Laughter Yoga: A Sobering Experience

The setting: a meeting room at a Center City, Philadelphia hotel during a wellness conference. The cast: people of all ages, lifestyle and dress. The directors: two women with bright smiles and welcoming presence. One of them is Peggy Tileston, who holds a master’s degree in counseling from Lesley University in Boston, is a board-certified music therapist and is certified to teach meditation, yoga and Laughter Yoga.

On this day, the conference agenda is frivolity with a purpose: rollicking laughter while making a milkshake, flying around the room with arms outspread like airplane wings, and speaking silly gibberish to each other. Why would “sane” adults engage in such activities?

The Power of Laughter

Tileston explains the strange-sounding activities of this conference session in a recent Huffington Post article:

“When I first heard about Laughter Yoga, I was skeptical and a bit creeped out by the idea of forcing myself and others to laugh. What, no jokes? I wondered how laughter could be generated without a sense of humor,” Tileston says. “What if someone is depressed or just doesn’t feel like laughing? Some of the people I work with have been through horrible experiences. How dare I ask them to laugh? So many people hide behind fake smiles and laughter, so isn’t pretending to laugh somehow inauthentic?”

Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, and founder of Laughter Yoga, offers several benefits to giggles, guffaws, belly laughs and snorting snickering, indicating that the body doesn’t know the difference between comedy-induced laughter and that which we act as if we’re tickled by. Even “canned” laughter — which begins with calling out “ha ha ho ho hee hee” — can get the process going.

Dr. Kataria says that Laughter Yoga:

  • Elevates mood by releasing feel-good endorphins, and there’s a residual effect long after the laughter.
  • Has some of the same impact as the poses and breathing of traditional yoga, even though it’s not done on a yoga mat. It oxygenates the body, which rejuvenates and energizes.
  • Is a stress reducer, strengthens the immune system, relaxes the body and eases the mind.
  • Improves relationships because it’s a community-building experience. When shared with others, it draws people together. Laughter is contagious.

Laughter as Addiction Treatment

According to Tileston, Laughter Yoga also has implications for treating addiction. “I’ve used it in short-term inpatient dual diagnosis units, in a long-term residential treatment program, in an intensive outpatient recovery setting, and in individual counseling,” she says.

“A typical initial session will start with some education about the benefits of laughter and how it can help in addiction recovery, conduct an actual Laughter Yoga experience, and then close with verbal processing,” Tileston says. “I gear the specific exercises to the physical and psychological abilities of the people I’m working with. For example, a group in detox may remain seated much of the time, while a scenario for participants nearing the end of a long-term addiction recovery program may include learning how to laugh off an invitation to use.”

Laughter and the Brain

“The addict brain is wired to ensure the repetition of activities associated with pleasure or reward. It ultimately seeks the release of ‘happy’ brain chemicals,” says Beth Bongar, a certified Laughter Yoga teacher since 1995. “The effect of such a powerful reward strongly motivates people to use those substances again and again. This is why scientists sometimes say that alcohol and drug abuse is something we learn to do very well.”

Addiction is a disease that hijacks and changes the pleasure and reward, learning, motivation, and memory centers of the brain. Part of recovery, Bongar says, involves the slow process of “rewiring” the reward circuitry of the brain.

“Engaging in sober experiences like Laughter Yoga that create new memories of feeling good can help tremendously during addiction recovery,” Bongar says. “Laughter is a drug-free, non-addictive activity that affects the release of ‘happy’ brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin — especially when done in a group and for a sustained period of time, like during in a Laughter Yoga session.”

Using Laughter to Break the Isolation of Addiction

Furthermore, Bongar says, addiction is a disease of isolation and disconnection, and participating in Laughter Yoga creates connection and builds community.

“Laughter is a universal human experience that has its roots in group social bonding behaviors. And like yawning, it’s very contagious,” she says. “Like in group sessions of 12 step addiction recovery programs, Laughter Yoga provides the opportunity for human connection.”

Most addicts desperately need to learn not only how to tolerate distressing feelings, thoughts and situations, but how to soothe themselves when they’re distressed, Bongar says. “The experience of Laughter Yoga, alone or in a group, can teach us how to distract or delay, to not sweat the small stuff, to lighten up, to release, to connect, to choose laughter instead of drama, to engage in something pleasurable, to step back, observe, and ‘surf’ the discomfort.”

At periodic intervals during the Laughter Yoga workshop of the wellness conference, the room erupted with a chant that involved clapping and calling out affirmatively, “Very good, very good… YAY!” Laughter is liberating, legal and most definitely addictive. Indulge freely.

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