The World Laughter Tour and
The Doctor Kataria School of Laughter Yoga
Training Leaders to Bring Mirth to a Mournful World
A History and Comparison of the two primary schools/proponents of unconditional Laughter-For-Health
This is a chapter form Jeffrey Briar's upcoming book The Laughter Revolution: How Laughter Will Save the World. Copyright Jeffrey Briar - do not reprint without permission. Contact: Phone/fax (USA) 949.376-1939 or write to JoyfulB@cox.net .
The “Joyologist” who founded the World Laughter Tour
Steve Wilson began his practice as a psychologist in 1964. In his early career, he worked with women in prisons, juvenile offenders and people in drug rehabilitation. From 1973-1981 he was Chairman of Mental Health Technology at Columbus State Community College (Ohio).
In 1984 Steve attended a workshop on humor for psychologists. Inspired by this experience, from 1984-1997 he immersed himself in the burgeoning field of therapeutic humor and laughter. He gave many presentations for businesses, led workshops, and gave seminar on topics including "Putting Humor to Work at Work," “Healing Power of Humor” and “Humor-Powered Classrooms.”
The American (Mid-)Westerner heads East
In 1997, the INDUS Foundation (an organization which encourages collaborative educational projects between India and the USA) invited Wilson to lecture to emerging businesses on "How to Create Positive Working Environments." He went to India in April 1998 where he encountered several laughter-advocating teachers and met Dr. Madan Kataria in Bombay (Mumbai). Wilson saw the Laughter Clubs which had resulted from Kataria’s work since 1995. Wilson also learned of Kataria’s “World Laughter Day” which had first occurred three months earlier (on January 11, 1998). The laughter club movement in India was already so popular that over 12,000 people had attended that first World Laughter Day celebration (Laugh for No Reason, p. 204, 2007 edition).
Wilson resolved to introduce Kataria and the Laughter Club experience to the western world. Back in the states, Wilson contacted Kataria and proposed bringing the good doctor to the USA for a tour of varied locations, to take place the following year.
A paper was published: “Mumbai, Home of Laughter Clubs and World Laughter Day” written by Steve Wilson with material by Dr. Madan Kataria. In an early-1999 newsletter Wilson wrote about the paper: “This describes a typical laughter club in Bombay and tells the aims and objectives of Laughter Clubs International.” Wilson asks his readers to purchase materials and prepare to practice healthy laughter as this “will give Dr. Kataria and the World Laughter Tour a warm welcome around the world in years to come and in the United States in June 1999.”
The stage was set for a meeting of world views: the reasoning of western psychology to complement the spiritual wisdom of the East. This was to be Kataria’s first-ever trip outside of India, and he was excited about visiting America, “the leader country of the world - whatever happens in America happens everywhere.” (Kataria, letter to the author, March 2010)
Founding of the “World Laughter Tour”
Wilson invited Karyn Buxman (a nurse and accomplished speaker) to join him and Kataria to create the trio of professionals who formed the first World Laughter Tour. (See Karyn’s interview elsewhere in this book). Karyn and Steve were colleagues who shared affiliations with the National Speakers Association, Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, and the Journal of Nursing Jocularity. Wilson wrote: “World Laughter Tour was an idea conceived in April of 1998, confirmed in July in a brief commitment ceremony between Steve and Karyn Buxman, and delivered via website a few months later” (WLT website). The internet was a relatively new technology at the time; Wilson and Buxman thought it could be used advantageously to spread the Laughter Club idea.
Kataria wrote: “The World Laughter Tour is the brainchild of Steve Wilson, who teamed up with Karyn Buxman and me.” Kataria asked his readers to help bring the tour to “their communities all over the world.” Those interested in helping would receive a press kit including an overview of WLT and “the credentials of the expert team of Kataria, Buxman and Wilson” (Laugh For No Reason, 1st edition ). Kataria used the expression “team” but Wilson and Buxman said they felt the relationship was of colleagues with a mutual interest in promoting the benefits of laughter (there was no formal partnership).
In his WLT newsletter from 1999, Wilson shared he would be “spending 24/7 with Dr. Kataria” during the upcoming tour. Wilson joyfully announced that he had “been appointed to be President of the United States Division of Laughter Club International.” He was hopeful that “Americans will love the laughter club exercises that have become so popular in India.” But he was also concerned that the media might see the laughter clubs as a strange cult-like phenomenon, or that Americans might not go for the idea.
The World Laughter Tour Hits the Road
The “Team of Experts” Wilson, Kataria and Buxman
On May 27 of 1999, the World Laughter Tour had its official kickoff at Columbus State Community College with a seven-week tour to follow. In a 1999 “On the Road”-style article (available on the WLT website) entitled “Nobody Helped,” Wilson wrote: “Dr. K[ataria] and I, along with Karyn Buxman, a nurse from Hannibal, Missouri, are traveling across the USA as The World Laughter Tour, giving lectures and demonstrations…” Wilson’s apprehensions were relieved when the media took a liking to the laughter phenomenon, and people turned out in goodly numbers. Kataria and Wilson also had the pleasant company of their wives Madhuri and Pam on the tour.
Although Buxman was not present for all of the presentations, she said of the tour: “It felt very much like a team effort. We spent many hours discussing, planning, sharing ideas, sharing meals, sharing laughs… To me, it went beyond just being a team. It felt more like extended family.”
One of the highlights of the expedition was when the trio of Kataria, Wilson and Buxman (the Doctor, the Psychologist and the Nurse) gave a well-received presentation at the annual conference of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) on July 1, 1999 in Oakland, California. Shortly thereafter, all returned home: Dr. and Mrs. Kataria to India, Wilson and Buxman to their headquarters in the American Midwest.
After the Tour was Over
With the first journey behind them, the Trio of Experts began to follow separate paths. Nurse/Speaker Buxman was not attracted to the idea of personally presenting leader training programs, as she considered her greater strength to be in giving keynote presentations and “serving as a rainmaker - spreading the word about therapeutic laughter and laughter clubs to large audiences…” Karyn continued to focus primarily on her speaking career.
Dr. Kataria had hoped the idea of a social movement (centered in free-of-cost laughter clubs) would spread around the world, while Wilson turned his focus to a more business-oriented model (satisfying western standards to legitimize the work, and selling training workshops). Wilson spread his version of Laughter Leadership (sharing the technique of the Laughter Club) in the USA as the “World Laughter Tour” while Kataria continued to offer Laughter Club and Laughter Yoga programs, lectures, and trainings in India and the rest of the world.
“I do not want to discount the role of Steve Wilson in bringing me to the United States. Steve Wilson did a great job in introducing Laughter Yoga to America.” -- Madan Kataria, MD
Today, these three laughter champions travel all over the globe sharing the benefits of therapeutic laughter.
Differences between WLT and Kataria School Trainings
Your author attended (and assisted) at several Laughter Yoga Leader Trainings presented by Dr. Kataria in 2005, 2006 and 2007. I completed the WLT Certified Laughter Leader Training delivered by Steve Wilson in Arizona in October 2006, and I have been an active participant/contributor on the WLT Leader-graduates’ listserv since that time.
Considering the Primary Practice: The Laughter Club
The fundamentals of the Laughter Club are identical in the two schools. These elements were the basic components of Dr. Kataria’s laughter clubs since their origin in India (years before the existence of World Laughter Tour). These essential concepts and activities are:
* Laughing is practiced as a form of exercise (without needing jokes, humor or comedy; the focus is on participation, not performance)
* Participants are encouraged to interact with each other and make frequent eye contact; a sense of childlike playfulness is promoted (this playful attitude evokes the emotional qualities of mirth and merriment; thus the laughter becoming genuine and heartfelt)
* The leader demonstrates various “Laughter Exercises” which give participants a model to follow; the leader then gives a cue for everyone to perform the exercise together
* Exercises usually conclude with the clap/chant which uses the sounds “Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha”
* Other stretches and breathing practices are occasionally practiced between laughter exercises
* Clubs are non-political, non-religious, and non-judgmental; everyone is welcome
* All share an ultimate vision of World Peace
The Kataria School Two-Day Leader Training typically costs US$250 - $295 which includes a comprehensive Training Manual. Certification is for life; there are no renewal fees. The Laughter Clubs which graduates establish can be listed on Kataria’s website at no charge.
The World Laughter Tour Two-Day Leader Training costs approximately US$400 including required textbooks and Training Manual. (My tuition included a box lunch.) Payment of an annual renewal fee is required to retain active status (at the time of this writing: $46); there is a charge (and annual renewal fee, currently: $65) for listing of each laughter club.
The opinions which follow are the thoughts of your author. I admit a certain bias towards the coach who first touched me deeply with the soul of this work: the gentle man at its source, Dr. Madan Kataria. There are virtues to the contributions of all involved with this good laughter work, and each has positively impacted the field. By their examples, at the very least, each has also influenced and contributed to the work of the others.
Content: What The Author Found Missing in the WLT Training
To yours truly, the most striking differences between the two schools lie in topics which occur in Kataria’s approved trainings but were not present in the Wilson curriculum. (These were added after the initial meeting of Kataria, Wilson and Buxman.) Practices learned from Kataria which I cherish (which were absent from the WLT experience) are:
- The use and practice of Gibberish (speaking in “non-language” which does not make sense to anyone, including the speaker)
- Laughter Meditation practices (an extended period of laughing spontaneously - sometimes with eye contact, sometimes with eyes closed -without any modeling from the Leader)
- The practice: “Very good, very good, Yay!” (clapping, breathing and cheering together) performed to cultivate childlike playfulness; as an alternate method to conclude a period of laughter exercise; and as a technique for connecting with other laughter practitioners worldwide
The word “Yoga” had also been omitted in the WLT version. Wilson (who resides in the relatively-conservative American Midwest) was concerned that some Americans perceive Yoga as representing a cult or religion. He also did not consider himself a Yoga expert, and thus felt it was not appropriate to call himself a Yoga (or Laughter Yoga) teacher. Buxman said “The three of us spent considerable time thinking about what terminology would be best served in North America. After much discussion, the term ‘Laughter Clubs’ seemed to be the best fit.”
Once he’d left the USA, Dr. Kataria was less concerned about meeting Wilson’s conditions. Convinced of the irrefutable benefits of self-stimulated laughter, Kataria began to freely use the word “Yoga”(as in “Laughter Yoga”) with the intention that this would help make the term more acceptable to the public everywhere, including audiences in the West. Kataria emphasizes that the only aspect of traditional Yoga that need be indicated as relevant is the use of time-tested, non-religious breathing techniques, now serving as a vehicle for delivering the health benefits of laughter.
Content: What WLT Contributed Anew
The most valuable new aspect of Wilson’s work was to make the validation of therapeutic laughter and the Laughter Club experience more acceptable to the standards of Western medicine and science (as well as more appetizing to Western businesses). Wilson saw the need “not to convert people to Eastern” beliefs, but “instead present laughter in a way more palatable to Western mentality.”
Wilson gathered together materials (better organizing the myriad research reports), generated systems for documenting and promoting laughter’s benefits, established a stronger support structure for program graduates, and made more effective use of the internet (and other technologies as they appeared).
He assembled an Advisory Board of highly recognized (Western) scholars and researchers, thereby adding credibility to the field of Therapeutic Laughter.
As specifically regards the Laughter Leaders’ Training Program, the most notable addition is what Wilson calls “Good-Hearted Living.” This is a collection of prescribed daily attitudinal practices (6 per week, Saturday and Sunday repeat) to systematically develop habits of: Giving Compliments [Appreciation] - Gratitude - Flexibility - Kindness - Forgiveness; and Taking Time for Pleasure, Rest and Recreation (for the latter, Wilson metaphorically offers the phrase “Weekends are for Chocolate”). Wilson said “more psychologically-oriented attitudes” were needed “to engender a leaning towards laughter.”
A precursor to these attitude-habits can be observed in Kataria’s teachings which he called “Sensible Living” (also see the chapter on “The Inner Spirit of Laughter”). Wilson (in an interview with Cynthia Levin, Psy.D.) described Kataria’s “Sensible Living” discipline as activities “to reduce anger, to be less judgmental; to be more appreciative, more forgiving, more grateful.” For years, Kataria had been urging Laughter Club members to practice Giving Compliments (expressing Appreciation) on Mondays, and Extending Forgiveness on Fridays. (Only two days had such life-attitude coaching.) Wilson filled the rest of the week with days for the practices of Gratitude, Flexibility and Kindness respectively, and rounded out the weekend with Rest & Relaxation (“Chocolate”) to create a day-by-day recipe for “Good-Hearted Living.”
The relative simplicity of the urgings of “Sensible Living” (and “The Inner Spirit of Laughter”), contrasted to the more didactic advice of “Good Hearted Living,” might be seen as an example of the differences between two cultures. In India (long steeped in spiritual values) the cultural norm assumes that once a person is happy (whether through laughter, a pleasant marriage, achieving material wealth, or any other method) such a person will naturally perform spiritually-rewarding actions (such as acts of kindness, compassion, generosity and love). Westerners, with our tendency towards materialism and dependence on rationalizing, may need to be more deliberately trained that once we are on the path towards happiness, we need to reinforce our progress by sharing the good feelings (not just hoarding them selfishly) through appropriate practices, such as acts of kindness and love.
Observation and Opinions
Contrasting Philosophies - We’re on the same page, but the background paper has a different”feel”
The Kataria Laughter Club is designed to function more like a participatory Democracy. Everyone present is likely to be invited to contribute. Participants are encouraged to lead/create exercises, and become sufficiently trained (at no cost) to run entire sessions as “Anchor Persons.” Laughter Clubs are free to replicate themselves, as Anchor Persons from one club may go and start other clubs elsewhere. It is truly an autonomous, “grassroots” movement (run at the local level).
The WLT Club is designed to function more autocratically, like a Benevolent Dictatorship. The Certified Leader is in charge and is the only one with the authority to lead. Participants are discouraged from taking on leadership roles; there is no training of “Anchor Persons,” the club is dependent on the Certified Leaders. If a participant has an idea for an exercise, they are to discuss it with the Leader outside of the session; the Leader’s responsibility includes judging if a proposed new exercise might be offensive or dangerous. Clubs are invariably run under the guidance of a WLT-approved Leader whose official status must be renewed annually via the company headquarters; self-replication (participants starting their own clubs without prior Certification Training) is not supported.
The following real-life example illustrates how the Kataria School style is more democratic (the Leader encourages the participants to co-create the experience), while the WLT leadership style is more authoritarian (the Leader gives all the direction; if there is no leader, there can be no session).
A Laughter Exercise is offered in both trainings named “Follow the Leader.” As performed in the Kataria-led Training:
All participants stand in a circle. Person Number One (the
trained Leader or an “Anchor Person”) does any
movement or exercise (while laughing) for about five
seconds, while the others (also laughing) copy that person’s
movement. Then the person next to Number One becomes
the Leader-of-the-Moment, doing another movement and
laughing for about five seconds, while the others copy that
second person. Continue going around, each person having
a turn at being the Leader.
“Follow the Leader” as performed in Steve Wilson’s training:
All stand in a circle. The Certified Laughter Leader does
movements, laughter exercises, facial expressions, etc. and
everyone copies the Laughter Leader. The Leader continues
for 20 to 45 seconds. When the Leader stops, the exercise is
In the Kataria school, everyone gets to be the Leader (they can “pass” if they don’t want to lead). In the WLT format only the trained, certified Leader does the leading; everyone else follows the certified Leader. The participants are dependent on the Leader to progress to the next practice.
More Ideological Differences
Reflecting the less materialistic/more spiritual perspective of the Kataria School, graduates of the Laughter Yoga training are strongly urged to offer laughter club sessions at no cost, charging fees only for exceptional programs. This supports Kataria’s vision of World Peace: everyone can laugh with their neighbors, and thus develop friendly relations; no one is turned away if they haven’t the funds to pay. “The best things in life are free.” Peace is a “jewel beyond price.”
“My goal is not to make money, but rather to give a worthwhile idea that can help people change their lives (money is an outcome of a worthwhile cause).” -- Madan Kataria, MD
Graduates of the WLT training are advised to decide for themselves whether or not to charge for their laughter clubs and other programs. Wilson refers to the western model where many health-related classes (Yoga, dance classes, weight management programs, etc.) charge a fee perceived as reasonable. This adds an impression of value (the “Price-Value Proposition”) and may make the “Laughter without Jokes” concept more attractive to Western mentality. “You get what you pay for.” “There’s no free lunch.”
Your author suggests that we consider “Alcoholics Anonymous” (and its related, no-cost programs), as well as the American public library system. Those offer precedents (in the West) which are great things, life-saving for many… and they are free.
Summary of Distinctions
Kataria School comparison points: Democratic (egalitarian). More intentional work with the breath. More sense of freedom, creativity, surprise. More time spent actually laughing; more playful (better potential for connecting more deeply with fellow participants). Once trained and certified, qualification is for life. No renewal charges, no fees for registering laughter clubs. Most trainings do not offer CEC’s (Continuing Education Credits). At the training, very little product promotion or sales pitches. All products which are offered relate to laughter as exercise (“Laughter is too important to depend on jokes.” --Kataria). Some products have a “home-grown” (less-than-professional) quality.
* Strong claims of laughter benefits (some of which are questionable as not-yet-verified by Western science). Gives more weight to anecdotal evidence.
WLT qualities: Autocratic (commanding). Stronger scientific back-up (enhanced credibility). Support materials and resources better-organized. Website more effective; post-graduate networking more readily available (for a fee). Certification is good for one year only; annual renewal fee required; additional annual fee for registering each laughter club. During the training, frequent sales offers for products (presented as “sharing resources” with no serious pressure to actually buy); many of these products are about humor or comedy (“Anything to get them to laugh.” --Wilson). Most products have a more professional quality (with a few exceptions).
* Conservative claims of laughter’s health benefits. Cautions against making exaggerated or unproven claims (those which are not backed up by research data which meets Western criteria).
The author felt his needs for intellectual, emotional and especially spiritual depth were best met by his training with Dr. Kataria. But for some folks: “different strokes.” Many World Laughter Tour graduates have found the WLT program fulfilling for their needs, and inspiring for their lives. The WLT training may prove the better choice for those who need strong data easily accessed, and require more conservative claims and greater credibility (doctors, researchers, clinicians), and for those needing CEC’s. (Some Kataria-School Teachers do offer CEC’s through their personal professional credentials.)
Some laughter-loving devotees (like your author) have attended both trainings and received benefits from each. (To this day I cherish the “Laughing Keychain,” obtained at my WLT training which I use often as an example of how simply hearing laughter can result in genuine, contagious laughing.)
The content of the training programs of both schools have been standardized, while both are also evolving, influenced by the graduate bodies, developments in world culture, and the example and influence of the other schools. World Laughter Tour now has a small group of certified Trainers, selected by Wilson. Dr. Kataria offers a 5-day certification program for Teacher/Trainers (who can then offer the 2-day Leader Training program) whose international graduates number in the hundreds.
If you are interested in being trained you might consult with graduates, interview teachers, visit websites, and read writings by the founders and teachers. Decide for yourself which expression of Laughter-For-Health might be the best “fit” for you.
-- Jeffrey Briar (written and revised 2007- 2011) (c) Jeffrey Briar All rights reserved