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Sheffield's latest exercise craze: Is Laughter Yoga healthy or just barking mad?

The hills of Sheffield – and there’s many of them – are alive with the sound of laughter.  The new trend of Laughter Yoga has entered the city, and devotees say it can change your life. A sceptical Natasha Todd investigates. 

Yoga enthusiasts laugh together

Downward dog, or laughing dragon?

The idea of Laughter Yoga may sound ridiculous at first thought, and this first thought would be right - it is completely and utterly ridiculous.  Even those that run the classes admit to its absurdity, but this does not mean that it is neither beneficial nor fun. The concept was devised in 1995 by Indian doctor Madan Kataria with the idea of stimulating laughter through pantomimic role play and unnatural forced laughs.  Admittedly, standing in public and laughing at nothing could land you a leading role in the real life adaption of Milos Forman’s, ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, and this is why joining a laughter group or finding a private spot may be safest option if planning to undertake this unusual activity. You may initially feel like a lunatic but laughter yoga can have some surprisingly beneficial effects.

With 6,000 laughing yoga classes in 60 different countries, it is actually proving to be very popular. Laughing yoga is a combination of laughing exercises, yogic breathing known as pranayama and laughter meditation.  The exercises are a combination of activities of role play – laughing while pretending to do an unpleasant household chore like toilet cleaning – and literally running around the room and rolling round the floor in forced fits of hysterics.  These exercises are said to increase the amount oxygen in your body and make you feel healthier and happy.  The meditation then allows these feelings to flow freely through your body.

 Carol Perry, 33, is a Science teacher and founder of the laughter yoga class in Sheffield.  She started attending laughing yoga sessions in December last year before deciding to bring it to her home town. “I didn’t always find it easy,” she says, “but after a couple of sessions I came away and felt uplifted.  The first time I thought about the session and I reflected on how absolutely ridiculous it was and it would make me chuckle for days afterwards. I’d think, ‘I can’t believe I’ve just done that’.”  Carol felt that the laughter yoga class helped improve her performance at work. “I felt I was a much better teacher.  I was a more fun teacher, and I just didn’t take life so seriously. I felt alive.” Although Carol set up the class, she is unable to run it as she is not yet qualified.  Instead, the sessions are run by Dal Kular, 36, who is a fully qualified laughter yoga coach.  Dal says her mission is to get as many people laughing around Sheffield as possible and her motto is, “fake it, fake it, fake it, until you can make it and it turns into real spontaneous laughter.”

Studies have shown that the positive effects of laughter occur whether the laughter is fake or real.  The body can’t distinguish between fake laughter - that you just bellow out on purpose - and real laughter.  Dal encourages class attendees to laugh their way through their daily lives no matter what the activity.  “Laugh on the toilet, or laugh in the shower. Just laugh anywhere you want.  It’s life changing.”

Admittedly, the idea of spending an hour with complete strangers laughing at nothing seems odd and Dal is aware of this, “It’s a really strange thing to come into a group with lots of people and just laugh.  We also do a bit of method role play which can feel really weird.  I just encourage people and reassure them that we are all looking silly.  It helps you lighten up and take your life less seriously, and I think that’s important.”

Studies have shown that laughing has physical, mental and social benefits and Carol Perry insists that she can really feel these after a laughter yoga session. “It’s really physical and it feels like it really works on your core muscles.  It’s so energetic. I go away feeling flushed and energised.” Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.  It reduces the level of stress hormones like epinephrine and increases the level of health enhancing hormones like endorphins.  It also increases immune cells which boosts the immune system thus improving your resistance to disease. 

Laughter can also be used as an important tool to bring people together.  Doctor Kataria originally wanted to start laughter yoga as a peace movement because his philosophy was “if you’re laughing then you’re not fighting.”  While holding yoga classes, Dal says that she has encountered people from all corners of society, “It brings people together regardless of race, cast, gender and class.  Laughter yoga is a great equaliser.  Just by laughing together, we forget about what anybody has got or not got.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s completely non-judgemental.”

Many work places have now incorporated laughter yoga into their work programme as a team building exercise, engaging with the idea that if people can laugh together then they can work together.  The Laughter Network – a non-profitable organisation formed in 2004 to help businesses and individuals assimilate laughter into their lives – reported that a Danish company boosted sales by 40% and reduced stress by 75% in one year by running regular laughter yoga sessions. 

Universities too are becoming aware of the benefits laughter yoga may bring.  Dal has been asked by The University of Sheffield to run laughter yoga sessions in May at the University’s accommodation villages of Endcliffe and Ranmoor.  She says that is a wonderful tool for students to use to relieve stress, particularly in exam periods. “When you are there at the computer - high on caffeine - and still doing your essay at seven in the morning – just laugh.  It will help you through the stress.”

Laughing yoga will obviously not be for everybody.  Laughing with no external stimulus is an unnatural activity and it may feel uncomfortable thing to do. Some people may find it easier to try while in a group to help trigger each other into the real deal; others may feel more comfortable trying it out - perhaps not on the toilet - but in the privacy of their own bedroom.  Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.  With unemployment high and stresses of life more apparent, Carol Perry makes a good point when she says, “we could all do with a bit more laughter in our life.” An activity that has been invented to encourage this upbeat belief surely can’t be a bad thing – can it?


By Natasha Todd , Jeremy Peel