In the counseling room of the University of Sheffield twenty people are sitting in a circle, laughing. Nobody has told a joke. In fact nothing funny has happened at all. It’s a laughter yoga session, and so for a whole hour a group of unsuspecting students, and me, will laugh when we’re told. Sounds odd? It certainly was.
The name laughter yoga is deceptive. The activity incorporates yogic breathing with laughter, but you don’t need to be flexible to take part as there’s no stretching involved. It was invented in 1995 by Dr Madan Kataria, from Mumbai, India. A GP married to a yoga teacher, Dr Kataria wished he could prescribe his patients fifteen minutes of laughter a day to free them of stress and help them relax. And so laughter yoga was born. One morning he, his wife and three of their friends went to a local park with the intention to simply laugh. They started off telling jokes, but once the jokes ran out Dr Kataria realised that the key was being able to laugh for no reason.
Laughter yoga master trainer Lotte Mikkelsen, originally from Denmark, ran the session at the University of Sheffield. She studied University of Laughter Yoga in Bangalore, (yes, a real place!), and has been teaching people to laugh since 2004. And she is very good at it. She’s not a comedian, but Lotte is warm and visibly happy. She sees the humour in everything she talks about and does. She laughs at the little things, when she says something wrong or when her tights catch on her chair. But she also just laughs, seemingly spontaneously. This laughter is contagious, which is very fortunate as she was about to ask a group of complete strangers to do a lot of pretty ridiculous things.
The session started with simple vocal exercises: "Ho ho, ha ha ha, ho ho, ha ha ha”. Simple enough. Next were laughter exercises. Lotte had everyone walking around the room making eye contact. Depending on the exercise, every time someone caught your eye you did a certain laugh. First was the shy laugh, a giggle behind your hand. Perhaps the most daunting was the opera laugh - loud, exaggerated and with a flamboyant musical flourish.
The willingness of the group was imperative in these exercises, but it turned out to be pleasantly less awkward than I had imagined. With laughter as the end goal it didn’t matter when people inevitably dissolved into nervous giggles, and this meant that any tension evaporated instantly. Lotte closed the session with laughter meditation, which involved lying on the floor and “engaging with our real laughter.” By this point people were sufficiently relaxed that it was really just one big giggle.
Even those who weren’t finding the session amusing were assured by Lotte that faking it is fine. “Your body can’t tell the difference between real and fake laughter, so you can fake it and your body still releases endorphins. You can fake it to make it,” she said.
“Most people start off faking it but really quickly connect with their own laughter,” she added.
Lotte was keen to stress that laughter yoga isn’t just fun; she says it has serious health benefits too. Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008, Lotte laughs for ten minutes every morning at 7am. She says that she does not know if she still suffers from MS, but she thinks that laughter has been key in helping her to cope with and prevent the progression of the disease.
She said: “When you laugh and smile in the morning you start releasing endorphins, happy chemicals, and it puts you in a good frame of mind to start the day.
“Endorphins suppress stress chemicals and that’s really good for the immune system because lots of diseases are stress related. If you counterbalance stress with laughter you boost your immune system and are more capable of fighting off illnesses.”
The yogic breathing of laughter yoga increases the amount of oxygen in your body, and Lotte says this is important for ridding your body of the “stale air” that can cause stress-related illnesses.
“When we are stressed we only breathe in the top third of our lungs and that means that you have a lot of stale air that circulates in your blood. In laughter yoga you exchange this and get fresh air to your brain, making you more alert, creative and motivated.”
Lotte stresses throughout the session that the key to engaging with the benefits of laughter yoga is to incorporate it into everyday life, and she has lots of quirky tips to help us do this. Like the fake phone call.
“When you’re on the bus or the train you can still laugh, just get your phone out and pretend you are having a really funny phone call,” she said.
“Although make sure your phone is on silent!” she adds.
Charles Oseghale, 42, a University of Sheffield Chemical Engineering PhD student particularly liked this tip: “I’m definitely going to do it! When I am complaining in my head and getting angry about things I can have a crazy phonecall, I can fake it and no one will know,” he said.
“I laugh a lot naturally but I wanted to learn how to laugh for no reason. We all come to road blocks sometimes and you just have to keep free of hassle and pressure. It’s definitely something I’m going to carry on doing,” he added.
University of Sheffield Skills for Life coordinator Steve Delaney organised the session. He said: “We’re always looking for ways to help people relax and take a break from their studies. We want to engage people in a better side of themselves and help them not take things so seriously.
“We wanted to put on relaxing workshops which are fun and playful , helping people to connect with things that are a bit lighter. Anything that helps people to let go is really beneficial and laughing is a great stress reliever.”