“Ho ho, ha ha ha,” students in a fitness class at the University of Michigan Health System chant repeatedly while clapping their hands and walking around the room.
They’re just getting warmed up; in the next half-hour, they will stretch their muscles and work on breathing exercises. They’ll also laugh for most of the 30 minutes, from self-conscious giggles to uninhibited belly laughs. All in the name of fitness.
This is a “laughter yoga” course, part of a growing trend in parts of the United States, India and other countries. The students are re-learning something children already know instinctively: that laughter makes you feel better.
“Kids laugh about 400 times a day, and adults only about 15,” notes Barb Fisher, a certified laughter yoga leader and the instructor of this class offered by the U-M Health System’s MFit health promotion division. “Laughter is a gift that has been given to us to make us feel better.”
Fisher teaches her students that not only is it fun to laugh, but that laughter yoga (also known as hasya yoga) can provide many health benefits:
- Help to reduce stress
- Enhance the immune system
- Strengthen cardiovascular functions
- Oxygenate the body by boosting the respiratory system
- Improve circulation
- Tone muscles
- Help with digestion and constipation
Even with all of these health benefits, though, laughter yoga shouldn’t replace other types of aerobic and weight-bearing exercises.
“Studies have shown that 20 seconds of a good, hard belly laugh is worth three minutes on the rowing machine,” Fisher says. “However, that does not mean we want to stop doing all other exercises. It means that incorporating laughter yoga can add to the benefits we see from our regular exercise routine.”
Like more traditional fitness classes, laughter yoga requires a warm-up period. Since students can’t necessarily start a class prepared to break out into deep laughter, they begin with the clapping and chanting mentioned above. Then they perform breathing exercises, followed by stretches and laughing games.
As developed by laughter yoga creator Madan Kataria, a family physician from India,
these laughing exercises can include many varieties, such as:
- Hearty laughter: Laughter by raising both the arms in the sky with the head tilted a little backwards.
- Greeting laughter: Joining both the hands and shaking hands with at least four or five people in the group.
- Appreciation laughter: Join your pointing finger with the thumb to make a small circle while making gestures as if you are appreciating your group members and laughing simultaneously.
- Milk shake laughter: Hold and mix two imaginary glasses of milk or coffee and pour the milk from one glass into the other by chanting “Aeee....,” and then pour it back into the first glass by chanting “Aeee...” Then, everyone laughs while making a gesture as if they are drinking milk.
The students in Fisher’s class have discovered the mental and physical benefits of these and other laughter exercises.
“The biggest effect that I’ve gotten from laughter yoga is what it’s done for me mentally, and that it has lightened up my day and my week,” says Deborah Slosberg. “I also think it has improved my breathing.”
“It gives me a relaxed feeling, and yet I actually feel like I worked out,” says Ann Twork. “You get back some of the child in you.”
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