Think of laughter yoga as a form of mental fitness. Aim for just 15 minutes a day, and you’ll be surprised by just how great you feel.
If you’ve seen any of the TikTok videos that feature someone laughing almost maniacally, you may have wondered what this silliness was all about — but then found yourself smiling or laughing right along with them. Laughter yoga, as the practice is coined, goes to show that laughter is indeed contagious. But what is it, really, and how does laughter yoga actually work?
What Is Laughter Yoga?
“I like to describe laughter yoga as heavy on the laughter, light on the yoga,” explains Sarah Routman, a Minneapolis-based certified laughter yoga leader who runs a company called Laugh Healthy. In truth, when Routman describes the technique, she tends to avoid using the word yoga at all, as true yoga enthusiasts usually say, “that’s not really yoga,” and those who aren’t into yoga will brush it off. A better way to explain the concept of laughter yoga might be to say that it’s the act of engaging in deliberate, playful laughter, which sounds delightfully easy to try. “It’s learning how to laugh on purpose and recognizing that your body doesn’t know the difference between laughing on purpose and waiting on another reason to laugh,” says Routman.
Believe it or not, only about 20 percent of your laughs occur because you thought something was funny, according to research from Laughter: A Scientific Investigation by neuroscientist Robert Provine. Rather than chuckling at a joke or a hilarious YouTube video, people laugh because they’re nervous, because they’re delighted about something, or simply when they want to make a social connection with another person, says Routman. For instance, picture a baby: They start to laugh around 3-months-old, and adults give them so much positive reinforcement, that the infants keep laughing. “They learn that they get connection and approval from us when we laugh,” says Routman. Even as an adult, you never really outgrow that need for social approval.
The (Abbreviated) History of Laughter As Medicine
The practice of laughter yoga actually isn’t new; it’s more of a recoined term to describe a method of laughter therapy that’s been used for decades. William Fry, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, helped to pioneer the research on the health benefits of laughter back in the 1960s. Fry found that laughter enhanced the activity of immune system cells through an experiment in which he drew blood at regular intervals while watching comedies. In author Norman Cousins’ 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, he described how he battled a fatal disease for years through his practice of mindful laughter. And psychotherapist Annette Goodheart published a book titled Laughter Therapy in 2006 that included 25 ways to help yourself laugh about everyday things. These are just a few of the people who have been touting and prescribing laughter as part of a proper wellness routine over the years. (Related: Peloton’s Ally Love Isn’t Here for One-Note Wellness Routines)
Why Laughter Yoga Is Everywhere Right Now
One of the main reasons laughter yoga is becoming more popular is due to fewer opportunities in general for humor in pandemic life, suggests Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., director of psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and advisor to Laugh.Events, a company that brings comedic acts to corporate happenings. “In many ways, finding humor in the midst of a crisis can seem insensitive or inappropriate,” says Dattilo. “However, we do know that humor can be key for coping and that we should probably do it even more during difficult times. I suspect this is why memes and TikTok videos have become so popular this year as a way to connect and communicate, share a laugh, find relief, and cope with the day-to-day stress.” (Related: 3 Expert Techniques to Stop Stress Before It Gets Out of Control)
The Health Benefits of Laughter
You know that laughter makes you feel better when you do it, but what’s actually going on to have that effect? Well, the science behind laughter supports its role in two major areas: strengthening social cohesion and reducing pain, says Datillo. In several laboratory studies, laughter was suggested to play a crucial role in social bonding through the release of endorphins, which also results in the reduction of pain because of endorphins’ opioid-like effects, she adds.
Other health benefits of laughter may include better immune function, improved cardiovascular health, reduced anxiety, and improved mood, according to various studies. Laughter has even been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce muscle tension, which makes it a powerful anti-stress agent. And, just a moment of laughter can help you think more clearly and creatively and help strengthen your sense of connection with others. “Honestly, we need laughter more now than ever,” says Dattilo.
Simply put, laughter is one of the fastest ways to feel better. Dattilo says she regularly prescribes laughter for patients she’s treating for depression or anxiety, and notes that it’s also a fast-acting stress reliever. “You can’t be laughing and stressed out at the same time — the responses are incompatible in the brain,” she explains. That’s because laughter triggers a release of feel-good chemicals designed to reduce both physical and emotional pain and stimulates the pleasure center of the brain (called the nucleus accumbens), which can be underactive in people suffering from depression, says Datillo. You can actually think of laughter as a form of mental fitness, she adds. Laughing helps to keep your brain in good emotional shape. (Related: I’ve Tried 100+ Stress-Relief Products — Here’s What Actually Worked)
What’s more, it’s generally understood by experts that as people get older, they tend to laugh less overall. Specifically, adults laugh around 18 times a day, compared to children who laugh about 300 times a day, according to Datillo. That sad fact coupled with the turmoil of last year and it’s safe to say you likely haven’t been laughing enough. The good news? “I suspect people laugh more than they realize, but some of the benefits of laughter come from the intentional practice of laughing,” says Dattilo. She suggests making laughing a practice you cultivate, similar to how you might make time for gratitude practice, journaling, or meditation.
How to Practice Laughter Yoga
Want to experiment with laughter yoga — no TikTok account required? Try these four easy exercises recommended by Routman, who suggests getting at least 15 minutes total of good belly laughs a day (i.e. it doesn’t have to be in one sitting). Yes, the concept of laughing on cue will feel really awkward at first, but that’s the point. “That’s the part that leads to genuine laughter… it catches you unaware,” says Routman.
Smile-Ups: Stand in front of a mirror, or even better, face to face with a friend or family member. Practice breaking into a big smile 10 times. You can also do this when confronted with a stressful situation, such as being stuck in traffic. You’ll be amazed how much better you feel after doing this, says Routman.
Laughter Breaths: Find a comfortable seated position and take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you exhale, repeat “ha ha ha” as long and as loud as you can. It sounds ridiculous, but give it a try and see if you end up balled over in actual laughter, especially when trying it with a friend. There’s another benefit of this exercise, too: Laughing is your body’s natural way of increasing oxygen flow and getting rid of more carbon dioxide, says Routman. And the more O2 you have coursing through your body, the better your cells and organs can function. (See also: What Is Belly Breathing and Why Is It Important for Exercise?)
Hand Puppet: Struggling with negative self-talk? Get rid of it by acting it out. This exercise, which you can also call the “I love myself” laugh, helps you to recognize the silliness of those thoughts. Lift up one hand and imagine it’s a hand puppet, and start putting those negative thoughts into words using a funny voice and moving your hand puppet accordingly. Then, take your other hand and “squash” the hand puppet with laughter.
Silent Laughter: Pretend you’re laughing silently to yourself, keeping your mouth closed. Try to keep it in, then eventually let out the laughter. Another version of this is pretending to stifle a fake laugh, which usually turns into authentic laughter.
Still not sure you can get into laughter yoga on your own? In addition to TikTok, there are many YouTube videos out there with laughter yoga exercises, and lots of communities have free laughter clubs, too. (Find one near you using this tool from Laughter Yoga University.) Routman hosts a free 15-minute call open to anyone each Monday to get people laughing together and also hosts daily Facebook Live sessions at 2 p.m. ET for groups to laugh together. Clubhouse, a social networking app that lets people gather in audio chat rooms, is also starting to see more and more rooms dedicated to laughter yoga.
“Any opportunity to laugh and to cultivate an intentional practice around it — in addition to the other health- and wellness-promoting activities that you know work, like effortful exercise, natural sleep, social connection, gratitude, and meditation — is well worth it,” says Dattilo.