Laughter is in many ways our universal language. Humans love to laugh, and it's good that we do: Laughing can reduce stress, boost our mood, improve our immune system and relieve pain.
Jeannette Sanger, a laughter yoga instructor from New York, experienced the latter benefit acutely last summer. She was cooking pasta when she spilled a pot of boiling water on her thigh. The pain was excruciating, she said, but she forced herself to use her own skills as medicine and try laughter to reduce the pain.
"As my husband drove me to the hospital, I was sitting in backseat laughing," Sanger told The Huffington Post. "It distracted me from the pain I was feeling.”
Even forced laughter like Sanger's can have a profound healing effect on the body, according to Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from India who developed laughter yoga, a practice that draws on the breathing exercises of yoga to produce therapeutic results. The doctor was researching for an article entitled "Laughter - The Best Medicine" when he made the surprising discovery that both performed and genuine laughter can affect our health.
In 2014, researchers at California's Loma Linda University found that older adults who watched funny videos during a controlled study showed improvement in their recall abilities and exhibited lower levels of cortisol, the "stress hormone." Another study at University of Maryland Medical Center found that people who laugh more and have a sense of humor are less likely to develop heart disease.
When Kataria discovered that both forced and authentic laughter could produce these health benefits, he developed a system of exercises and breath work to induce laughter, and it has become a growing trend in the health and wellness world.
For Sanger, laughing can be a spiritual, as well as a physical, experience. “It’s almost a spiritual practice of being in the moment because when you’re laughing you’re not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow," Sanger told The Huffington Post. "You’re just totally joyful, the way children are.”
Letting loose and having fun is something many adults need to be reminded how to do, Sanger said. Laughing is a way of removing inhibitions and learning how to play again. Sanger's classes start out with simple breathing and movement activities. "Motion creates emotion," Sanger said. “Just by moving around you’re changing your mood.”
She invites participants to mill around the circle and act out scenarios, like taking a shower or brushing their teeth. She then introduces "minor inconveniences" into the story lines, such as: "You're getting out of bed. Oops, you fell down!"
Things can get very silly, as you'll see in an instructional video by Dr. Kataria below:
“None of it is really funny but you’re letting yourself go with it, and the laughter eventually comes," Sanger explained. "You just have to abandon yourself to being silly and playful."
Sanger has taught laughter yoga in a range of settings: from elderly homes to veterans' organizations to a school in the Bronx. She said she always asks participants to check in with their bodies before and after class to see the effect an hour of laughing has had. By and large, Sanger said her students report feeling lighter, happier, more energetic and more relaxed after taking her class.
Laughter is "cathartic," Sanger said. It helps us release negativity and introduce more joy into our day. As a side perk, Vanderbilt University Medical Center has found that 10 to 15 minutes of laughter can burn 10 to 40 calories.
Like meditating and taking walks in nature, laughter should be part of our daily mindfulness routine, Sanger suggested. "Schedule fun into your life," she said. Watch a funny movie, schedule a date with a friend, take a bubble laugh. Learn to "laugh at little annoyances,” Sanger said, and you may just find yourself waking up each day feeling a little lighter and more prepared to face the day.
Also on HuffPost: