Origins of Laughter Yoga
"The sun demands no reason to shine, water demands no reason to flow, a child demands no reason to smile, then why do we need a reason to laugh?"
My Laughter Story
Born in a small village on the India-Pakistan border, I was the youngest of eight children. Hailing from a farming background, my parents had never attended school. Being simple village folk, they were mostly engrossed in the daily grind of farm life. None of my siblings were interested in academics, which made me the odd one out. It was my mother's dream that I become a doctor because in those days one had to travel almost ten miles to seek any kind of medical help. She hoped that I would study medicine and return to the village.
In pursuance of her wish, I went to a boarding school in Ferozepur, Punjab, and got my medical degree from Amritsar Medical College. After graduating, I went to Mumbai and started practicing as a family physician. Lured by the glitz and glitterati of the city, I imagined myself becoming rich and famous. I tried everything I could to reach for the skies, but soon realized that it was not that simple. I did not succeed in my quest and slumped into depression.
Life was tough as it was not easy to make money without any experience. I was stressed and miserable. My mother, who visited Mumbai at that point, was shocked to see my state. "Madan, what is wrong? You don't look happy and you don't laugh and smile like you used to in the village," she would ask.
She was right. Somewhere in the midst of the hurried upward scramble to the imagined riches, I had lost my laughter. The transition from an innocent village boy to a city doctor had altered my persona. Having realized the enormity of the situation, I embarked on a new search, and this time it was not money. It was to find my laughter again: the key to happiness and joy.
Not content with being just a physician in a suburb of Mumbai, I launched a health magazine called My Doctor to spread more awareness about the importance of good health. It was in March 1995, while writing an article titled "Laughter: The Best Medicine" for my magazine, that I stumbled upon a rich repertoire of scientific work done on laughter as a therapy. Further exploration led me to an amazing volume of documented studies that described many proven benefits of laughter on the mind and body.
While going through all the scientific literature, I was profoundly inspired by Anatomy of an Illness, a book by American journalist Norman Cousins. It describes how Cousins laughed his way back to health from ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic condition affecting the spine. He took a lot of painkillers each day but found no relief, which is why he decided to watch funny movies instead. To his surprise, he found that just thirty minutes of laughter gave him almost two hours of painless sleep.
I also read about the scientific studies conducted by Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University in California, which showed that mirthful laughter reduced stress and had a positive impact on the immune system.
This got me thinking. Life in Mumbai was stressful and people hardly laughed. They were forever in a rush and struggled to meet their needs and fulfill their dreams. Even I appeared dour and had lost my laughter to the daily rigors of my profession and the added burden of a publication. It was not a joke: there was no time to laugh.
I believed that laughter could improve health and enable one to cope with the stressors of the modern age. I looked for ways to add more laughter to people's lives and help them with their medical or personal crises. I started joking and laughing with my patients and realized that they recovered much faster when they were happy and positive.
It was March 13, 1995. I was awake at 4 a.m. and pacing up and down my living room, desperate to find a solution to the stress I was facing. An idea came to me: if laughter was indeed so good, why not set up a laughter club? I was ecstatic and could hardly wait to implement the concept. Three hours later, I hurried to the public park where I went for a morning walk every day. I tried to convince a few regular walkers about the importance of laughter and the idea of starting a laughter club.
The response was predictable. They were nonplussed and probably thought that I was crazy. They laughed at the idea and scoffed at the concept. But I persisted and managed to motivate 4 out of 400 people. The first laughter club started with just five people.
L to R: (standing) Madan Mohan Pushkarna, Mohan Singh, Rajendra Tandon; (sitting) Madhuri and Dr. Madan Kataria. They were members of the first laughter club in 1995.
We met for half an hour every morning to laugh together, much to the amusement of befuddled onlookers. Initially, the sessions would begin with someone sharing a joke or a humorous anecdote. Soon, we started enjoying the whole exercise and reported feeling much better after a laughter session of just twenty to thirty minutes.
Despite the initial ridicule and criticism, I continued to advocate the health benefits laughter had to offer. Gradually, more people became receptive and showed interest. The numbers rose and by the end of the week there were nearly fifty-five people. The routine continued with much vigor for the next ten days, after which we hit a snag. The good jokes and stories were replaced by negative and hurtful ones. Reacting to the offensive jokes, two members complained that it would be better to close the club. Determined to keep the laughter club alive, I asked the members to give me a day to resolve the crisis. That night, I looked up methods to laugh without jokes. Luckily, I chanced upon a book called Emotions and Health from the Prevention Health Care Series. As I read a chapter on humor and laughter, I was surprised to learn that the body cannot differentiate between real and fake laughter. It concluded that if one could not manage a genuine laugh, one should pretend to do so. I also learned that not only laughter but a bodily expression of any motion generates a similar emotion in the mind. This was the breakthrough I was looking for: why not use laughter as an exercise?
The next morning, I explained the concept to the group and asked them to act like they were laughing for a minute. Though skeptical, they agreed. The results were amazing. For some, the fake laughter quickly turned into real laughter. It was contagious. Soon, the others followed. The group laughed like never before with hearty laughter continuing for almost ten minutes.
Finally, there was laughter, real laughter with no jokes.
The fact that one could laugh without an external trigger was something unique. However, there were some people who were shy and found it difficult to laugh without a reason. As every person has a different psychological makeup, it is harder for some people to laugh at will. My new challenge was to get these people to laugh.
I came up with warm-up exercises like clapping and chanting "ho ho" and "ha ha ha." This helped people laugh more easily. Soon, varied laughter exercises were developed, which included elements of role play like childlike playfulness and other techniques from my theater days.
As the concept evolved, I identified similarities between laughter and pranayama. Both of them are based on the principle of optimal breathing, which is fundamental to good health. Together with my wife, Madhuri, I incorporated elements from this ancient form of yogic breathing into laughter. The result was laughter yoga or hasya yoga-a complete workout for health and wellness. A physically oriented technique, it offers multiple health benefits, primarily increasing the supply of oxygen to all parts of the body and boosting the immune system. It also energizes metabolism.
Scores of people are now taking advantage of the numerous benefits of laughter and experiencing relief from a variety of stress-related illnesses. Today, laughter has grown on its own strength. It is undoubtedly nature's best medicine.
As I look back, I recall how the laughter club started for fun. I had never dreamed that it would become such a big movement. In its initial days, it was quite difficult for me to get started. The fear of being laughed at made people apprehensive of joining the group. In fact, the first one to object was the caretaker of the garden where we started the first laughter club. It was thought of as a public nuisance and I was advised to discontinue. However, I continued to motivate people. It was after a few talks on the health benefits of laughter that people started coming forward. Even then, many ridiculed the idea and called us murakh mandli, which means "a band of fools" in Hindi. Of the 300 to 400 people who came to walk in the Lokhandwala Park in Mumbai's Andheri (west) every day, only fifteen to twenty people joined initially. More people trickled in after they reported feeling a sense of well-being after the sessions. This made the park authorities soften their stand and allow the laughter group to continue. Soon, the number of members swelled to fifty-five and then sixty, including women.
The very idea of laughing in a public place without a reason intrigued many people, who saw an ordinary bunch of people engaged in what they perceived was a "funny" activity. People would look at us from the balconies of their houses and from the roadside. The hundreds who walked in the park couldn't resist staring as they passed us. The initial reaction was that of amusement and surprise. The question on everyone's mind was: how could we laugh in a public place without a reason? Some of those living around the spacious park half-heartedly objected to being woken up by the laughter.
Those who practiced it daily and found it beneficial began spreading the news by word of mouth. The concept rapidly caught on in the residential area and many people would come to watch the "funny" people in action. As we kept updating our laughing techniques, people from adjoining localities also expressed the desire to start similar clubs in their areas. We were only too happy to share the joy. In less than two months, sixteen laughter clubs had come up all over Mumbai.
Lotte Mikkelsen, London: I started my daily laughter practice in 2008 after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and have not stopped laughing since. This has had a major impact on my health with no relapses related to MS. In addition, I find that the way I deal with life in general and with other people has become more compassionate and kind. Laughter yoga has taught me and allowed me to express tears, playfulness and unconditional laughter without judging others and myself.
Within a month, thirteen laughter clubs had come up in Mumbai. Back in my hometown, the local newspaper carried a photograph of one of the laughter clubs on the front page, which sent my eldest brother into a state of panic. He called me.
"Madan, what are you doing? Please stop it immediately. This is causing us a lot of embarrassment. We sent you to become a doctor; instead you've become a laughingstock."
I tried to explain that the club was not funny entertainment or cheap comedy-it was a health club dedicated to maintaining the well-being of its members. But all explanations were in vain. He was adamant that I stop my laughter movement.
In order to convince my family, I invited my mother and brother to Mumbai and took them to the Jogger's Park laughter club. They were surprised to see over 100 people laughing together. Most of them were professionals like doctors, engineers, accountants and businessmen. Coming from a small town where women were usually too shy to participate in any public activity, they were amazed to see even women actively take part in the sessions.
The overwhelming response from the members and the feeling of harmony displayed at the sessions had a profound impact on my family and they changed their attitude about the laughter movement. Comprehending the tremendous health benefits and the happiness and joy that the clubs have instilled in people across the world, they now take pride in my work and are part of my laughter family.