Laughter Yoga in English Language Teaching
Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh was born and raised in London. He has been living in Rome, Italy for the last 18 years, teaching predominantly adults working in companies, politicians etc. He attends Pilgrims TT courses almost every summer as a Guest Speaker. His philosophy on teaching and learning can be summed up by the following: “Who dares to teach, must never cease to learn”.
What is Laughter Yoga?
The origin of Laughter Yoga
How I first got involved with Laughter Yoga
What I did next
How a typical session might work
Is laughter really necessary anyway?
Doesn’t doing the same laughs get boring?
Laughter Yoga at Pilgrims 2007
Laughter Yoga in primary schools
Observations and feedback
How can Laughter Yoga really be effective in the classroom?
Laughter Yoga is where some traditional aspects of yoga, such as breathing and stretching are combined with stimulated group laughter to create a series of movements and sounds. This is done repeatedly, a typical session lasting from 20 – 45 minutes. There are an unlimited number of laughs available, the most famous being the welcome laugh, the lion laugh, the bear laugh and the milk-shake laugh.
The first Laughter club was set up on 13 March 1995 in Mumbai, India. This is a very easy date for me to remember, as it’s both my mother’s birthday and the date on which the greatest ever film director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, died.
Madan Kataria, an Indian doctor doing research on stress, discovered that when we laugh using our stomach muscles, our body reacts in an amazingly positive way, irrespective of whether we are genuinely happy or not. With this in mind and with some assistance from his wife who is a yoga teacher, he decided that we could all laugh for no reason.
Initially, with his first five club members, he contrived, as you would imagine, to spend an hour telling jokes. This obviously produced a few laughs and continued as the others told theirs, but eventually, this all came to a standstill, as they eventually ran out of jokes, some people either didn’t understand them or found them offensive and others did not have a sense of humour.
So, he created this seemingly ridiculous technique, where we look into each other’s eyes, mime a situation and laugh. To an outsider looking on, a group of people performing Laughter Yoga in this way could appear to be totally mad. However, it must be remembered that laughing is a serious business and it is not until you actively experience it, that you realise just what a powerful instrument it is. As an Indian lady once said, “anyone who doesn’t do Laughter Yoga must be completely mad”!
The club in Mumbai grew rapidly and Dr. Kataria and his wife proceeded to export their idea to foreign lands. In just thirteen years, the idea has diffused enormously. To get an idea of the effect, just have a look at the website and see how widespread it is in countries such as the USA, India, Denmark and Germany.
Mr. Kataria and his wife Madhuri, continue to spread their ideas, in part with the help of localised conductors, but also through an immense amount of time spent travelling and doing sessions in business centres, TV studios, hospitals, schools and open parks.
I first heard about Laughter Yoga in 2005 through a good friend of mine here in Rome, who knew I was fairly open-minded and always curious to learn new things. She told me about a presentation that was going on and managed to persuade me to go along. The conductor gave us a short theoretical explanation and some background about the subject. We then began doing the exercises and laughing. I have to say that I didn’t especially feel like laughing, not that I was unhappy at the time, but the effect of being with another 10-15 people all laughing out loud (laughter like many things is contagious), had its desired effect and soon, I was laughing for no reason.
I left the event thinking that I’d had an enjoyable time with a group of mad people. Yes, it was fun, but all this talk about eliminating stress and pain, improving sleep patterns, reducing cholesterol and even fighting cancer, was absurdly exaggerated and over the top.
A week later, I found myself staying with a friend in Madrid. As she was a teacher, I offered to do a lesson for her, as a thank you for hosting me and putting up with all my defects. She naturally agreed, so I prepared a lesson, based mainly on communication activities, the kind of things you learn from attending Pilgrims workshops. As there were expected to be thirty-five students aged 17-60, I decided that I needed an especially lively warmer to wake them up. Yes, why not! I could do about ten minutes of that Laughter Yoga thing.
As the students walked in, they looked friendly, but a little tired. After all, it was 5pm, so most of them had come from work, some from school or university and it was then that I began to have doubts about my warmers. What if they didn’t work? There was a 60 year old man who looked quite serious. Would he refuse to participate? What if no-one laughed? It would be two hours of absolute hell!
I gritted my teeth, kept a straight face (difficult to do at the same time), and began. A young, courageous volunteer helped me to illustrate the welcome laugh. We repeated it. Her laugh was noticeably shy, to be expected, I suppose. I turned to the group and said, Ok, now you do it! They all turned to someone near them, shook hands and laughed out loud. The noise was deafening. Great! We then did the milk-shake laugh, then the lion laugh and finally the laugh I usually use to close a session, where the group stands in a circle holding hands and slowly moves to the centre before looking up and letting out one big laugh all together. They loved it.
I then explained the first real activity of the lesson, which I had learned from Hania Kryszewska (one of the top trainers at Pilgrims), that summer. It involved each student talking to as many people as possible and finding one thing that they had in common. The great thing about this activity was that it got them moving. As there were so many students, I decided I’d stop it after about 10 minutes, even though they appeared to be having a great time, otherwise I’d run out of time for the other activities that I had planned. How do you stop a large group of students who happen to be making a lot of noise and having a good time? With a bit of hand waving, I finally got them to stop. When I politely said that I thought it was time to move on to the next activity, I was given a slightly disconsolate look from about ten of them. One of them then said out loud, “but I’ve only spoken to 21 people. I still have another 13 to speak to”. There were cheers and various sounds of approval, similar to what you hear in the House of Commons during a Parliamentary debate in London.
I looked into the girl’s eyes and realised that I couldn’t refuse her request. When I told them all they could continue, they seemed ecstatic. The most miserable person in the room was me. How was I going to fit in all the other activities, now that my timing had gone out of the window?
The best bit was yet to come! As we did the next part of the lesson, which was sitting down in a circle, while the students threw questions at me, I could feel the energy in the room. The 60 year old man was smiling. In fact, it was difficult to find anyone in the room who wasn’t smiling. I could hear some of the students deep breathing. It was at this point that I suddenly realised, the students had been totally reenergised by Laughter Yoga and as such, what a powerful instrument it could be.
After that, I went straight to the internet and looked up the site: www.laughteryoga.org. I was then shocked to find that it was not simply an odd activity carried out by peace protestors left over from the 1960’s, but a widely diffused activity which involved people of all ages and backgrounds.
I decided that I needed to attend some of the Laughter Yoga sessions at the club in Rome, where I had experienced the presentation, in order to learn more laughs. However, at that time, these sessions were almost always on a Wednesday evening, which interfered with my viewing of the Champions League football. I did eventually find a solution, which was a workshop weekend in a small town in the hills of Lazio.
At this workshop, I was one of a group of about fifteen. From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, we did hundreds of laughs, quite a bit of theory and discussion and even some traditional yoga. I was now a qualified Laughter Yoga conductor. More importantly, I had far more confidence to use Laughter Yoga in the class, knowing that I had an infinite number of laughs available and understanding the health benefits much more. One of the effects it had on me, was that for a week, I slept ten hours a night, straight through, no interruptions, despite the best efforts of my neighbours, who usually save me having to set the alarm clock.
Needless to say, I continued using Laughter Yoga with my groups, average size four. They did of course, initially consider me mad, but having been used to my warmers, they did at least comply with my instructions. After a time, most of them began to feel comfortable with Laughter Yoga and soon it was just one part of the lesson.
I gave and attended other workshops on the subject, with groups of different sizes and backgrounds. As we shall see later, I then decided to take Laughter Yoga to Pilgrims.
A Laughter Yoga session can vary enormously, depending on who the conductor is, the number of people involved and the kind of participants who attend.
Before we start laughing seriously, it is of crucial importance to get the participants breathing properly. The conductor should therefore illustrate that we breathe in deeply through the nose and breathe out deeply through the mouth. This is generally done with the following movement. Our starting position is to touch our toes. As we take a deep breath in, we move our arms up and above our head. As we breathe out, we move back down to the starting position. This action is repeated four or five times.
The next objective is to energise the group. This is done by clapping to the rhythm; ho, ho, ha, ha, ha! Having got the participants warmed up, we proceed to the laughing itself. Each individual conductor will have his/her preference as to which laughs he/she wishes to start and finish with.
I personally, always begin with a “welcome” laugh, as it seems the most appropriate. I’ll then do the “milkshake” laugh. After this, I usually do several “animal” laughs, which bring out the infantile side of our personalities. I then vary the rest of the session, depending on the kind of participants attending. If they are business employees, the “having a row” and “apologising” laughs will often work well.
As we all begin laughing together, it is up to the conductor’s discretion to decide when to stop it. This is done by starting the ho, ho, ha, ha, ha clapping and is very effective, both in keeping order and in directing the proceedings. After the clapping, two or three deep breathing movements are done, before a new laugh is introduced.
I almost always end a session with a laugh that unifies the group. We stand in a circle, holding hands, slowly move forward to reach the centre, whereupon, we throw our arms up, look up at the sky and let out one big laugh altogether.
Consider this: babies aged six months to two years spend a lot of their time smiling and chuckling. It’s relatively easy to get them to smile. Is it because all babies have a sense of humour? Of course not! Is it easy to get all adults to smile? No, it certainly isn’t!
Children in general, laugh 300-400 times a day; adults only 15. Children don’t set conditions as to when and why they laugh, hence, you could even say they laugh for no reason. Adults become conditioned as they go through life and often purposely choose not to laugh, as it is considered unprofessional, infantile and not suitable for someone of high ranking.
Laughter is simple and natural. Childish and infantile it may be to some extent, but as each human being is made up of different components, either you accept you have a childish part that needs to be expressed from time to time, just as every person has a feminine side, a creative side, an intellectual side and an aggressive side, or you keep it hidden away, pretending it doesn’t exist and thereby feeling frustrated and inadequate in numerous situations.
Laughter is a serious business, as it produces endorphins which help to strengthen our immune system and combat disease. Evidence shows that laughter is in fact, akin to a successful, productive person. A satisfied employee will always work better than an unsatisfied one, who does the bare minimum to get by. Laughter is clearly fundamental to our wellbeing, our ability to affront life’s everyday surprises and keeps us looking and feeling young. Just look at some of those people who never laugh and see the difference!
Once we’ve seen the physical and mental benefits of doing Laughter Yoga, our aim should be to do a Laughter Yoga session, as often as possible. Therefore, the above question could be asked.
If you are doing the same laughs, but with different people in different sessions, there will always be differences. Both the laughs produced and the reactions can never be the same. What about if you want to do it regularly, with exactly the same group of people? Even here, the reactions will vary according to the time of day, general mood and energy levels.
One of the great things however, is that there is no limit to the different kinds of laughs you can do. If you are a creative person, you can invent new laughs on a daily basis, just by looking at personal situations, one’s own life experiences, daily routines etc..
If a group has been doing Laughter Yoga together for some time, they should dedicate a part of the session to creating some new laughs, either individually, or in small groups. Once a group is comfortable doing Laughter Yoga with you, this process becomes quite simple. I often get children to do it, as they are very creative. Many of them mime animals better than me and they get great satisfaction from the fact that it is their own personal creation. If the children respond positively to Laughter Yoga, I might even get them to do it towards the end of a first session, in the form of a competition. This usually inspires them to come up with something interesting. Only if I have a terribly passive and introverted group, might I refrain from doing this.
During a wet and windy summer in Canterbury, I gave two Laughter Yoga workshops at Pilgrims. Despite heavy competition from salsa night and other high quality workshops of a more intellectual nature, I still managed to get around twenty participants on each occasion.
These workshops were not normal Laughter Yoga workshops, as they were directed exclusively towards teachers. I gave a general outline of the subject and the ideas behind it, before we got down to some real physical exertion (see, “How a typical session might work”). The temperature was just about tolerable enough to be able to do this part outside. I then concluded by handing out photocopies of about 10 different articles on the subject, published in newspapers all around the English speaking world, from South Africa to Canada and India to the USA. It was, you could say, a very heavy and intensive session.
I immediately got positive feedback, with participants telling me how much lighter and more relaxed they felt. This continued the next day, with others telling me how well they had slept compared to normal. I got the feeling that all the participants appreciated the physical and mental benefits for themselves, but whether or not, they were willing to go into it more deeply and use it in their classrooms, was another matter.
In the first workshop, Pilgrims own guru Mario Rinvolucri, decided to turn up. He has a raucous bear-like laugh, which helps to stimulate others, who might not normally be so willing. I asked him for some feedback on the session and what he said, proved very interesting. He and others noticed, that with some of the laughs we did, I was not so convincing. The reason for this is quite simple. We all have our favourite and non-favourite laughs. I had deliberately chosen to do some of those I liked less, in order to illustrate the fact that not all the laughs are based on animals. Hence, we did laughs related to everyday situations, such as the car not starting, racing to catch the plane, winning the lottery etc..
This leads to an important point, which is that the conductor should stick to the laughs that he/she prefers and feels comfortable with. In the same way, if a teacher is not convinced of what he/she’s teaching, the students will soon catch on. In the second of the two Pilgrims workshops, I selected the laughs far more carefully.
The participants came from far and wide; Finland, Spain, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Holland, to name just a few. Interestingly, in both workshops, one of the participants was about four months pregnant. I assume this is just coincidence and not a cause or an effect of being at Pilgrims.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the teachers for their active participation and ask them to contact me in order to update their experiences on the subject. My e-mail address is at the head of this article. I would also be willing to travel, if any of them would like me to use it with them in their schools. I have in fact, already visited a few primary schools in Europe and the observations I have made, make quite interesting reading.
During the last year, I have had the opportunity to try out Laughter Yoga with children in Primary schools in both Madrid and Rotterdam. In total, I had eight different classes aged 6-11 and used a similar procedure with all of them. I began by getting their names and then giving a brief introduction of myself, not by talking and boring them to death, but with a succession of guessing games and stress/intonation games which they tend to appreciate. I didn’t spend any time at all explaining the theory, but just did a physical demonstration, using the methods already explained in, “How a typical session might work”. Apart from the welcome and milkshake laughs, we did a series of animal laughs, before ending in the usual way.
This generally lasted for about 20-30 minutes, after which I was shattered, not being used to the noise and energy levels of kids. I then asked them to get into groups of three or four and create a laugh to demonstrate to the rest of the class. I would then vote for the best two groups, before getting the other students to vote for the group that they thought was the best. This saved me getting abused by the kids and accused of unfairness. In many cases, they enjoyed this part of the session most.
The first thing to note is that just as how, no two students are exactly the same, no one group will react in exactly the same way as another. My expectations beforehand were that the children would love the idea of laughing, playing, moving around and expressing themselves and although this was largely true, the results were not as clear-cut as you might expect.
The immediate effect is quite a shock to the participant and in fact, the less disciplined, more kinaesthetically inclined kids loved Laughter Yoga immediately. The quieter, calmer and more studious ones were clearly uncomfortable. However, as the activity proceeded, the laughs became bigger and by the end, at least 90% of the kids expressed their appreciation of it. They also agreed that they felt better, more energised, but at the same time, more relaxed.
About 5% of the children didn’t look too happy and said they felt tired. I couldn’t help noticing that these kids were slightly overweight, as they probably spend a large part of their time alone, playing computer games and doing virtually no physical exercise. This reaction is wholly unnatural and forty years ago would have been unthinkable, but is today perhaps a sign of our times.
The groups that really got into it and worked well together, were in fact harmonious groups that felt a strong sense of unity and group identity. There were some kids who were passive, felt self-conscious and inadequate and didn’t want to participate. The groups that didn’t work well together, were surprise, surprise, groups that didn’t have a strong sense of unity or good relations with each other. I only discovered the nature of each group when speaking with their main teacher after the activity itself.
I would expect most of the children to feel refreshed and energised, just as they would with any physical activity. However, what I find really interesting, is the effect of Laughter Yoga on their learning capacities. To understand this, I needed to speak to their main teachers and find out about their behavioural patterns in their following lessons.
In most cases, the teachers reported that their kids seemed to be calmer and more relaxed, having got rid of their hyperactive energy and therefore concentrated better on the lesson in hand. In one case, where the students were expected to read quietly, the teacher reported that some of the kids were dozing off. This was also linked to the fact that before the Laughter Yoga session, they had done physical education. So, while falling asleep may not be what you want from your students, it does show that Laughter Yoga helps you to relax.
Many of the kids were enthusiastic enough to ask when I would be coming back. I did manage to go back to one group on a second occasion. A big difference on this occasion, was that each time I asked for a volunteer to help me demonstrate a laugh in front of the class, every hand went up, while on the first occasion, only the outgoing kids volunteered. This shows that after the initial first impact which is quite strong, the kids feel more comfortable and at ease with this activity. It certainly reduces their inhibitions, as shown by shy, introverted kids begging to be chosen.
The research that I have done so far and will continue to do, is not based on any kind of scientific method, but neither is it intended to be. It is a general analysis of how and when Laughter Yoga can be applied to language teaching or teaching in general and what effects it can have, both as an end in itself and as a learning aid.
It works well as a physical exercise, which gets the students moving around the classroom. In addition, it helps to break down inhibitions, particularly important for the shy students in the long term. It gets the blood circulating, improves breathing patterns and enables the brain to work better. It is a socialising activity, encouraging group unity. If done properly, it encourages students to respect one another, as they laugh with each other and not, at each other.
As mentioned previously, many of the kids loved the part of the session where they could create their own laughs. Children are very creative. Those of you who teach them will know that. The quality of their mime is very high, certainly better than mine. The one problem however, is that the kids are sometimes so concentrated on their mime, that they forget to laugh. As laughter itself is an essential aspect of the activity, it is imperative that the teacher makes sure the kids are aware that they have to laugh.
For a teacher who is thinking of presenting Laughter Yoga to their class, the hardest part is the first time. After this, it can only get easier. The teacher must feel comfortable using it. This can be acquired by joining a local club, following a national weekend course or even better, attending an international conference where Mr. Kataria is himself present. Once the teacher feels confident enough to present it, it can be used at any time of the lesson. It should ideally be used in short spells and as such, can easily be fitted into even the tightest of schedules and most rigid school systems. The teacher him/herself can monitor any changes in the students learning behaviour and act accordingly.
I will continue to use Laughter Yoga as a tool in both my teaching of adults and children. I would love to hear from any of you who either use it, have used it, or would like to use it with your students.
Anyone who is planning to be at Pilgrims this summer 20 July-2 Aug 2008, will have the opportunity to actively participate in a Laughter Yoga workshop with me and feel all the benefits for themselves… I hope to see some of you then….
Please check the Fun, Laughter and Learning course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Building Positive Group Dynamics course at Pilgrims website.