Can giggling your way to Zen make you healthier?

Laughter yoga: the thought alone makes you smile. But wrap your Zen brain around this idea: preliminary research has shown that laughing is good for your health.

If that's the case, count us in.

“There are … several good reasons to conclude that laughter is effective as an intervention,” explains William B. Strean in an article entitled “Laughter Prescription,” found in the National Institutes of Health's U.S. Library of Medicine. “Although the evidence … demonstrating laughter's benefits could be stronger, virtually all studies of laughter and health indicate positive results. Similarly, there are almost no negative side effects or undesirable ramifications associated with laughter as an intervention.”

So, what about this idea of coupling yoga with laughter?

According to Gail Spirit Sky, a longtime Bexley resident and yoga instructor, laughter yoga was founded on a whim 22 years ago. Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician in India, was concerned that patients he thought should be feeling better were not faring well. Meanwhile, he was delving into scientific evidence about how laughter can positively impact a person's mental and physical health.

Around 4 a.m. one morning he had a sudden revelation about how to instantly test the findings of the studies. Three hours later, he gathered four people, including his wife, in a nearby park. They stood in a circle as one person at a time moved to the center to tell a joke or a funny story. Throughout the next 10 days they continued the activity—the small group attracted passersby who contributed to the joke marathon while the laughter multiplied and people's stress was relieved.

After 10 days, “they ran out of jokes and then decided they didn't need jokes, just laughter,” says Sky, a laughter yoga leader. Kataria didn't realize it at the time, but he had just launched the world's first laughter club.

The yoga aspect of laughter yoga is the brainchild of Kataria's wife, Madhuri. A yoga teacher, the co-founder of laughter yoga realized that deep breathing is essential to improving oxygen flow in the body, so her contributions focused on that element.

Sky reports there are more than 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries throughout the world. The only club in Central Ohio celebrated its seventh anniversary in late September. When Sky leads the monthly laughter club meeting, the retired teacher's decades of teaching third grade shine through.

The hour-long gathering starts as a quick history lesson about the humble beginnings of laughter yoga. It is clear she enjoys the surprise people express when she informs them which country is home to the most laughter clubs. It's not the United States, nor is it India. “Vietnam has the most laughter clubs,” Sky tells attendees.

While her demeanor is self-deprecating, silly and joyful, it is clear Sky takes this laughter business seriously. At various moments, she gently implores attendees to press their “laughter button,” which is the happy-face sticker participants are given as they enter the club environs.

Eastside resident Joyce Johnson is a strong proponent of the benefits of both laughter and deep breathing. Johnson, a respiratory therapist for 45 years and a laughter yoga leader, works for the Breathing Association and helps seniors adapt to lung health issues.

“In just six or seven slow, deep breaths, you can change the oxygen in your system,” says Johnson, a grandmother of four.

Nearly 10 years ago, she began searching for ways to spice up her presentations to seniors about proper breathing techniques. Then, in 2008, Johnson attended ComFest and came upon a presentation about laughter yoga. She enjoyed it so much she trained to become a laughter yoga leader and today relies heavily on that foundation as she assists seniors with breathing issues.

“I enjoy teaching it and I see seniors enjoying doing it too, especially seniors who don't have much interaction with a lot of people,” she says.

Not only has her laughter yoga education boosted Johnson's career, but it has also benefited her personally. When Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy a little more than six years ago, she continued to teach laughter yoga once weekly. She says it helped her “get through it” and feel better, even on days she had chemotherapy.

Bexley resident Cassandra Gainer, the owner of Precious Pets of Bexley, has participated in Sky's laughter yoga. “I enjoy laughing and yoga, so when I first heard about laughter yoga, I was intrigued. I had no idea what it would be like. It turns out it really does reduce my stress and puts me in a good mood,” she says.

“It feels good to laugh,” she adds. “You get your mind off the stresses of your life. You let your guard down to live in the moment.”

Laughter is an excellent antidote for various ailments, claims Sky. In addition to being a stress reliever, she says laughter is also good for the jaws and abdominal muscles.

Another positive aspect of laughter yoga is that even when a person cannot attend a session in person, there are other ways to laugh. There are several YouTube videos, including some featuring Kataria, to help assist when attending a class is not possible. Sky says faking it can provide the same benefits. “Your body does not know if you're faking [laughter] or if it's real,” she adds.