When she was first introduced to laughter yoga at her New York City senior center, Millie Mund thought it was “weird.” And who wouldn’t? Stretching her hands skyward, taking deep breaths, clapping her hands and chanting “ho ho, ha ha ha” while staring directly at other group members until everyone is laughing uncontrollably, took getting used to.
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“At the beginning, I felt silly, but then I forgot about my pain,” says Mund, 85, who has osteoporosis, arthritis, high blood pressure and circulatory problems. “You look around and see everybody laughing and smiling. It’s a lot of fun.”
Developed in 1995 by Madan Kataria, M.D., a family practitioner from India, laughter yoga “is based on the scientific concept that your body can’t tell the difference between simulated and spontaneous laughter,” Kataria says. “You get the same health benefits. The yoga breathing, in combination with laughter exercises, brings more oxygen to the body and makes you feel energetic and stay healthy.”
Laughter yoga is only one tool in the growing field of laughter therapy. Today, humor is used to treat chronic pain associated with cancer, arthritis or other illnesses, as well as depression, anxiety and stress disorders. Psychiatrists, family therapists, social workers and an increasing number of “certified laughter therapists” or “laughter leaders” prescribe jokes, reading funny books, watching comic movies—or anything that evokes gut-splitting squeals for the purpose of feeling better. Clips from classic TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, All in the Family or The Bob Newhart Show work well. Standup comedy shticks from Lily Tomlin, CDs such as “The 2000 Year Old Man” with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, or movies like Blazing Saddles or There’s Something About Mary can be just the right medicine.
Many laughter therapists teach workshops at government offices, corporations, nursing homes and police departments. Even some Roman Catholic nuns find laughter therapy useful in ministering to others. Sister Angelica Menta, a Houston nun and a licensed family therapist, has traveled throughout Texas for 20 years conducting laughter workshops for cancer patients and at senior centers and workplaces. Known as “the Stand-Up Nun,” Sister Menta wears silly hats, tells jokes and encourages her people to find laughter in everyday life, using humor as a path to spirituality.
The medical community has recognized the healing power of humor since the 14th century, when the French surgeon Henri de Mondeville suggested that doctors should look after each patient’s joy and happiness “by having someone tell him jokes.” But the modern father of laughter therapy is thought to be Norman Cousins, for 30 years the editor of the Saturday Review. Cousins recounted his own self-treatment with humor in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1976, after he’d been diagnosed with a very painful, life-threatening form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. Doctors gave him little chance of recovery.
When traditional medicine failed to relieve his pain, Cousins left the hospital, checked into a hotel, took megadoses of vitamin C and watched Marx Brothers films and TV sitcoms, finding that 10 minutes of “belly laughter” allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep. He eventually recovered and wrote a series of best-selling books on humor and healing. Before he died in 1990 at age 75 from heart failure, Cousins was made an adjunct professor of medical humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, medical school.