A Special Kind Of Laughter

30 August 2012 at 10:32

Totally Laughter Yoga were approached by the mother of a severely disabled young woman and asked to run a laughter yoga session with her, her daughter, other family members and the personal care team supporting her daughter. We at Totally Laughter Yoga believe passionately in the benefits of laughter and laughter yoga. We believe that the use of laughter yoga can have major psychological, social and physical benefits for participants and it sits well within the positive psychology movement, (although the research on laughter seems to take a more cognitive approach which is based around humour rather than on the physical action of ‘laughing for no reason’). We know from the work that we have done within schools and community settings that laughter is a universal language, breaking down barriers, facilitating cooperation and building friendships but would it work with a severely disabled person with complex needs? 

Laughter Yoga is a unique exercise system that was developed in India by Dr Madan Kataria, it works on the principle that your mind and body is unable to differentiate between real and fake laughter, you still get a range of physical, psychological and if done in a group, social benefits (see table 1). Dr Kataria states that we can laugh for no reason, removing the cognitive element of humour from our laughter.  When done in groups or even when alone, the fake laughter soon becomes real and genuine.  The infectiousness of laughter is incredible and as long as people are able to give it a go and allow themselves to embrace the experience the benefit is almost instant.

Table 1

Laughter releases endorphins, giving us the feel good factor

Acts as aerobic exercise and is like internal jogging

Unleashes inhibitions, breaks down barriers

Generates better communication and team building

Helps boosts immune system

Tones muscles, improves respiration and circulation

Encourages positive thinking and creativity

Relaxes the whole body and reduces stress and tension


At Totally Laughter Yoga we’ve expanded on Dr Kataria’s ‘Laugh for no reason’ idea; we like to say ‘laugh for no reason, but not without purpose’ as every action in a laughter yoga session can assist the participants to move toward a greater sense of happiness, joy and wellbeing.

 There is little information on its use within disability settings, particularly for those individuals with profound physical and mental disabilities. But never say never and at Totally Laughter Yoga we believe in inclusivity so even though our knowledge in this area may be have been limited we are always willing to learn and give something a go as long as we are confident that it will not cause harm. 

To those ends we needed more information; what was this young woman’s level of functioning; what could she do? Not ‘what couldn’t she do?’ as we knew her life was limited and restricted in a number of ways but the first thing we needed to know was could she laugh?  After all, the ability to make some laughter sounds or actions really are a prerequisite to engaging in Laughter Yoga.  “Oh yes, she can laugh” her mother told us, the range of emotional responses present are; happiness, sadness, anger, joy, surprise coupled with a mischievous side that is very often present! She has a love of music and singing and is part of a choir; however, she needs a greater variety of activities and stimuli to support living a fulfilling and rewarding life.

So far so ‘normal’ but having ‘complex needs’ means that ‘normal’ has a different meaning. We all have basic needs both physical and psychological; in the main many of us don’t give these needs a second thought. Indeed we may give many of the daily living tasks no thought at all. We are for the most part autonomous, both physically and emotionally. That is not to say we do not at some point in our days rely on others for support with some tasks or seek reassurance and comfort from those around us. But often that choice is ours; we have a degree of self-mastery over our own lives and we can take for granted the small choices that we are able to make throughout a day; when to get up, the clothes that we want to put on, the food that we eat, etc.  We are able to communicate any difficulties we have with ease and clarity, acting for much of the time in our own best interests. Those with very complex problems are required to cede much of their autonomy to others and are dependent on other to act in their best interests.

The idea of autonomy for this young lady is quite different; she was born without a corpus collosum, the largest of the commissures, the fibres that connect the brains two hemispheres together.  She also has a rare chromosome disorder giving rise to further problems (more information on rare chromosome disorders can be found at Unique (http://www.rarechromo.org/html/home.asp).  She requires full physical care and assistance with all daily living tasks and assistance to travel anywhere; she is unable to operate an electric wheelchair and needs assistance to transfer from chair to car seat or from chair to bed. Communication is restricted as her speech and vocabulary are limited. Cognitions it would seem are difficult to assess, however her emotions are not.  This young lady is able to quite clearly let you know when she is enjoying an activity or not, her facial expression and vocal pronouncements are clear in their meaning.  She possesses a sense of humour and is able to share in jokes and follow conversations (especially if she is the focus of that conversation).

Could we run a session then? Of course we could try it and so a date was set; our client, her parents and personal care assistants would attend Totally Laughter Yoga on Sunday and if we didn’t mind could they continue to use our space to carry out their regular team meeting with an input from the Speech Therapy team involved in her care? We didn’t at all, it would be our pleasure.

The group arrived and this was actually the first time that we’d met our new client, we are conscious that at times people can have a sense of anxiety about meeting someone with such profound difficulties, it is outside their ‘normal’ experience. Perhaps there is a tendency to ‘over-meet’ them; to make a grandiose show in order to demonstrate their ‘inclusiveness’ and in doing so clearly demonstrate their fear, anxiety, inexperience and ‘exclusiveness’.  Most people will endeavour to act ‘normal’?  But this idea of consciously acting ‘normal’ is an issue in itself. The fact that someone may feel the need to act in a certain way; to feel that their behaviour needs to moderated in some way; to be consciously acting ‘normally’; does that suggest a lack of true inclusiveness?  Perhaps we need to get to place in our own hearts that we need give these things no thought and just ‘be’. At Totally Laughter Yoga, congruence in our interactions is fundamental to our work with people and it is important that we recognise areas for development and issues that need to be addressed, (such as the anxieties that we may feel), and then we include actions to resolve these. Acknowledgement that an issue exists is essential and then talking about it is vital.  Talking about things, (however clumsily that conversation starts), begins to dissolve fears and challenge prejudices as well as dealing with the original and perpetuating issue at the root of those; ignorance. 

We met our clients with warmth, care and as always works in England a cup of tea!  The session went really well, it was met with some scepticism from some within the room, but with full engagement from everyone.  As the laughter started to flow the Speech Therapists came to the office, unsure and unclear what was happening they were swept along by the laughter; engaging fully even though they really didn’t understand the concept of Laughter Yoga, they clearly got the idea of laughter. As for the main focus of our Laughter Yoga session, it is unclear as to what she (our client) thought of it.  It would seem that she met the session with an open curiosity, (Oh, if all adults could not meet it that way for the first session).  It certainly wasn’t met with any distress and the activities were specifically designed to reduce the idea of ‘laughing at’ and increase the idea of ‘laughing with’ the other participants.  The feedback after the session was positive; our surprised Speech Therapists were intrigued and wondered about the possibilities for Laughter Yoga being used with clients with a range of speech problems, as the focus on the breath and ways of breathing are used in a number of speech and language conditions.

Our new client’s family recognised that it takes time for these things to work and that the nature of her condition means that it takes her a lot longer to process and act on new experiences.  The personal assistants, in the main enjoyed it and it must be acknowledged that on first meeting laughter yoga it can feel a little strange and somewhat bizarre but they all highlighted the potential benefits. Our client remained quizzical.

The sessions continue on a weekly basis and follow a regular pattern; this pattern is consciously adhered to in order to support the development of familiarity and the creation of a safe environment and as the weeks go by our client opens up more and more. She has begun to speak, describing herself as “happy”. She laughs out loud in the sessions and joins in with the rhythmical clapping and the chanting of Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha” that occurs at the end of each of the exercises. There has also been an increased level of eye contact between our client and the Laughter Yoga leader and an increase in her participation with the actions associated with the Laughter Yoga exercises.  Due to her condition, it takes longer to learn things as her neural pathways need more time to develop, connect and respond.  She clearly engages with the sessions and she is more willing to share her personality with us, the Laughter Yoga leaders.  Within the sessions she has her favourite exercises (as many people do) and it can often be a little difficult to extricate the lion head puppet from her grasp!  We could see what, perhaps many people just looking in could not or would not see, a warm, loving and fun young person enjoying life and living in the moment.

It is difficult for us as transient players in her life to truly know what she is making of Laughter Yoga and if it is making a discernible difference in her life, for that we rely on the feedback for her parents and carers. Do they see a difference? Possibly not as they have always seen the person not her disabilities; their love and compassion toward her is a force to reckon with. The difficulties that they have had to overcome and the problems they still face every day in making her life fulfilling are massive, but they continue to overcome these difficulties and problems. They tell us that the Laughter Yoga has indeed helped, (however difficult it may be to quantify those benefits), it has become another strategy that can be used when facing difficult times and adversity and to address the absurdity of some of the situations that they find themselves in. Her team of personal assistants regularly report that the repetitious elements of Laughter Yoga are being recalled and displayed more and more frequently within daily life outside of the specific sessions with us.


We need to thank this young lady’s family for allowing us to be a small part of this journey, Liz and Andy her parents whose love, compassion and tenacity shines through, her brother Leonard; a fabulous young man who demonstrates patience beyond his years and most of all Eleanor whose abilities to laugh, make eye contact and participate has enriched our lives and we need to say thank you to her for allowing us to be part of her life. Thank you.

Author: Simon Richardson & Sandra Saint on 30 August 2012 at 10:32 Comments (0)  

Page Through All Articles <> Return to Blog Homepage