Think of the last time you laughed — really laughed, with full breaths all the way into your belly. It felt amazing, right? That same practice of bringing joy and breath together, intentionally, is the idea behind "laughter yoga," a growing practice that offers laughter "clubs" nationwide.
"It's based on the research that our bodies cannot tell the difference between intentional laughter and real laughter," says Katie West, a laughter yoga teacher and director of the Levity Institute in South Portland, Maine. "After 10 to 15 minutes of laughing, your body starts producing chemicals that makes it think it's really happy and really laughing."
During West's classes, she takes participants through meditation, gentle stretches and laughter exercises that aren't the usual type of poses expected in other types of yoga classes. Instead, students practice laughing during every day moments. That could include drinking water and laughing, talking on the phone and laughing, or pretending to drive and laugh.
"You're playing with the idea of laughing," West explains. "The average person doesn't feel comfortable sitting and laughing. We're building relationships so that the next time you are on the phone with someone angry, you can remember practicing that in class. It's the idea of restructuring how you view daily events."
A 2011 study at the University of Maryland found that laughter temporarily expands blood vessels, thereby helping to protect against heart disease. It also lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while upping serotonin, which decreases depression, West says. The endorphin rush leaves you with a "runner's high" and boosts your immune system, she says.
West calls her own experience with laughter yoga life changing, and says she sees the effect in others, too. “When you laugh you're choosing to evoke joy,” she says. “The point of laughter yoga is that you're not leaving laughter to chance. You're making it an intentional practice — like going to the gym.”
While the health benefits of laughter may be individual, it's a practice best done with others. "Laughter yoga is a social practice. You can weave the practice of laughter into every moment of your life, for greater joy in your life," West says.
Laughter yoga classes, also known as laughter clubs, are free or by donation. Find one near you at LaughterYoga.org.