Laughter Yoga: Is it really laughing for no reason?

18 December 2012 at 16:29

We feel we need a little statement at the top of this particularly blog to all the laughter people out there; this is just thoughts, we’re not dismissing Laughter yoga, in fact we love Laughter Yoga and believe in it (more on that later in the blog), but we do think there are a number of things that need clarifying. In part to answer some questions that clients and participants may have but also to bring laughter yoga into the mainstream (it is, even if you don’t like to think of it as such, a niche activity that is looked upon by many at best sceptically and at worse cynically).  Laughter doesn’t always get a good press and perhaps never has, Herodotus  writing in 5th Century BCE believed that there are three types of ‘laughers’:

Those who are innocent of wrongdoing, but ignorant of their own vulnerability.

Those who are mad.

Those who are overconfident.

Herodotus also states that,  "Men whose laughter deserves report are marked, because laughter connotes scornful disdain, disdain feeling of superiority, and this feeling and the actions which stem from it attract the wrath of the gods” So according to Herodotus, laughter in itself seems not to be a good thing. Sigmund Freud writing ‘a few years later’ sees laughter being related to repression and inhibitions. (We’ll be doing some more blogs on Laughter and psychoanalysis shortly as Freud, and others, have some interesting things to say about laughter, humour and the whole shebang).

Not all spiritual or philosophical traditions eschew laughter completely; indeed at times most see laughter as serving a purpose.  The aboriginal myth of the great Toad that swallowed the waters of the Earth, causing drought and destruction could only be made to give up its swallowed bounty and create a deluge of life giving water through laughter (apparently an eel balancing on its tail is hilarious to toads!) This myth demonstrates the acknowledgement of the power and importance of laughter, recognising its life affirming, restorative and healing qualities.  Laughing too much however, does seem to be frowned upon in both Christian and Islamic traditions.

Let’s keep questioning and moving forward. So with that off our chests…

In Laughter Yoga sessions at Totally Laughter Yoga adding to Dr Kataria’s original saying, we suggest that we laugh for ‘no reason’, but not without purpose; the purpose being the range of physical and psychological health benefits. We suggest as Laughter Yoga leaders and teachers (therapists?), that we should remove, or rather we don’t need the cognitive element related to causing laughter, the thought processes involved in laughter or the humorous trigger elements involved in creating laughter.

How we laugh in response to those triggers can be many and varied, from the belly laugh to the titter or the smile to covering the face (perhaps Freud does have a point). Yet surely the laughter exercises that we do the, the pre-laughter fictions that we put in place, mixing laughter juice, rubbing laughter creams into our arms and faces etc that we use to give ourselves permission to laugh, mean it’s as if we still need an excuse to laugh. We still need a reason, a story or a way of deceiving our minds, our rational selves that we do indeed have a reason to laugh.

Dr Kataria suggests that we need to go back to a state of ‘child like playfulness’ where laughter is as accessible as it was when we where younger.  For some that is easy for others this can be harder and that really is no surprise.  In 1 Corinthians 13:11 it says ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things these things are not just our toys but our ways of behaving and responding to the everyday travails and experiences in our world.  This idea pervades our society and has been placed in many of the teachings we receive, not just in the bible and scripture lessons that many of us experienced at Sunday School (we at Totally Laughter Yoga come from a Christian background and our childhoods live with us forever) but within our families and schooling.  Even when young, at school or at home we don’t, and by ‘we’ in this case mean society generally, always allow children to be children? How many of us have been told as children to ‘grow up’ or to act our ‘age not our shoe size’ (perhaps the opposite instruction could be used as a Laughter Yoga exercise; if you are a size 7 or 8 or whatever you could be directed to act your shoe size and not your age).  

As a child you will have laughed at something, something which you could not explain why it was funny only  that it tickled you, tickled you so much you creased over in loud uncontrolled, (high pitched) squeals and giggles, only to be told to stop being ‘silly’.  These comments stifle us and let us know that ‘childish’ behaviour is not acceptable, that it is something to be frowned upon, that play is the domain of children and not of adults.  Play is important. ‘Play’ for adults, is equally important however the nature of that ‘play’ changes.

We now talk of ‘down time’ or hobbies and they can often be required to have a function and/or an adult theme to be considered acceptable; video games with adult themes, puzzles an outdoor pursuit or exercise of some form.  Those adults that choose what may be a considered a more childish pursuit, models, trains and the like they are often ridiculed; this is particularly the case with men. This ridicule of ‘childish things’ may inhibit the access to laughter that we want people to have and may point to a potential reason why there is a disparity between the numbers of men and women engaging in Laughter Yoga.

It is well documented in Laughter Yoga circles there is a  difference between the amount that children laugh (150 times a day apparently and smile about 400) and the amount that adults laugh (around 16 times a day) with this frequency falling further as we creep into old age.  The idea of the Laughter Yoga exercises or rather the pre-laughter fictions then is to allow us to re-inhabit our childhood selves and engage in a ‘child-like’ playfulness; and in so doing increasing the availability of life/health enhancing laughter.  

Now we say this but we are also aware of the other tenant within Laughter Yoga that of ‘fake it fake till you make it!’ (Although we are cognisant that this expression is no longer used or taught in Laughter Yoga training, we still find it useful, and funny, particularly in the women’s groups we’re deliver. Not sure why that might be…) but regardless of the expression we still fake or simulate laughter. We make the laughter sounds, Ho Ho; Ha Ha; Hee Hee; and of course ‘Hu Hu’ just because we can and that we cognitively know that laughter is good for us.  Research would suggest that this extended facsimile of laughter allows us to gain the physiological benefits of Laughter Yoga and of the mechanical use of the laughter sounds, particularly used in the clapping and chanting section of a Laughter Yoga exercise helps the ‘reluctant laugher’ (see earlier blog).  But you may have noticed, there it is once again, the ‘cognitive element’ of Laughter Yoga – because we know, or believe we know or even just ‘believe’ that it will be good for us

We’ve deliberately put in the word believe, because we don’t truly know that Laughter Yoga can be beneficial, if as the DaIai Lama states ‘knowledge, means a clear understanding of reality which must come through investigation and experiment’, then we’ve seen and read some convincing (and some promising but incomplete) studies and we’ve seen and read some positive stories and anecdotes.  However, because we understand that coupling the emerging knowledge base with our underlying faith and belief in the underpinning philosophy of Laughter Yoga makes it all the more potent and effective.  Whilst not referring to Laughter Yoga (he does cite the benefits of laughter and humour) it is worth having a read of Dr David Hamilton’s work on the effect that the mind can have on a whole host of the bodies systems and the placebo effects.  The power of belief can in fact be greater than the actual ‘proof’ or biological/biochemical scientific evidence that something works.

Yet does this ‘fake laughter’ that, it must be said in many cases does become real and genuine laughter, negate the need for the pre-laughter fictions or does each element add to the whole, increasing and allowing a child-like playfulness in the sessions?  Does it really matter what route we take to laughter as long as we laugh?  We recently did a session with a group of (mainly) men who work in heavy industry, they had no idea what to expect from the session what it entailed or what its purpose was.  They were however, willing (for the most part) to give it a go.  They began to laugh, but not in a fake way but because of what they saw as the absurdity of the situation. They laughed at their own (and others) discomfort; yet they were laughing loudly and uncontrollably by the end of the session.  Feedback was mixed and many, despite the uproarious laughter that had taken place, would not want to do Laughter Yoga again.  

Should that matter?  Should the reason behind the laughter matter? They had taken part, they had faked their laughter, they had made eye contact with each other, and they had laughed continuously and laughter flowed from them like water from a fountain for many minutes, indeed until tears flowed; but they had not in any way bought into the principles or beliefs around Laughter Yoga but they would still have gained some of the benefits.  

Should it bother us that this happened?  That some of the laughter was mocking and laughing ‘at’ rather than ‘with’ in those initial stages (and indeed end stages as they were laughing ‘with’ each other and ‘at’ Laughter Yoga) yet they still laughed and they still talk about the experience.  We know this as we bumped into one of the men whilst shopping, he smiled (it must be said a genuine Duchenne smile), he reminded us as to where we met and then called us ‘bonkers’ (in a nice way) and began to chuckle again (perhaps we should have charged him for an extra session?) we chatted for a little while and then went our separate ways.  We doubt he will ever attend another Laughter Yoga session but perhaps, despite being reluctant, despite having a difficulty or an unwillingness to tap into that ‘child-like’ playfulness he has another memory, thought or cognition to retrieve and smile about and even laugh about in quiet moments.

Perhaps we do need this cognitive element in the first instance, to ease us into the ability to access laughter at anytime as a ‘therapy’; as a wellbeing tool.  Perhaps they help to give us permission to laugh and then to lose ourselves in the moment; to live in the moment and like any other meditative practice we can move from the use of language and cognition to a stage where we can just be and experience and feel the moment without fear, concern or judgement.  Therefore, should our Laughter Yoga sessions move in totalis from the need for the pre-laughter fictions to just periods/sessions of truly laughing for no other reason than it is good for you, without the need for a deceit or contrivance?

We think this is a balancing act; we use Laughter Yoga alone as well as in groups.  In our cars at traffic lights, if we’re ever late for a meeting or session and we can feel the tension building in our shoulders and forearms as we clench the steering wheel, we will let out a little chuckle or a loud hearty laugh.  It changes us instantly both physically and psychologically, relieving that bodily tension. It also allows us to reframe psychologically what is happening.   Some of the strongest evidence we have of the benefits of Laughter Yoga come from our own empirical evidence of lived experience.  

This approach in itself is gaining more credence in scientific circles with evidence being gathered around the physical and psychological effects on the individual in relation to mindfulness and meditative practice. We are as it states within the introduction to ‘The Mind’s Physician’ beginning to see a confluence of eastern and western approaches to wellbeing taking place and a convergence of epistemologies, or different ways of ‘knowing’ so perhaps, it really doesn’t matter which route you take.  You can choose to go down the route of child-like playfulness or the route of pure physical/mechanical laughter faking it, the benefits are there either way.

What matters is the message from Buddha; when asked if all other spiritual paths other than Buddhism are erroneous, he stated that whichever path is taken it needs to contain three elements; ethical behaviour, mental collectedness and wisdom. If the path, in this case Laughter Yoga, contains those three elements, which we believe it does, it may lead to freedom, peace, harmony within oneself and easefulness in life.

Very good, very good YEY - Simon and Sandra

If you’d like to find out more about Laughter Yoga and train to be a Laughter Yoga Leader please contact us through the website or email

Author: Simon and Sandra on 18 December 2012 at 16:29  

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