We’ll be late!”
Our guide, Umesh, had us park our bikes outside Jaipur’s morning vegetable market, and told us to run away. After eight days of unlimited continuous touring India with a group called the Flash Pack, it wasn’t exactly an easy feat, but I followed the instructions and started a deadly sprint through the vendors. I crept through the streets as fast as I could, completely unaware of where I was going, avoiding stray animals and women carrying hundreds of pounds of vegetables on their heads.
Ten minutes later, nine of my companions – complete strangers before we descended on Delhi a few days earlier – arrived at a park. At 8 a.m., the grass still smells like dew. “This,” I thought to myself as I looked from the empty lawn to the faces of my confused friends, “it’s a strange thing to have to sprint.”
As if he could hear my thoughts, at that moment Umesh asked us to stand in a circle, then put two fingers in his mouth and whistled into the air. Within a minute, a group of 15 Indian men who had been hanging out in other parts of the park headed towards our small congregation. He said: “These men will let us join us for laughing yoga.
What is laughter yoga?
Laughter yoga involves gathering with a group of peers or strangers, well, laughing. It differs from your usual class in that there is no asana (also known as posture), but is still classified as “yoga” because it combines pranayama (also known as yogic breathing) and stretching. It has been part of Indian culture for longer than anyone can say, but was formalized in the 1990s by a doctor in Mumbai who developed the laughter yoga club after realizing the positive effects it can have on people’s health.
Laughter yoga involves gathering together with a group to laugh together. It’s different from your usual class in that there’s no asana (aka posture), but still has yogic breathing and straightening.
Laughter releases endorphins and oxytocin, and since laughter has been shown to be contagious, doing it along with others can instantly help improve your mood — even on days when you feel the worst. In particular, studies that have looked at laughter yoga have found that it helps reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, and it can also help promote connection. Lisa Berman, LCSW and founder of Laughter Yoga NYC, said, “An important part of laughter yoga is eye contact and it’s also a way of making people feel very connected.” “In typical society, you don’t make such eye contact unless you’re intimate with someone or have been invited somehow, but here you’re inviting people to make eye contact and that creates openness and warmth.”
Despite the fact that you don’t hold any posture (or even fix a child’s posture) while practicing laughter yoga, it still offers some significant physical benefits. According to Berman, laughter is called “inner jogging” because it slows your heart rate, improves your circulation, and even qualifys as aerobic exercise because it is “forced exhalation” and breathing helps with cardiovascular health.
What happened when I tried laughter yoga?
Umesh lined us up in a circle formation with each visitor sandwiched among smiling yogis, who I later learned started almost every day with a session at the park. I turned to each of the men next to me to greet them, and though I didn’t speak English, each with a big smile turned to me. I immediately felt more welcome and calm.
“Okay, now just do what I do,” Umesh said. He then took a deep breath, raised his head backwards and raised his hands, and began to laugh in the air.
I tried to do the same thing, but it felt completely ridiculous at first. Forcing yourself to laugh among a complete stranger – when nothing particularly funny is going on – is awkward and weird. But then Umesh made us turn to the neighbors and make eye contact as we were laughing, and I was completely lost. The giggles I was forcing turned into deep, ripped, I-think-I-can-pee-pants, which continued for the next 15 minutes.
I felt a surge of emotion unlike anything I had experienced before, and when the student who was smiling next to me hugged me goodbye, I burst into tears of joy.
By the time it was over, I was exhausted of endorphins and exhausted. My heart was pounding and I was breathing so hard, you might think I’d just finished 5K. I felt a surge of emotion unlike anything I had experienced before, and when the student who was smiling next to me hugged me goodbye, I burst into tears of joy.
I traveled alone and crossed the edge far from my comfort zone to do it, but those few minutes made me feel less alone years — and that’s exactly the problem. Berman said: “The word ‘yoga’ means unity, and yoga laughs… Help you burn with yourself, with others, and with the world at large,” Berman says. So even though I’m thousands of miles away from home, with strangers from different places, of different generations and speaking different languages, when we laugh together, I’ve experienced the strong sense of human connection I’ve ever felt.
Traveling is the ripe time for emotional experiences, as demonstrated by a writer’s first public cry. It takes place in an Australian wildlife sanctuary. Plus, why our fitness editor uses running as her favorite way to see new destinations.