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Laughter Yoga. No Joke!

I don't normally find yoga all that funny, except sometimes when I tip over during tree pose and fall in a heap on the floor. But then again, I've never tried laughter yoga.

Devised in India in the mid-1990s by Madan Kataria and brought to the U.S. by a handful of Kataria-trained teachers, laughter yoga aims to supply some of yoga's stress-relieving and other health benefits without the mats, bendy/stretchy poses and other trappings of more traditional brands of the ancient Indian tradition. Just like any yoga, though, it focuses on yoking breathing to bodily action, and it works the core muscles that help hold our tummies in and keep our low backs strong.

Laughter yoga's not about humor, unless you find the sight of a bunch of people standing around with their tongues stuck out funny. It starts by taking participants through a set of exercises designed to evoke ritualized, forced laughter; no joking involved. After a few minutes, the laughter tends to become more natural, and the emotions associated with laughing kick in. Folks who have done it report feeling happier, less stressed, and, yes, even more fit.

As to laughter yoga's proven health benefits, well, they're hard to pin down. Researchers have been examining the benefits of plain old laughter ever since Norman Cousins published his Anatomy of an Illness in 1979.

Maryland's got a handful of "laughter clubs" where you can give laughter yoga a try yourself. (Some opt not to use the word "yoga" but offer the same laughing exercises and experience.) Virginia and D.C. don't appear to have formally established clubs, but that doesn't mean there aren't groups of people out there, laughing together.

In fact, it turns out Maryland is kind of a hotbed of laughter/health research: Michael Miller, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, has done research showing that laughter may have beneficial cardiovascular effects, just as stress has been shown to adversely affect cardiovascular health.

And Richard Provine, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has established himself as an expert on the psychological benefits of yukking it up. He published his laughter-related research in 2000 in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. Provine sees laughter as "a sign that things are going well in your life." And he notes, "It's a misperception that most laughter is in response to jokes. Laughter is social," he tells me. "It disappears in solitary people. If you're laughing, there are other people in your life."

But Provine says a lot of laughter research is biased by the researchers' desire to demonstrate that laughing is in fact good for you. In the end, he says, "The medical properties of laughter have been over-marketed. They may be attributable to the company you keep, not the laughter itself." In any case, Provine concludes, "If laughter feels good, isn't that enough?"

It's been a long week; I don't know about you, but I could use a laugh. Start with this John Cleese video, in which he explores laughter yoga in India.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 9, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alternative and Complementary Medicine  
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