[An in-depth interview with Dr. Madan Kataria, Founder of Laughter Yoga, where he explains the relationship between Laughter and Stress, and why it is so important that we find ways to laugh more often and for longer periods.]
A new form of Yoga started in India just ten years ago, uses Laughter to counter the effects of Stress. Medical research is showing us that laughter is nature’s own counter to Stress.
Government studies in America and Europe show that 80 per cent of doctor’s visits and 80 per cent of all prescriptions written today, are for Stress-related disease or conditions.
We asked Indian medical doctor Dr Madan Kataria, the Founder of Laughter Yoga how simple laughter can counter the killer effects of Stress.
It’s really very easy to understand, says Dr Kataria. When nature designed the human body, she built-in two important functions that are designed to counterbalance each other: Laughter and Stress. They’ve been hardwired into our bodies by millions of years of evolution. People are surprised that both of these processes are chemically based – they work by releasing chemicals and hormones into our bloodstream.
The human Stress function is simple and effective. It was developed to keep us alive in primitive conditions, and performs that job very well. Unfortunately, the Stress function has not adapted to modern life, and now causes us more problems, than it solves.
When a vicious cave lion suddenly appeared, our stress reaction triggered. Within milliseconds, our brain dumped large quantities of chemicals and hormones into the bloodstream, to aid our chances of survival. These include CRF, cortisol, AGTH, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and more. Many of these are poisons that have a fast and dramatic effect, but they were dissipated and removed from our body before doing too much damage.
The ‘Stress Cocktail’ has instant effects: Our heart pumps two to three times faster, sending nutrient rich blood to the major muscles in the arms and legs. Tiny blood vessels (called capillaries) under the surface of our skin close down (sending blood pressure soaring) so we can sustain surface wounds and not bleed to death. Our eyes dilate to see better. Body functions not needed for the struggle are shut down: Digestion stops, sexual function stops, even our immune system is switched off.
Our body is instantly supercharged allowing us to hit harder, leap higher and run faster than we ever could before, helping to level the odds between us and our attackers.
The physiological effects of the Stress function on our body include an abrupt onset of feelings of intense fear or psychological distress. Symptoms can include trembling, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain (or tightness), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or vertigo), hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), vomiting, and sensations of choking or smothering.
When the danger is over, we often pant (or laugh) with relief and rest our exhausted body to allow the poisonous chemicals to dissipate and be cleared from our system so our body could return to normal.
Today, we are rarely faced with mountain lions or situations of intense stress, but we are exposed to an ongoing series of smaller stressful events that trigger the same stress function. In response, our body continuously produces stress chemicals and hormones, that never have time to dissipate. These poisons remain in our body at dangerously high levels and attack our health and immune system.
The results of the chronic activation of our stress function include most of today’s major medical conditions and illnesses: Heart disease, depression, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, allergies, sexual dysfunction, colds, flu’s, AIDS and more.
It is important to understand that Laughter is the opposite of Stress. Laughter has an equally powerful but opposite effect on our body. We are programmed to pant or laugh after extreme Stress, to neutralize the Stress reaction and switch on the immune system. We seldom laugh after minor Stress, so we do not get the laughter benefit.
A few minutes of Hearty Laughter causes our body to dump a ‘happy cocktail’ of chemicals and hormones including endorphins, IFN , amylase and more into our blood.
The effects on our body are strong and dramatic. Stress chemicals and hormone levels are immediately reduced. The immune system is switched on and boosted, with a sudden and prolonged increase in the production of T cells, B cells, immunoglobulins and NK cells – this is our body’s army that fights viral infection, sickness and cancer.
The happy cocktail lowers our blood pressure, increases vascular flow, and boosts our immune system. It restores, or switches on the body functions that are shut down by stress including digestion, sexual function and our immune system.
It also affects our mental processes: Depression is lifted and one is left in a positive state of mind. Optimism, communication skills, and creativity are enhanced and a natural painkiller (endorphin) relieves our aches and pain and makes us feel safe and happy.
The happy cocktail also enables us to cope with further stress more easily. This effect is called ‘Laughter Boosting’ and is a useful technique for preparing for stressful events like examinations, interviews, sports competition, major presentations and more.
Laughter fully empties our lungs of stale air and the deep breaths we take in laughter fully oxygenate our bloodstream and all our major organs. This leaves us bursting with energy and is seen by some as one of the best ways to improve health and guard against disease. Oxygen is also believed to be an important factor in longevity and staying youthful.
Laughter is a gentle aerobic exercise. This aspect is especially beneficial for older people and the infirm. It exercises the diaphragm, abdominal, intercostal, respiratory and facial muscles. It includes flexing and exercise of the arm, leg, and back muscles. It gives our heart a good workout and when practiced daily strengthens our facila muscles reducing wrinkles and leaving us looking younger.
It is perfectly clear that to live a healthy life we need to balance our stress with equal amounts of laughter.
Nature programmed children to laugh 400 times a day during the important growth phase, but adult laughter has decreased significantly during the 20th century. Studies show that we are laughing less than ever before, with adult laughter frequency reduced by 50% or more over the past 50 years.
For maximum laughter benefits we need five to ten minutes of hearty laughter. The more we laugh, the greater the benefits. It’s not surprising that people who laugh often are happier, healthier and get sick less often.
The problem is to find ways to make ourselves laugh more often and for longer periods.
HOW TO LAUGH MORE?
In 1995 Dr Kataria’s research into laughter convinced him that we need to laugh more.
He recalls: as a doctor I wanted to prescribe laughter to my patients, but how to do that? There was no way to send people to a chemist or a clinic for a dose of laughter.
I decided to try to find a simple and reliable way to deliver the benefits of laughter. My first attempts were humor based --- a group of us got together in the park and told jokes and funny stories to make ourselves laugh. This worked for a while, but after a week or two we started running out of wholesome jokes.
We needed to find a way to laugh without humor in the same way that children laugh all day without jokes. I worked with my wife Mahduri who is a yoga teacher and a small team of friends and volunteers. Together we adapted some yogic breathing exercises that were very similar to laughter.
The breakthrough came when we approached laughter as a body exercise. We were able to reliably induce hearty laughter in our group with new laughter exercises combined with 4,000 year old yogic breathing exercises. We could laugh for 20 minutes or even an hour without problem.
Laughter yoga was born.
SPREADING THE LAUGHTER
What was so amazing for me, says Dr Kataria, was to see how people took to laughing. We laughed in a public park. In the beginning there were often more spectators laughing at us than participants in our group. Passers by were mystified. Why are you laughing? What is so funny?
But our laughter yoga group felt such benefits. It was wonderful --- they wanted to laugh every day. They told their friends how good it felt and our group got bigger as more people came to try this funny medicine. More groups started, and soon it grew into a movement. Newspapers wrote about us and interviewed our members and even more people wanted to laugh.
I was very surprised. Indians are traditionally very subdued about their emotions and seldom laughed in public. Suddenly we had thousands of people laughing uproariously in public parks every morning. This was so strange it led to more press stories, and ever more people joined in.
People reported significant health changes. Almost everyone experienced fewer colds and flu’s but I started getting reports about depression lifting and big improvements in a wide range of illness and conditions. Laughter yoga was really helping people.
Laughter yoga spread to other cities. Sometimes locals complained and there were court cases about the noise of laughter being a public nuisance, but judges threw the cases out. Cities became aware of the benefits and allocated special areas for laughter yoga. I recently visited Bangalore in India and found more than 160 active laughter clubs meeting every morning throughout the city, many with 60-80 members or more.
Soon it spread beyond India. I started getting phone calls from America, from Europe and all over the world asking me to come and teach laughter yoga. I had never left India but soon I was traveling around the world. It seemed everybody wanted to know more about laughter yoga.
In my travels I met more doctors and researchers doing research into laughter. The more I learned from them, the more I realized how important laughter is for our health and mental wellbeing in modern life.
In the meantime people were introducing laughter yoga into new situations. I found laughter yoga being practiced in schools, aged care facilities, hospitals, factories, supermarkets and computer companies, prisons, even mental institutions. There was one-on-one laughter yoga therapy and there were groups of ten thousand gathering to laugh. It seemed that our world really needed more laughter.
The results and feedback is what is so exciting for me. Teachers in schools report that the entire mood of the school changes for the good, teachers & students became happier with a more positive outlook and were getting on and communicating better, less discipline was needed, attendance improved and results were improving.
Feedback from aged care facilities was very heartening. Depression is a major problem and laughter yoga appears to lift the depression and replace it with a positive outlook. Health improved, many chronic ailments disappeared, the exercise improved mobility, and staff-patient communication and relations improved.
Hospitals have been experimenting with laughter for years. It is widely accepted that laughter speeds healing and improves mental outlook in patients. Laughter Yoga provides a laughter delivery system that does not require medical clowns, joke books, funny videos and humor making it easier to get patients laughing. Perhaps the strongest feedback has come from hospital staff --- they are amazed at how laughter yoga sessions melt away stress and make it easier for them to cope with their jobs. They tell me their happy positive attitude and high energy levels appear to rub off on patients too.
Employers are finding that laughter yoga can have a profound influence on their business, even making them more profitable. By introducing laughter yoga sessions for all staff, companies in different countries report a happier workplace, increased motivation, better communication, increases in sales and productivity, increased creativity and better teamwork, decreases in illness and absenteeism and a reduction in employee turnover. It sounds too good to be true, but we are developing new programs for companies all over the world.
Prisons reported huge changes in prisoner outlook, a large reduction in stress, better prisoner-staff relations and reduced stress and violence. Mental institutions report improved mood and cooperation from patients and also improved coordination and physical skills resulting from laughter yoga sessions.
It appears that the magic of laughter has a powerful positive impact on almost any field of human endeavor.
THE LAUGHTER YOGA FOUNDATION
The amazing success of laughter yoga has changed many people’s lives, especially my own, says Dr Kataria.
I have devoted my life to laughter yoga. I now travel for 6 to 8 months a year to speak and try to meet the demand for laughter education and training.
We have started a Laughter Yoga Foundation to develop and disseminate laughter yoga. Our first project is developing standardized education systems to teach laughter yoga -– the demand is growing beyond my ability to cope.
Yoga studios and fitness centers in the west want to introduce laughter yoga and we’re trying to find ways to train thousands of laughter leaders quickly and efficiently.
We’re also experimenting with laughter yoga in different situations to try to improve techniques for specific group that have different requirements, for example for children, for aged people, for the workplace and so on.
Another exciting project is that we’ve started to conduct our own research projects on laughter yoga in different environments and situations.
So far I have financed the foundation from the proceeds of my training and public speaking, but we are starting to receive donations which is really very rewarding for me. It seems that people are receiving so much benefit that they are ready to give back.