By Heather Milar
Recently, I attended an alternative medicine workshop at the UC San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine when the instructor asked us to put our hands straight up in the air and then bring them down slowly to our laps as we laughed.
This was about 7:30 p.m. I’d had a long day; I was hungry. I didn’t feel like laughing. The exercise seemed ridiculous. But as I brought my arms down, I laughed. At first, I didn’t feel like it. By the time my arms were halfway down, the guffaws felt more genuine. By the time my arms were all the way down, everyone in the room seemed more friendly. I felt less grumpy, even cheerful.
I’d just had my first taste of “laughter yoga.”
I know what you’ re probably thinking: “What will these people in California come up with next? Giggling while doing gentle yoga poses and breathing exercises? Telling jokes in gibberish? Give me a break!”
But before you shake your head and click to another page, consider this: The simple act of laughing, whether you feel like it or not, can help defuse stress. I can tell you from my brief experience that it really can make you feel more positive, more hopeful, more energetic.
It all began with Dr. Madan Kataria, a doctor in Mumbai, India. While doing research in the mid 1990s, he was struck by the number of studies that showed both physiological and psychological benefits of laughing. Chuckling may lower your blood pressure, lift depression, and boost your immune system.
Over time, he developed group exercises that combine yoga breathing techniques with laughter. You laugh without jokes, or humor. It feels good. Honest.
I had a college boyfriend who always used to say that it’s when you’re feeling most busy and pressured that you should take some time to have fun. Then you can return to the fray refreshed and energetic. I haven’t seen that boyfriend in 25 years, but I still follow that advice.
Perhaps the same may be true of laughing: The time you most need to laugh is the time that you least feel like laughing. When you’re going through cancer treatment, the last thing you really feel like doing is laughing. Maybe that’s a cue that you should laugh.
The thing I like about this is that you don’t have to feel funny or cheerful. Just go through the motions of laughing, get your diaphragm and your lungs involved. I’m not going to go as far as some laughter yoga proponents who say that chortling may contribute to world peace. But those simple physical acts may encourage happier feelings.
While science has yet to completely validate the benefits of laughter yoga, one study shows that it’s as least as effective as an exercise class in defusing stress and lifting depression.
That’s no joke.