Stress and ill health are no joke but it seems the old saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’ is actually not such a funny idea after all.

The good news is that you don’t need to be in a genuinely amusing situation to reap the benefits of a good laugh.

Laughter yoga was the brainchild of Dr Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from Mumbai, India, now popularly known as the ‘Guru of Giggling’.

While researching the health benefits of laughter in 1995, he decided to test them out on himself and his patients.

At 7am on March 13, 1995, he went to his local public park and managed to persuade four people to join him in starting a ‘laughter club’. They laughed together in the park that day – much to the amusement of bystanders – but within a few days, the small group had grown to more than 50 participants.

At first, the group would stand in a circle with one person standing in the centre telling a joke or recounting a funny story. After a healthy outburst of laughter, the participants would each go their own way, enthused and feeling good to face the day ahead.

But after two weeks a problem emerged – the good jokes dried up, some group members felt offended by what they deemed inappropriate jokes and it was suggested that it might be better to close the club than continue down this path.

Dr Kataria asked club members to bear with him while he identified a suitable way forward. They didn’t need to wait long; that night he read scientific papers that showed the human body cannot distinguish between real and ‘fake’ laughter – both produce the same ‘happy chemistry’, hormones that boost the immune system and blood circulation to the body and brain for feelings of good health.

The next morning he explained this to the group and asked them to try to act out laughter with him for one minute. Amid scepticism they agreed to try – and the results were amazing.

For some, the acted-out laughter quickly turned into real laughter, which in turn was contagious and very soon others followed. Soon the group was laughing like never before.

The hearty laughter that followed persisted for almost ten minutes. This breakthrough was the birth of Laughter Yoga.

Understanding that there were ways other than humour to stimulate laughter, Dr Kataria developed a range of laughter exercises including elements of role-play and other techniques from his days as an amateur dramatic actor. Realizing the importance of childlike playfulness, he developed further techniques to stimulate this within the group.

He proceeded to train others in his Laughter Yoga techniques and there are now in excess of 10,000 Laughter Yoga clubs in more than 100 countries around the world, in the US, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, China and Africa, where people can laugh unashamedly regardless of how happy, stressed or ill they feel when they arrive and know that the ‘workout’ will leave them feel upbeat and energised.

Laughter Yoga is also becoming increasingly commonplace in business environments, schools and hospitals as followers seek to reap the physiological and psychological benefits it offers.

Dr Katari has even worked with the Indian Army. One YouTube clip shows dozens of grown military men practising enforced group laughter exercises. Very quickly, as they relax into the workshop, it becomes natural, genuine laughter.

Professor Duncan Geddes, a consultant in respiratory medicine at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, confirms that ‘laughter is an important medicine.

‘It is an expression of happiness and happiness is good for all of us. It stimulates the body’s defences, reduces pain and helps recovery from illness.’

Laughter Yoga is a healthy exercise to beat stress, as it’s like an aerobic exercise (cardio workout) that brings more oxygen to the body and brain, which makes one feel more healthy and energetic. It’s like a single exercise routine that reduces physical, mental and emotional stress simultaneously.

It strengthens the immune system, which not only prevents you from falling sick, but also helps to heal a variety of illnesses like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, depression, arthritis, allergies, asthma, bronchitis, backache, fibromyalgia and migraine headaches.

Says Dr Kataria: ‘Whether it is your personal life, business life or social life, everything you do depends upon your mood state. If your mood is good, you can do things much better.

‘Laughter Yoga helps change your mood within minutes, by releasing certain chemicals from your brain cells called endorphins. You will remain cheerful and in a good mood throughout the day and will laugh more than you normally do.

‘Quality of life depends upon the quality of good friends we have with whom we have a caring and sharing relationship. Laughter is a positive energy that helps connect with people quickly and improves relationships. If you laugh more, you will attract many friends.’

Dr Helen Pilcher, a comedian who has a PhD in biology, reviewed research on the physical effects of laughter and found that a real fit of the giggles – uncontrollable howls – burned 120 calories an hour, similar to the amount we burn when we walk at a moderate pace.

Hearty belly laughs can burn up to 100 calories per hour, while prolonged chuckling can burn up to 20 calories per hour.

And scientists have discovered that one group of muscles, the internal obliques, which help create the appearance of a ‘six pack’, are activated more by laughing than by stomach crunches.

So it is also quicker – and cheaper – than a gym session as ten minutes of belly laughter equals 30 minutes on the rowing machine.

Dr Kataria said: ‘It’s fun and easy, there are no skills to learn, no special clothes, no special shoes, no equipment required. You are an expert from you first session.

‘In Laughter Yoga, we don’t laugh because we are happy, we are happy because we laugh.

And if you can’t laugh, bring your body to the Laughter Club – your mind will get it.’

He said it is important to laugh persistently for at least 10-15 minutes to feel the benefits but natural laughter typically comes in bursts lasting just a few seconds.

Children in general, laugh 300-400 times a day but that reduces significantly to only 15 in adulthood as we become conditioned as we go through life and often deliberately choose not to laugh in certain circumstances as it is considered unprofessional or inappropriate.

Dr Kataria explained: ‘Laughter Yoga can change your mood within minutes by releasing endorphins from your brain cells, and if your mood is good, you are at your best. You do everything well.

‘In this high-tension high-pressure modern world, we don’t have many reasons that make us laugh. It’s better to disconnect laughter from reasons and conditions of life.’

UK holistic health practitioner Julie Whitehead, a former estate agent, was so impressed by the effects Laughter Yoga had on her when she attended one of Dr Kataria’s workshops in 2002 that she quit her day job.

She said: ‘I had practised yoga for many years but was interested in laughing and feeling happier so I went to a workshop with Dr Kataria and was hooked. I gave up my residential letting business to spread laughter and happiness and have been doing so ever since.

‘I started running monthly laughter clubs in London and have now trained hundreds of people to become Laughter Yoga Leaders.

‘For me the most important health benefits are that laughter boosts the immune system by up to 40 per cent and reduces the stress hormone cortisol, so it is a great stress-buster as well as promoting health and well-being and connecting people in a positive way.’

English teacher Danny Singh explained how he uses Laughter Yoga as a warm-up exercise at the start of his lessons as a method for improving learning.

He said: ‘A short 15-20 minute session of laughter yoga at the beginning of a lesson gets the blood flowing and creates endorphins, energy and enthusiasm. It opens up the creative, right side of the brain, facilitating learning capacities.

‘It puts you outside your comfort zone, by initially making you feel like an idiot, but then you realise that everyone else is in the same boat, so you play along.

‘Once you’ve done a short session of laughter yoga, you are willing to do more or less anything that the teacher throws at you.

‘Nothing else that the teacher asks you to do will be even half as embarrassing! You’ve got passed that stage. Any inhibitions that you might have had are also eroded.

Shy students especially benefit from this activity, he adds, calling it ‘one of the most powerful tools that can be used with students of all ages, all levels in all subjects in all schools, colleges and universities, in order to facilitate learning skills and development’.

In 1998, Dr Kataria created World Laughter Day, which is now celebrated around the world on the first Sunday of May.

He said: ‘The celebration of World Laughter Day is a positive manifestation for world peace and is intended to build up a global consciousness of brotherhood and friendship through laughter.

‘Today, many people fear widespread international terrorism. The world has never faced so much unrest before. People are at war within themselves.

‘Laughter is a positive and powerful emotion that has all the ingredients required for individuals to change themselves and to change the world in a peaceful and positive way.

‘We have taken life too seriously and we are paying a very high price for that. The time has come now to take laughter seriously. I have not seen anybody dying of Laughter, but I know millions who are dying because they are not laughing.’

The health benefits of laughter:

• Laughter is a great stressbuster – when we laugh endorphins, happy hormones, go UP and the stress hormone cortisol comes down, leaving us feeling happier and more relaxed.

• Laughter stimulates circulation and respiration. Because we breathe in deeply and fill the lungs in order to laugh, this brings more oxygen into the body and fires up the lungs and respiratory system. The increased circulation brings a healthy glow to the face as all the cells receive extra blood, helping us to stay looking younger longer.

• Laughter boosts the immune system. Researchers at Loma Linda Medical Centre, Indiana State University and the National Cancer Centre in California found that the immune system is boosted by as much as 40 per cent after laughter! They compared test groups watching a funny video with a group who watched a tourist film and when the films were over, scientists took samples of the immune cells, and mixed them with cancer cells to see how effectively they attacked the disease. They found that people who had laughed out loud had significantly healthier immune systems, enabling them to better fight disease and infection. The benefits of laughter also remain in the body for a significant time after the laughter occurs.

• Healthy hearts: Scientists at the University of Maryland in Baltimore showed funny videos to volunteers who were tested 160 times before, during and after watching the films. They found that when the subjects laughed, the blood flow increased through their body by 22 per cent.

• Pain management: Research by Professor Robin Dunbar, one of Britain’s leading evolutionary biologists, from Oxford University, assessed pain tolerance in two groups of people, one who had watched nature videos and the other comedies. The results revealed that those who laughed the most had a heightened pain tolerance.

• Reduced blood pressure: During laughter, blood pressure is increased, but after a good laugh, the resting rate is lower.

What are you laughing at?

A Laughter Yoga Club follows a set routine with a variety of types of laughter for group members to experience.

Their mantra is ‘fake it until you make it,’ with the idea that enforced laughter ultimately makes people laugh out loud genuinely.

Laughter techniques featured at club meetings include:

Greeting laugh: Shake hands and laugh with other members.

Shy laugh: Cover face with hands, peer over top and giggle, cover face and peep out at the side and giggle.

Mobile phone laugh: Imagine listening to a really funny conversation on your mobile phone, fingers sticking up like antennae.

No money laugh: Pulling out your pockets to show that you have no money, and pointing and laughing.

Laugh at yourself: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Before you can laugh at others you should be prepared to laugh at yourself. Simply point your index finger to your chest and laugh.

Milkshake laugh: Holding imaginary glasses in each hand, pour liquid from one glass to the other whilst saying ‘Oooo, ahhhh’, then laughing as you tilt your head back whilst making gesture of drinking the milk.

Gibberish: A very good facial exercise and great for loosing inhibitions. Just walk around having gibberish conversations with eachother whilst trying to keep a straight face.

Mexican wave: In a circle lifting arms up and laughing Mexican wave style.

Lion laugh: This is a yoga breath, opening eyes wide, mouth wide, stick out your tongue and laugh whilst holding hands by the side of your head like lion’s paws.