Take 25 percent off the cost of the award-winning AARP Smart Driver online course! Use promo code ‘BHM’ for savings.
by Ron Hayes, From the AARP Bulletin Print Edition, December 1, 2010
En Español | Do we laugh because we're happy? Or are we happy because we laugh?
Every week, yoga instructor Erika Ruiz volunteers at an Easter Seals center in Miami to exercise with 50 people diagnosed with dementia and their caregivers.
They don't arch their spines, touch their toes or wrap their ankles behind their heads. Instead, they clap hands, breathe — and laugh for no reason.
Giggles without a punch line. Guffaws without a pratfall. This is laughter yoga, a movement that's grown from five practitioners in a Mumbai park to more than 6,000 sites in 60 countries.
"Laughter is contagious, so I can engage both the people with dementia and their caregivers," said Ruiz, 46, activities director at Miami's Santovenia Adult Day Care Center, where she introduced the class in 2007.
"They're laughing together, and when you laugh you create bonds with your loved one." Laughter yoga first erupted in 1995, when a physician named Madan Kataria persuaded four friends to join him in a Mumbai park as part of his research into the health benefits of laughter. They told jokes, laughed and left. Soon the laughter club had grown to about 50 members.
Eventually, they ran out of jokes, but Kataria, reviewing his notes, had hit on the theory behind laughter yoga.
"Our body cannot differentiate between pretend and genuine laughter," he concluded.
In other words, laughing for no reason is just as healthy as laughing after a joke, and forced laughter soon gives way to real joy.
"You don't need a sense of humor to laugh," said Ruiz, who was using drum therapy with dementia patients when a Facebook friend told her about laughter yoga. Carrying laughter was easier than carrying drums, Ruiz decided, and she traveled to Chicago to become a certified instructor under Kataria's training.
"The basic idea is clapping, breathing and laughing," she explained. "Motion creates emotion."
On a recent morning, she stood before the class in the Easter Seals community room, sporting a colorful button that boasted, "We Go the Extra Smile."
"One, Two — One-Two-Three!" they began, clapping in rhythm.
Then, "Ho, Ho — Ha-Ha-Ha!"
"Expel all the air from your lungs," she told them. "Pretend you're smelling a flower."
They held imaginary flowers to their noses and took deep breaths.
"Very good, very good! Now, heart laughter."
They placed their hands on their hearts and laughed.
"Now, don't-care laughter!"
They threw up their arms and laughed even louder.
Only one older woman sat silent and uninvolved. The rest laughed, and the longer they laughed, the louder and more authentic their laughter grew.
Among the loudest was Zoila Maria Mena, 78, a client from Miami.
"It gives me a happiness inside of me," she said, still smiling after the exercise. "And to be happy is excellent because not that many people make you happy. It's good for me."
Nena Bravo, 68, of Coral Gables, does the laughter exercises with her husband, Edgar, 72, an Easter Seals client.
"It's also good for the caregivers of people with dementia," Bravo said. "Alzheimer's patients live in the moment, so when they're laughing, you can see that, in that moment, they're happy."
Laughter yoga is no cure. As Ruiz moves on to groups in more advanced stages of dementia, the response — and the laughter — dwindles. But the Easter Seals disabilities professionals remain enthusiastic.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it was silly," admitted Angela Aracena, the center's director of adult day services. "But when I saw it, it makes sense. Laughter brings more oxygen into the body and stimulates motion, stability and balance. It generates the feel-good endorphins and that boosts the immune system."
For Ruiz, who now volunteers at several Miami senior centers, the message is simple: "I'm serious about laughter."
Ron Hayes is a freelance reporter based in South Florida.
Please leave your comment below.
You must be logged in to leave a comment.
Enter address, city, state, or ZIP code.
Driver Safety (0)
Tax Aide (0)
Entertainment & Dining (0)
Healthcare & Insurance (0)
Financial Services & Insurance (0)
Member Local Offers (0)
Visit the AARP state page for information about events, news and resources near you.
This tool helps you identify your pills by color, shape and markings.
Members get 10% off monthly fees, plus free installation and package savings on a safety monitoring system.
Members can take a free confidential hearing test by phone.
AARP members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.
You are leaving AARP.org and going to the website of our trusted provider. The provider’s terms, conditions and policies apply. Please return to AARP.org to learn more about other benefits.
Your email address is now confirmed.
Manage your email preferences and tell us which topics interest you so that we can prioritize the information you receive.
Explore all that AARP has to offer.
In the next 24 hours, you will receive an email to confirm your subscription to receive emails
related to AARP volunteering. Once you confirm that subscription, you will regularly
receive communications related to AARP volunteering. In the meantime, please feel free
to search for ways to make a difference in your community at