Decrease stress, process food better and increase the power of your immune system, all by laughing? In one recent study researchers measured the effect of watching a funny movie on how heart blood vessels expand, or vasodilate. The researchers found that laughing increased blood flow as much as a 15- to 30-minute workout.
There were 20 healthy men in the study, and all 20 watched both a stressful film (about war) and a funny film. After seeing the stressful film, 14 of the 20 participants had significantly reduced blood flow. However, after watching the funny film, 19 of the 20 volunteers had significantly increased blood flow. Blood flow decreased by about 35 percent after experiencing stress, and it increased by 22 percent after laughing.
Scientists have found that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, released when a person is stressed, challenge the body by suppressing the immune system and constricting blood vessels. Researchers believe laughing may boost the immune system and reduce inflammation, which is widely acknowledged to increase the risk of illnesses. (From Washington Post, March 14, 2005.) Researchers have also found that laughing causes the body to release beneficial chemicals called endorphins, the "feel good" hormones.
One study even found that laughing helps diabetics process sugar better. Another study, by professor Charles Schaefer (Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, April 2003), proved that even faking or forcing laughter helps. Shaefer: "Once the brain signals the body to laugh, the body doesn't care why. It's going to release endorphins, it's going to relieve stress as a natural physiological response to the physical act of laughing."
Madan Kataria, an Indian medical doctor and student of yoga, wrote a paper for a medical journal in the mid-90s titled "Laughter Is the Best Medicine." Kataria was convinced of the medical benefits of laughter and yogic breathing exercises, but wondered how to actualize the practice. He then began his practice of Laughter Yoga. He reasoned that anyone can laugh without reason, so he combined laughter exercises and yoga breathing as a group exercise. He found there were health benefits in hearty laughter.
He also found that laughter exercises, even if begun by faking it, almost always lead to real laughter, especially when practiced in a group. Kataria: "Whether your laugh becomes real or not does not really matter. The body does not make the difference between simulated laughter (as long as you are willing to laugh) and real laughter, and produces the same 'happy' body chemistry ... Laughter is very contagious. Considering that laughter is hard-wired into your system (it is the very nature of life to be joyful), laughter seen, heard or even just felt in a group setting creates more laughter as the body quickly overrides the artificial limitations imposed by the mind (e.g., shyness, inhibitions, etc.) and reconnects in a way with its true nature."
Kataria's Laughter Yoga is now practiced in many places in the world at laughter clubs and laughter studios, in the workplace and in many specialized applications including schools, government departments, military and police settings, hospitals and hospice. There are more than 5,000 laughter clubs and studios in more than 50 countries, with new venues opening daily.
Laughter Yoga International (www.laughteryoga.org) provides laughter yoga trainings for leaders and teachers, as well as retreats and workshops for business groups.
• Scott Miners is executive editor of Well Being Journal based in Carson City. For a sampling of the Journal see www.wellbeingjournal.com