I join the Zoom call and a couple of people are in there already – one of them, Lili, is full of beans. “Shalom,” she says. “Hello. You want to see my bird?”
It turns out I’m early for the session – it doesn’t start for another 40 minutes. Lili, who is based in Israel, walks off camera briefly and comes back wearing a frog headband and a large, green plastic tie. She gets out a toy bird that records her voice and replays it back to me. Okay, I think to myself, this is bananas.
Lili asks me to do some exercises, so I stretch my hands high above my head. She chuckles. It turns out she didn’t mean that kind of exercise. This clearly isn’t her first foray. She pulls funny faces at the camera and tells us to do the same – I oblige. Another woman, called Ja, puts her fingers near her cheeks, like she has whiskers, and meows loudly like a cat. I copy the finger actions, but can’t bring myself to meow loudly at these strangers I’ve only just met.
It’s 10am on a Thursday morning, and I’ve tuned in to an hour-long virtual laughter club – sometimes called laughter yoga – with Dr Madan Kataria, author of Laughter Yoga: Daily Practices for Health and Happiness, who is based in India. The premise is simple: it’s learning to laugh in the absence of humorous stimuli. The aim is to bring more oxygen to the body and brain through laughter.
Dr Kataria’s first ever laughter meeting was in a Mumbai park in 1995 – and it’s now practised in more than 100 countries. Pre-lockdown, laughter clubs took place, physically, in communities all around the world. However, with many of us in lockdown, these clubs have now moved to Zoom or Skype.
When it properly starts, there are close to 100 people in the Zoom room – folks from all over the world: Israel, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, Spain. Someone says it’s 5am where they are – they’re at work at an airport, wearing a high vis jacket. Lili asks people to say ‘I love you’ in their language. It’s a fun conversation starter, I’ll give her that.
Dr Madan Kataria, the host, arrives. “We need to laugh more than ever before,” he says during his brief introduction, acknowledging the coronavirus pandemic.
And then we begin our first exercise: laughing solidly for five minutes.
Almost immediately, 96 people from around the world, sat in living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and at work, start laughing. There are booming “ho ho hos” and maniacal “ha ha HAAAAAs”. I give it a go and within minutes, I’m breathless. How on earth am I going to keep this up?
During the five minutes, Dr Kataria starts pulling faces, almost like he’s trying to accentuate his laughter – everyone copies, so I follow suit. Then he does hand gestures while laughing: he’s flicking his hands about like he’s trying to shake water off them, then looks like he’s applying invisible suncream to his face. We all do it back. This, it turns out, is because during the session, you should also keep moving.
The key is to try and laugh for longer to get rid of residual air in your lungs, I later learn. According to Dr Kataria’s book, laughter is often interspersed with deep breathing exercises in these sessions – this isn’t mentioned in the club though. So I just end up belting out some “ho ho hos” and “ha ha has”.
At points, people bring props along. There’s a woman in a colourful hat moving erratically with dough-faced puppets; a man with a toy statue of a Chinese dragon; and Lili with her frog attire, poking out her tongue and waving her hands around her face. Another person has a small dog on their lap while pulling faces. It’s surreal. I find myself genuinely laughing at the weirdness of it all, then I’m soon back to forced laughter. When I spot the woman in her rainbow-coloured hat – like colourful sausages poking out of her head – I’m in hysterics again.
Five minutes pass, and I’m knackered. Thankfully there’s a rest period while Dr Kataria runs through some slides on why forced laughter is beneficial. Longer sustained laughter – we’re talking 15-20 minutes – has physiological benefits, he says. It’s like a workout.
It’s also different to the laughter we get from comedy because that’s often short bursts of passive laughter. With this laughter, you can control it. “We should be laughing every day,” says Dr Kataria. “We should be making it a habit.”
The session continues with another five minutes of solid laughing, an information break, then back to lolling with silly faces and hand movements. People in the call seem to have limitless energy – some, admittedly, are sat in bed and not doing much, but most people’s faces are crumpled. They’re really going for it. Smile lines are everywhere, limbs are waving frantically.
Because everyone’s laughter is loud and unmuted, it’s hard to tell whether it’s real or forced. At one point my boyfriend walks into the kitchen as I’m belting out some HA HA HAs. He has no idea what’s going on because I’ve got headphones in, so I start genuinely laughing – he looks very confused.
As time goes on, I ease into it. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever witnessed, but I embrace the silliness – and my spirits lift. I forget why I was so grumpy. I forget about the horrendous period pain that kept me up all night. And, just briefly, I forget about coronavirus. Before I know it, it’s the end of the session – it doesn’t feel like a whole hour has passed.
It’s a strange practice, but there’s something incredibly liberating about letting go, sticking your tongue out at a few strangers while HA HA HA-ing at them, and knowing you’re all together, despite being dotted across the world. When I come off the call I feel lighter and reenergised. I also feel a sense of connection.
So, what is this magic? Laughter triggers a beneficial hormonal response in the brain, neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott previously told HuffPost UK. You get a change in adrenaline and, in turn, become more relaxed. “You also get an increase in endorphins, meaning it feels good to laugh,” she said. “Over a longer time scale, you then get a reduction in cortisol – the stress hormone.”
When I ask Prof Scott whether I feel the benefits because my brain can’t tell the difference between forced and real laughter, she replies: “Yes I think so – partly because even forced laughter gives you an endorphin ‘hit’ and partly because, for people who like it, the forced laughter leads very quickly to ‘real’ laughter.” However, she caveats, for people who don’t like laughter yoga, the opposite is true and they can become highly stressed: “It’s not for everyone, it seems.”
For me? I’d say it worked. And I’d recommend it too, as long as you’re willing to embrace the bizarreness of it all. It’s certainly not for the fainthearted. But it reminded me we all need laughter and silliness in our lives right now – whether forced or otherwise – and I’m grateful to those hee-hawing strangers for helping me embrace it.