

Sometimes the best form of stress release is a great big belly laugh. That’s the idea behind Hasya Yoga, otherwise known as ‘Laughter Yoga’.

“Typically we think that laughter requires a source…like a stand up comic or hilarious movie,” writes Dr Megan C Hayes. “Yet the practice of hasya yoga tells a different story.”

The practice, designed by Indian doctor Madan Kataria in 1995, combines playful group exercises and deep breathing to promote wellness, happiness and lots of laughter.

“The goal is to build a daily habit and bring more laughter into your life,” Laughter Yoga Atlanta director Celeste Greene explained.

“It could be laughing in traffic and it could be laughing while cleaning the house. The more you laugh, the more you’re able to laugh at whatever life brings.”

The practice is based on the theory that after about thirty seconds, your body can’t distinguish between real and imitated laughter.


The benefits of laughing

Neuroscientist Sophie Scott has spent 18 years studying laughter. She’s a professor at University College London by day and, on occasion, a standup comedian by night.

“One of the big benefits of laughter is that it feels really good to laugh,” said Scott.

“You get a change in the uptake of the naturally circulating endorphins, and those are the body’s painkillers. You get a measurable increase in your ability to tolerate pain.”

Over time, according to Scott, laughter can decrease the body’s production of cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands into the bloodstream at times of stress.

High levels of cortisol have been linked to weight gain and memory loss.

At an emotional level, Scott said, laughter can be a bonding experience among family or co-workers, friends or strangers.

“When people laugh it’s a sign that they’re feeling comfortable and relaxed and safe and not exposed,” she said.

“Humans do seem to be genuinely unified by laughter.”


3 ways to practice hasya yoga

1. Warm up. A typical hasya yoga session begins with a warm up of clapping your hands and chanting ‘ho ho, ha ha ha.’ If you feel silly, embrace it! It’ll probably make you laugh even more.

2. Greet with a laugh. In a group hasya yoga session, you’ll often be asked to move around the room and shake hands with others. But instead of the usual “hello”, you make eye contact and repeat the ‘ho ho, ha ha ha’ chant.

3. On the phone. In this exercise, hold you hand to your ear to imitate a phone call. Pretend you’re speaking with someone who has said something funny and imitate a big, joyful laugh in response.

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