“[Laughing] opens you up; you feel like a flower,” she says. “It’s almost like finding God.” Grapstein’s bold statement reinforces the theory that laughter is not only contagious, but a deeply soul-satisfying activity. It’s more than finding humor in a punch line—its sharing a joyful experience. “It’s like a drug,” she says.
And in a way, she’s right.
Believe it or not, underneath all that fun lies some serious medicine. Laughter releases Serotonin and produces endorphins, which are released throughout the body. Serotonin is a chemical that acts as a natural antidepressant, which helps to relieve anxiety, as well as regulate appetite and sleep patterns. Endorphins act as a natural pain reliever and boost the immune system. Laughter also causes you to breathe deeply, and improves lung function as well as increases oxygen levels in all cells of the body. The physiological benefits of laughter (something that’s legal and costs nothing) seem almost too good to be true.
But there are contradictions to Laughter Yoga. Levine-Bernstein warns that people who suffer from severe high blood pressure, certain heart conditions and those that have recently had surgery should not laugh excessively.
Each class, which includes a range of laughing exercises combined with deep breathing, stretching, and meditation, is relaxing, after you overcome the strangeness of it. And while the benefits of Laughter Yoga differ from one participant to the next, Levine-Bernstein stresses that the experience should always be positive. “You can expect to have fun, and to connect with other people,” she says.
Grapstein is no longer depressed, and has adopted the Laughter Yoga philosophy into her everyday life. Mainly, to never take things too seriously, especially the little things. “I’ll be sitting in traffic and I put on a clown nose,” she says, running to her purse to pull out said nose, along with another squishy toy which she giggles at. “People in cars next to me look at me and smile. You want to catch people off guard,” she says.
And while props and a dose of unexpected goofiness can help to get a chuckle out of a stranger or relieve a tense moment, the real goal is to learn to laugh at nothing at all—kind of like a universal Mad Hatter’s tea party. “Sometimes with jokes, people might not get it, and feel excluded,” Levine-Bernstein says. “Here, we laugh for no reason, so you can’t feel left out.”
A History of Laughter
“Laughter has a long history,” Levine-Bernstein explains. Here’s a quick look at how Laughter Yoga got started:
Mumbai, India, March, 1995—Dr. Madan Kataria came across several scientific studies proving the benefits that laughter had on the human body and mind. In his research, he discovered many modern scientific studies that described in depth the many proven benefits of Laughter on the human mind and body. Kataria was particularly impressed by Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness and the research work by Dr. Lee Berk, who did extensive studies on the benefits laughter had on the immune system. It was also found the human body cannot detect the difference between forced laughter and laughing when something is funny. The physiological reaction is the same regardless. Kataria immediately decided to start a group, testing laughter’s impact on himself and other volunteers.
On March 13, Kataria gathered five people in a public park in Mumbai. They told each other jokes, and laughed as curious bystanders observed. The first Laughter Club was born.
The group quickly grew, but despite the rise in members, it was running out of material. People resorted to telling dirty jokes, much to the chagrin of certain group members. After fielding several complaints, Kataria asked for just one night to think of a solution.
He figured since the body could not tell the difference between pretend and genuine laughter, he would initiate forced laughter, and hope everyone would follow along. It was a great success, as his laughter spread quickly over the group. He developed this theory into exercises, combining them with deep breathing and stretching to form Laughter Yoga as we know it today.
Today, there are more than 400 organized Laughter Yoga groups worldwide, with dozens on Long Island.