Does laughter yoga really improve your health? The experts weigh in

Laughing can burn up to 50 calories in 10 minutes, says one Emirati yoga instructor

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, May 30, 2012 -  Diala (left) Maya (right) attend the Laughter Yoga class at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )
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Sitting behind an instructor and surrounded by strangers seeking to improve body and mind, most of us would be left feeling at best embarrassed, and at worst ill-mannered, if we burst into laughter in the midst of a yoga class. Yet leave a session of laughter yoga – a new (in terms of yoga's 5,000-year history) branch of the discipline – having neither giggled nor guffawed, and you may well feel a mix of the two. Or maybe just a little disheartened. Because, as the moniker so kindly gives away, when signing up for laughter yoga, the aim is to spend the best part of an hour in fits of hysterics.

Hasya yoga has its roots in Mumbai

The discipline – hasya yoga – began in the early 1990s when a Mumbai doctor, Madan Kataria, began searching for ways to help people improve their general well-being and mechanisms for coping with stress through the use of laughter, as the scientific evidence for its benefits began to mount up. He launched a Laughter Club in 1995 with only five members, and a quarter of a century later, his method is practised worldwide.

One of the people who brought hasya yoga to the UAE is Naser Al Riyami, who is also a hypnotherapist, neurolinguistic programming coach and founder of Abu Dhabi coaching company Change Works. In his sessions, the Emirati laughter yoga teacher invites participants to start with forced "hahahas" and "hehehes", offering hints at how to prompt genuine laughter through eye contact and follow the leader-type techniques. This soon transforms into genuine, contagious laughter, demonstrating the fake it until you make it approach to life. But rather than becoming breathless from the constant chuckles, the yogic aspect encourages breath control from the stomach throughout, helping to better oxygenate the body.

Laughter yoga instructor Naser Al Riyami conducts sessions at Change Work in Abu Dhabi
Laughter yoga instructor Naser Al Riyami conducts sessions at Change Work in Abu Dhabi

Laugh out loud for maximum benefit 

But is putting time aside to practise laughter really necessary? As Al Riyami highlights, often our sense of humour and laugh-out-loud reactions aren't always in sync. "What I noticed was that the things I thought were funny before [practising laughter yoga], I actually began to laugh out loud to. Previously, it seems like I was laughing internally," he says. Al Riyami was introduced to the practice through one of his colleagues several years ago, and after a two-day training session, he found himself filling in to lead a workshop in her place, teaching laughter yoga to thousands of people. Needless to say, he became a convert.

"Laughter is innate – looking at babies, you can see that the two basic forms of human communication are laughing and crying. But as we go through life, we are socialised to tone it down," he says. This, Al Riyami notes, is an element of "prudence training", which he describes as a powerful force that has been present within many cultures for thousands of years.  

French cheese brand La Vache qui rit has teamed up with Al Riyami in a bid to spread the message that laughter makes us stronger. It found that 50 per cent of those who laugh often are more likely to report being happier than those who rarely do so. Moreover, it summarised that while our 1950s counterparts spent 18 minutes laughing daily, we now spend only six minutes chuckling each day.

Al Riyami theorises that mass migration into cities is, in part, to blame for this lack of mirth. Metropolitan living can often be busy, stressful and competitive, while also being void of familiarity and shared experiences that can lead to a communal sense of humour. He speculates that, especially in cosmopolitan cities, people are keen to ensure their laughter doesn't cause offence.

The blunting of such an instinctual reaction is exactly why he advocates actively seeking out laughter in our lives. The benefits are social, mental and, as Al Riyami stresses, very much physical. "All the justification for doing the laughter starts with it being exercise. It's a vigorous cardiovascular exercise for at least the stomach muscles – you can burn up to 50 calories in 10 minutes just laughing." Calories are burnt as your heart rate rises, which in turn increases your metabolism.

Laughing keeps ill health at bay

The research by La Vache qui rit also notes that eight out of 10 people consider laughter to have a positive impact on health – and they're not wrong, as studies have shown over the years. A 2000 report by University of Maryland Medical Centre demonstrates laughter can aid in the prevention of heart disease, while a more rounded 2010 study from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology concludes that the act can enhance immunity, lower "bad" cholesterol, decrease stress hormones and improve mood. This is no surprise as the reaction releases endorphins in the brain, which can ultimately lead to bonding feelings in social settings, too, according to a 2017 research team from the University of Turku in Finland.

Anecdotally speaking, Al Riyami says that many students leave the laughter circles professing something along the lines of "I was feeling really awful, but this was great and uplifted me".

So, should we all be trading in our gym membership and therapy sessions forever in favour of laughter yoga classes? Not necessarily. While it's definitely a fun alternative to your get-fit new year's resolution, what's at the core of this practice is its takeaway: to laugh more often and to laugh out loud, from practising forced-turned-real laughter at home to planning a stand-up comedy night with friends. Laughter, after all, is innate to us all – but we may need a little help reigniting it.