Scientific Aspects of Yoga and Laughter
Dr. Madan Kataria
NOTICE: Reprinted for e-mail distribution only, by permission of Dr. Madan Kataria. This article appeared in the February 1999 issue of "Your Own Doctor," Madhuri Kataria, Publisher. No other reproduction is authorized. For subscription information, contact: email@example.com
What Yoga and Laughter Have in Common
What do a simple emotion like laughter and an universally acclaimed form of exercise such as yoga have in common? Yoga has always been distinguished as a classic system of Hindu philosophy because of the marvels of bodily control instilled by its practice. Yoga produces an unique physiological balance in the human body by connecting body, mind and spirit. Laughter, on the other hand, is a cognitive, affective and behavioral response familiar to every one of us. Let us try to find similarities between the two.
The word "Yoga" arises from the Sanskrit root 'Yuj' which means 'to get hold of, integrate, harmonize. It means getting hold of our lives, integrating all aspects of life, harmonizing our bodies with our minds, spirits and society.
When I first thought about the idea of Laughter Clubs, it was only to have fun and laughter. I didn't have yoga in my mind at all. In spite of initial ridicule by people, I pursued the idea till most of the members in public parks accepted it as an enjoyable exercise, When jokes didn't work, we learnt to laugh without them. I thought of how to make all the members practice these laughter sessions everyday for 10-15 minutes because everybody felt nice after their morning guffaws. Morning walkers are obviously health conscious people and they would want to do it religiously.
I have been a student of yoga and used to give health talks at one of the popular Yoga Institutes in Mumbai. I thought, why not connect laughter exercise with yoga? For a few days I kept on thinking about different aspects of yoga and how they could be connected to laughter. I went through a couple of books on yoga and gained an insight - why not deliberately structure all the laughter exercises on yoga?
Deep Breathing: Since the act of laughter depends upon our breathing apparatus, the lungs and respiratory muscles, I thought of starting each session with (Pranayama) deep breathing, which is an important part of yoga. Deep breathing has a calming effect on the mind and provides more oxygen to the body tissues. Secondly, I wanted to give some pauses in-between the bouts of laughter and I thought, Why not intersperse the different types of laughter with deep breathing? This will definitely increase the vital capacity of the lungs and hence their capacity to laugh. Later on, I realized that deep breathing is one of the most important parts of laughter exercise. In the normal course, the common man has no patience to do yogic deep breathing, which we made an integral part of a laughter session and thus it became a ritual.
Raising the Arms Up in the Sky: Normally yogic deep breathing is done slowly and rhythmically with concentration and perhaps visualization. But this was not possible in a group where most people were standing. To give a rhythm and slow speed I told my fellow beings to raise both their arms up in the sky and at the same time breath slowly and deeply.
After inspiration they were asked to hold the breath and stretch the arms for 4 seconds and then breathe out slowly through the mouth, as if whistling silently, while bringing the arms down. The idea of breathing out through the mouth was to prolong the expiration. As in some variety of Pranayama, the expiration time is double the time of inspiration.
Scientifically speaking, even when one exhales completely, there is some amount of air left in the lungs, called residual air. This residual volume is more in those suffering from chronic bronchitis and Asthma. There are more chances of bacterial infection and less exchange of oxygen if the residual volume is more.
Prolonged expiration as in Pranayama and some dynamic breathing exercises helps to remove the residual air, which contains airborne carbon dioxide, and replace it with fresh air which contains more oxygen. This is how deep breathing and laughter help to increase the net supply of oxygen to the body for better functioning.
HO-HO, HA-HA: If one observes the process of laughter carefully, one will see that during the act of laughter there is a rhythmic movement of the diaphragm (the major - respiratory muscle which separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity), abdominal muscles and intercostal muscles (between the ribs) which helps to expel the air from lungs in rhythmic jerks which produces rhythmic vibrations from the vocal cords. Also, there is contraction of the throat, palate muscles and facial muscles. There are some dynamic yogic exercises called Kapalbhati, Swash Shuddi (cleaning of respiratory passages in forceful jerks of breathing) and Bhastarika, which involve similar rhythmic contraction of all the groups of muscles involved in laughter.
In my search for a method of how to laugh without any reason, when they were told to force themselves to laugh, many people found it difficult to laugh. Therefore, I introduced a warm-up exercise of laughter called Ho-Ho Ha-Ha. People would open their mouth and chant in unison this Ho-Ho Ha-Ha exercise. By doing so, it helped remove inhibitions and there was a sense of participation by the members. The whole atmosphere got charged with laughter and many people would get stimulated and, start smiling and giggling.
This Ho-Ho Ha-Ha exercise has some similarity with Kapalbhati, and Swash Shuddi (Respiratory passage cleaning with jerky movements of abdominal muscles). Later this Ho-Ho Ha-Ha exercise was supplemented with rhythmic clapping of the hands, which gave good stimulation to the acupressure points in the hand. The Ho-Ho Ha-Ha exercise, along with clapping, is done at least 3-5 times at the end of each bout of laughter.
Deep Breathing with Arm Stretching: While taking a deep breath in between the laughter techniques, the arms are stretched, which is similar to a yogic exercise known as Talasana. In addition, there are neck-and-shoulder exercises, designed to exercise the muscles around the neck and shoulders which are tight because of the stress and strain of modem life.
Lion Laughter: Another type of laughter that is practiced exclusively in laughter clubs, which is similar to "Simha Mudra" of yoga, is Lion laughter. Here, a person is supposed to laugh while stretching the tongue fully out, keeping the eyes wide open and posing their hands like the paws of a lion. This is a direct adoption of the yogic lion pose.
This posture has proved to be good exercise for facial muscles, and beneficial for throat ailments. According to yoga experts, this also stimulates the thyroid gland. Often such kinds of laughter are embarrassing, especially for ladies in a social gathering. But the participants of laughter clubs get over such inhibitions gradually and hence this exercise provides its full benefits.
Scientific Rationale of Yoga & Laughter
All the organs of the body are made up of tissues. To keep these tissues in perfect health and organic vigour, there should be a constant supply of nourishment like proteins, carbohydrates, fats, salts, minerals and vitamins. These are derived from the food and drink one takes. Their supply depends upon the quality of food one takes and the power of digestion and absorption of the digestive system.
To reach the nutrients all over the body, one's circulatory systems should be efficient. Therefore, digestive and circulatory systems should be kept in good order for optimum health. Finally, when the nutrients reach all the tissues of the body, oxygen is required for metabolism. To get more oxygen supply, our respiratory system needs to be in perfect order.
Toning up the Digestive System: According to principles of yoga, health and vigour of the body depend upon the quality and quantity of food. A lot of emphasis is given to selecting the right food. Since laughter club meetings are regular, a lot of awareness is being created about healthful food among the members. Eating of raw fruits, salads, vegetables and sprouts is being actively promoted in laughter clubs. Every morning it is a practice among many laughter club members to bring sprouts of various lentils.
Sprouts are an excellent food containing large quantities of vitamins and are considered very healthful. Along with sprouts you will see cloves of raw garlic, basil leaves (a sacred Indian herb), neem leaves (Margosa leaves) kept at the venue of laughter clubs. Since laughter club members meet everyday, through the network, members receive information on various aspects of healthy eating. We are proposing to strengthen this network and keep a panel of experts through the central body, the Laughter Club International. In a group, people get motivated to develop good eating habits.
Once you eat the right food, your digestive system should be in perfect order to get most of the nutrients from the food. All the principle organs of digestion like the stomach, intestines, liver and pancreas are situated in the abdominal cavity, supported by strong muscles from all sides. Nature has provided a gentle massage to all the digestive organs by the movement of abdominal muscles and diaphragm twenty:-four hours a day during normal respiration.
During inspiration the diaphragm pushes the abdominal organs downwards and forward and at the same time relaxes the abdominal wall muscles. During exhalation, the abdominal muscles are contracted and they push all the organs of the abdominal cavity inwards and upwards. Thus, nature has provided an automatic and gentle massage to the digestive organs 16-20 times a minute (normal respiration rate).
But, if the abdominal muscles are weak and the muscles of the diaphragm are not exercised regularly they cannot provide an effective massage. Today, due to a sedentary life style and obesity, abdominal muscles lose their tone, as this leads excessive -fat deposits on the abdominal wall. As a result, the abdominal organs get displaced from their normal places and their blood supply also gets affected. It can result in dyspepsia and a variety of digestion problems. To ensure perfect health of the digestive system, the abdominal muscles should be strong and elastic. There are many yogic poses that make them strong and elastic and give excellent internal massage to the internal organs. For optimal performance, muscles should be contracted and stretched. Yoga asanas like Bhunjagasana, Salabhasana and Dhanurasana are some of the finest stretching exercises for the abdominal muscles. Yoga-Mudra and Halasana help to contract abdominal muscles. Vakrasana and Ardha-Matsyendrasana are excellent for side abdominal muscles.
There are two important yogic exercises Uddiyana and Nauli for internal massage: In Uddiyana, there is a vertical massage to the abdominal organs. A wave of contraction travels up and down in the abdominal muscle. Similarly, in Nauli contractions travel from one side the other, giving a lateral massage to the abdominal viscera. I admit that no form of other exercises of abdominal muscles can match the perfect yogic exercise to build the strength of abdominal muscles and give internal massage.
In laughter clubs we have different varieties of belly laughs which can exercise all the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm simultaneously. In between the laughters, there are stretching exercises for abdominal muscles by raising the arms, taking a deep breath and bending backwards slightly. Scientists have termed laughter as 'internal jogging' or a 'Magic Finger' which goes right inside your tummy and gives an excellent massage to your internal organs.
Regular laughter exercises not only strengthen the abdominal muscles and give constant massage, but they hold the abdominal organs in their proper places to ensure proper digestion and absorption. I agree, laughter exercises are no match for standard yogic asanas', but they can be done regularly to give excellent results at no cost.
For a strong circulatory system: Once the food is digested properly and absorbed, the nutrients must reach each and every part of the body and the c1rculatory system is the transport system. All the nourishment is absorbed into the blood and processed a bit in the liver and passed on the central pumping-system, the heart, to push throughout the body through a network of blood vessels.
Similarly, the blood, after supplying the nutrients and collecting the wastes of metabolism should, return to the heart and lungs for purification. The most important organ of circulation is the heart. By rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, the resulting expansion and contraction of lungs provide a good massage to the heart muscles.
A constant change in intra-thoracic pressure while laughing helps to draw in venous blood returning from all the major venacavas of the upper and lower body. In a good bout of laughter, there is dilation of blood vessels all over the body giving a flushed appearance and feeling of warmth. Pulse rate and blood pressure rises as the circulation gets stimulated, before they settle down even below the original levels ten minutes after the cessation of Laughter Therapy. In a nutshell, laughter helps to tone up the circulatory system of our body.
For a Strong Respiratory System: Once all the elements of nourishment are carried to the tissues, the most important element which forms a part of many enzyme systems of metabolism is oxygen. The principle organs of respiration are the lungs. For effective supply of oxygen, so that the full breathing capacity of lungs may be utilised, the respiratory passages should clear and muscles of respiration should be strong.
Yoga lays more emphasis on breathing exercises because they help to improve oxygen supply for optimal function. The life force energy prana, enters our body through breathing. Therefore, breathing is the most important part of health building at the physical level, as it supplies oxygen. At the mental level it helps to calm down the mind and at the spiritual level the life force energy can be upgraded through various types of breathing exercise (Pranayams).
I deliberately incorporated deep breathing exercises to take a break in between two kinds of laughter. Normally, in general routine nobody remembers deep breathing, but in laughter club one becomes habituated to deep breathing as we are doing it at least 10-15 times during the laughter sessions.
Normally, a person at rest breathes 16-18 times a minute. During daily rituals it goes up to 25-30 times a minute. During heavy exercise and intense emotional pressure the breathing can go up to 30-40 times a minute. Individuals suffering from chronic bronchitis, bronchial asthma or cardiac failure have higher respiratory rates. During the stress and strain of daily life, breathing rates go up and it becomes shallow.
As a few lung cells, due to lack of deep breathing, cease to participate in respiration, they have tendency to collapse and become non-functional. The lung capacity (vital capacity) goes down and as a result the person feels breathless after a little exertion. Regular deep breathing, as practised in laughter clubs, keeps the lungs at their full breathing capacity and also helps in emotional calming down. If one wants to achieve higher spiritual achievement, one's breathing channel should be in perfect order.
Residual Volume: After the inspiration, when the air is exhausted, some amount of air is left within the lungs. That is known as residual air. This air contains more carbon dioxide and can only be removed by forced exhalation, or in a prolonged bout of laughter. There is a type of Pranayam, a breathing exercise, where expiration is more prolonged than inspiration with the idea of removing as much air from the lungs as possible.
In our laughter sessions, participants are advised to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth by making pursing gestures to prolong the expiration, so that the residual volume is replaced by fresh air, which contains more oxygen. Similarly, all the bouts of laughter are like prolonged exhalations with brief periods of inspiration. After the 30-45 seconds of laughter, the laughter group is asked to relax and take two long deep breaths. This increases the net supply of oxygen to the body.
Clearing Respiratory Passages: Laughter sessions, along with deep breathing, are like chest physiotherapy for those who are smokers and have problems of bronchitis and respiratory airway obstruction. Our Ho-Ho Ha-Ha exercises is akin to yogic kriya like Kapalphati, Shwashuddi and Bhastarika, where exhalation is done in jerks with force.
Many people feel that after a laughter session they keep on bringing out some mucous during the day, which makes their breathing clear. Laughter has also increased their local resistance in the throat and they thereby get fewer colds and tonsillitis. Various breathing exercise, along with Lion Laughter, has help to keep their respiratory passages more healthy.
Effective Removal of Waste Products: Another condition that is important for maintaining health of the tissues is the effective removal of waste products from the body. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of metabolism and gets cleared from the system by deep breathing and a variety of stimulated laughters. The massage to the digestive tract provided by laughter exercises helps to maintain good bowel movements. Good tone of abdominal muscles also prevents constipation by proper evacuation and bowel movements.
NOTICE: Reprinted for e-mail distribution only, by permission of Dr. Madan Kataria. This article appeared in the February 1999 issue of "Your Own Doctor," Madhuri Kataria, Publisher. No other reproduction is authorized. For subscription information, contact: