Ho, Ho, Ha, Ha, Ha: Healing Through Laughter Yoga

by Heather Osterink | photography by Dave Burgess

After reading the title above, you just completed your first Laughter Yoga activity. If it felt a little silly and uncomfortable, don’t worry; that’s normal for your first time. It’s even okay that you were faking the laughter just now: your body doesn’t know the difference, so you still experienced the health benefits. You are not alone if you haven’t heard of Laughter Yoga. We sat down with Angēla Essick Dykes, a certified Laughter Yoga teacher, to learn about the practice.

Laughter causes us to inhale more oxygen, which in turn increases the oxygen in the bloodstream getting more into the brain.

Sitting in the middle of the coffee shop, chanting “Ho, ho, ha, ha, ha,” and greeting each other with laughter was awkward and drew the attention of everyone around us. The other customers’ curiosity was obviously piqued by their persistent staring. Dykes invited them to join us, but she was politely declined. It was quite clear that while they found it interesting – maybe amusing – to watch, they certainly were not going to participate themselves.

Dykes’ first experience with Laughter Yoga was not much different. She attended LaughFest, an annual fundraiser for Gilda’s Club, five years ago. She began yoga as part of her recovery from a head-on collision in 2008 and was excited to add Laughter Yoga to her practice.

“I felt something different, something I hadn’t felt in a really long time, at least since my accident: I felt joy. And it continued to grow.” Angēla Essick Dykes

As she entered the room in her workout clothes, yoga mat in hand, she was told she wouldn’t need any of that. Dykes was surprised and confused, and those feelings quickly turned to irritation when she discovered all she was going to do was laugh; participants don’t even talk during a session. Dykes left the class frustrated, but committed to come back two more times. By her third session, she fully engaged in all the activities and left feeling uplifted.

A few days later, Dykes said, “I felt something different, something I hadn’t felt in a really long time, at least since my accident: I felt joy. And it continued to grow.” She was hooked.

While Dykes was at LaughFest, she learned about a training opportunity to become a certified teacher offered by Dr. Madan Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga.

Kataria created Laughter Yoga from the principle “laughter is the best medicine.” Kataria, while researching an article for his health magazine, read scientific literature about the incredible benefits laughter has on the mind and the body. After reflecting on these findings, he decided to create laughter clubs, and held the first Laughter Yoga session in a park in India in 1995. Dykes, who also experienced the healing benefits of laughter as medicine, committed to attending Kataira’s training to become certified to teach and offer this medicine to others.

Dykes shares that Laughter Yoga can be found in over 70,000 clubs in 60 countries, including Grand Rapids.

“The guiding principle of Laughter Yoga is to promote world peace through laughter,” Dykes explained.

Anyone can participate in Laughter Yoga. Similar to traditional yoga, the practice focuses on controlled breathing. But the laughter exercises are nothing like conventional yoga poses: A typical Laughter Yoga session is an hour long and consists of four parts: greeting, individual exercises, interactive exercises and cool down.

The greeting portion consists of both a Western and an Eastern greeting meant to introduce participants to each other and begin the process of connecting through eye contact and focused breathing. In a Western greeting, participants make eye contact, shake hands and laugh their greeting to each other. An Eastern greeting replaces the handshake with hands in prayer position combined with a head bow and a laughter greeting.

Individual activities aim to put participants at ease and get them comfortable with the idea of laughing through activities.

These activities continue a focus on deep breathing and include clapping and chanting, such as “Ho, ho, ha, ha, ha.” One exercise participants may do is called Making a Milkshake. Participants hold a (pretend) cup in each hand, mixing the milkshake back and forth while chanting “Ah, ah, ah, ah.”

This is followed by mimicking drinking the milkshake and then laughing. Dykes also shows participants how to laugh through miming vacuuming, dusting, ironing or pretty much any other household chore.

Interactive exercises are done with other participants, but there is no touching involved; the focus is building closeness with each other through eye contact and laughter. Two interactive exercises that work in conjunction are Anger Laughter and Forgiveness Laughter. In Anger Laughter, participants will point at each other and let their anger out through laughter, in much the same way a person would yell at another. On the flip side, Forgiveness Laughter involves asking the other participant for forgiveness through laughter.

The cooldown period involves participants telling themselves an affirmation, then sharing an affirmation with each other, the goal being to send everyone off in an increased state of bliss and harmony. Dykes also has students measure their time in Laughter Yoga by asking them to reflect on how they felt about coming when they entered the room and assign that feeling a number between one and ten. She then asks them to assign a number between one and ten once the class is completed.

“Ninety percent of participants’ numbers go up between how they felt at first and how much they enjoy it at the end,” Dykes shared.

Dykes enjoys sharing the health benefits of Laughter Yoga. Laughter causes us to inhale more oxygen, which in turn increases the oxygen in the bloodstream getting more into the brain.

“The brain needs 25 percent more oxygen than the rest of the body,” Dykes explained.

This increased oxygen releases the “happy hormones,” our endorphins, creating a relaxed and joyful feeling. The reduction in stress also lowers blood pressure, supports cardiovascular function and improves circulation. Let’s also not forget the incredible ab workout that can come from deep belly laughing for a prolonged period; even if it is fake, the body doesn’t know the difference. A participant may start out forcing the laughter but will no doubt be laughing for real by the end of a session.

“Usually, by the time we’ve gotten to the interactive exercises, they’re making connections and laughing for real—busting a gut. Sometimes I forget I’m the leader, I’m having so much fun.” Angēla Essick Dykes

Dykes summed up her experience teaching classes by saying, “My favorite part is seeing people’s faces change. They come in uncertain, a little guarded. I tell them they aren’t sitting, unless they need to. I do a wicked, hilarious laugh, and they think I’m nuts.

I give a little history, greetings, and they start to let their guard down. Usually, by the time we’ve gotten to the interactive exercises, they’re making connections and laughing for real—busting a gut. Sometimes, I forget I’m the leader because I’m having so much fun.”

Dykes provides custom-tailored sessions for a variety of groups: seniors, children, developmentally challenged and corporate, to name a few. You can contact her through her website, angeela.com.

She will also be offering free sessions at this year’s LaughFest. For a complete schedule of times and locations, visit laughfestgr.org.

In addition, Gilda’s Club offers free Laughter Yoga sessions; you can find them on the organization’s online calendar at gildasclubgr.org/calendar.

We hope to see you at LaughFest or Gilda’s Club. We may not get to talk to each other, but we will enjoy laughing with you!


Heather Osterink is a writer, observer, thinker, and lover of life. She is passionate about living life in a way that positively impacts others.


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