Feeling Better is Just a Laugh Away: a Conversation with Janet Hunt on Laughter Yoga

Janet Hunt was designated to give a speech at the Registered Nursing Association of Ontario (RNAO)’s Annual Assembly; however, before she began her presentation, she opened up with having the attending members participate in what she introduced as “Laughter Yoga!”

Within seconds, Janet had transformed a quiet, attentive group into a loud group of friends bouncing around the room, laughing openly, faces flushed with joy as they greeted strangers in the room. Laughter boomed in the room like thunder, smiles cracked faces in half, eyes were shiny with tears of joy and when the presentation was done, people returned back to their seats. This was the perfect approach to begin a presentation - tinges of the positivity stayed in the air until the very end!

Janet Hunt, the President of the Middlesex Elgin Chapter of the Registered Nurses of Ontario Association, is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Geriatric Psychiatry in London, Ontario, who is passionate about her work because of the impact she makes to her clients, their families, and the community. Before she became president of the Middlesex Elgin Chapter, Janet was active in the association for the past 12 years on various committees, including the Board of Directors, the LAP committee, as a stakeholder reviewer for various BPGs, and is a Best Practice Champion. 

It was at a conference where Janet was first introduced to laughter yoga, and she immediately loved it! “The need to feel happiness is a basic human need and laughter is a physical expression of happiness,” Janet elaborates, “I find when we laugh, we feel better about ourselves and what we are doing, basically promoting an overall sense of wellbeing.” 

Founded by Dr. Madan Kataria, Laughter Yoga is the combination of the stress-relieving, relaxing effects of yoga with the endorphin-releasing, tension diminishing effects of laughter. As an introvert, the idea of letting out a booming laugh in public is unimaginable. I’m the type of person who just smiles at a joke, or offers a short and soft monosyllabic laugh. However, for the first time in my life, I was laughing as loud as I could in the middle of a giant assembly meeting! In any other circumstances, this would have been unforeseeable! I imagine, over time, laughter yoga may just transform the type of laughter one has. 

From a medical perspective, laughter plays a vital role in one’s health. According to a research study conducted in 2007 in which laughter yoga was studied as an intervention to mental health in adults, the researchers concluded that laughter yoga caused a “significant drop in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, with a 17% increase in positive emotions and 27% decrease of negative emotions” (Manjunath et. al, 2007). Another finding from this study, which may be highly applicable and useful for students nearing exam season, is that the laughter yoga participants felt a significant decrease in their stress levels as well as a drop in alexithymia by nearly 8% (2007). 

Defining the term alexithymia warrants a greater appreciation for this finding. According to MentalHealth.net, alexithymia is defined as “a personality characteristic in which the individual is unable to identify and describe their emotions. The main [features being] emotional unawareness, lack of social attachment, and poor interpersonal relating” (Schwartz, 2019).  Someone with alexithymia has limited imagination - thus thinking abstractly about a newly introduced concept is very difficult. According to the researchers, the decrease in alexithymia indicates “a significant improvement in emotional intelligence” (2007). 

Although Janet does not practice laughter yoga often, regular yoga is an active part of her routine. “At the end of my workday,” she says, “I usually find the need to be still and regain the strength and mental clarity to tackle another day.” 

Laughter yoga comes into play when Janet works with patients with significant dementia. She uses laughter to promote positive emotions. “These patients are very cognitively impaired, but they retain the basic human need to be happy,” she explains, “we usually find that by stimulating laughter with them, they seem to smile more throughout the day.” 

Imagine if laughter yoga was instilled into the start of every lecture? Endless smiles for the rest of the day! 

With the research and personal experience to back her up, Janet believes that laughter can benefit all of humanity - especially students! “Students, like all of us, need to have an opportunity to remember what it is like to laugh like a kid, to forget about what I look like, to forget about what I should be doing, to take 10 minutes to relax and unwind and express basic positive emotions without judgment,” Janet expresses. This ability to de-stress is something that many students have trouble doing in the midst of midterms or with back to back assignments. 

Janet advises trying laughter yoga as there are so many benefits to reap. When a student is feeling physically drained from a lack of adequate or proper sleep, stressed out from constant reminders and notifications, on edge about approaching deadlines, weak from lack of a proper diet and at risk of falling behind or losing hope or motivation - laughter yoga can be the tool that momentarily helps them put aside their worries and allow some positivity to light up their thinking. This positivity, like any contagious laugh, can spread like wild-fire and can totally revamp the person’s perspective.“The production of positive endorphins created during laughter yoga-,” says Janet on laughter yoga’s mechanism of action, “- can help with positive self-esteem, reduce stress, ward off anxiety and therefore improve the perception of mental health.”

Janet did not know much about laughter yoga prior to her encounter at a conference meeting, but her intrigue led her to look more into this practice. When preparing for her presentation at the RNAO’s Annual Assembly in Toronto, she reflected on her experiences as an audience member and how she often felt during the long meets. “I have to admit I am usually looking forward to the train ride home to my family,” she acknowledges,  “however afterward, I often wish I had paid more attention to the learning of [the] session.” This understanding led in her the need to take a unique approach to her presentation. “I felt the need to revitalize everyone, to rekindle some of the positive energy that usually starts our Assembly meetings, [and] to refresh our ability to participate.” She researched facts about laughter yoga and watched YouTube videos (“about 12 times”) - and when she introduced laughter yoga on stage at the Assembly meeting, the effectiveness of the practice was quite evident as the room went from 10 decibels of unnoticeable whispers and paper shuffling to the uproarious 70+ decibels of laughing and clapping.

 It works because of the contagious nature of laughter. “Once one person starts, others can’t help but join in,” Janet explains, “[and because] it is also very physical; [it] increases the [respiratory] rate and oxygenation, etc.” Thus laughter yoga works on two levels: the mental (releasing endorphins) and the physical (increasing respiration leading to increased intake of oxygen leading to improved circulation and blood flow to vital organs such as the brain, leading to feelings of being more alert). 

The next time you have to give a presentation, try opening up with a short laughter yoga activity and see what happens! 

Janet’s final advice for students: “Watch a funny movie, go to a humorous show with friends, or simply sit on your chair and look in a mirror and laugh… make sure you laugh out loud. Maybe find a YouTube video of a laughing baby or other laughing people. Give yourself permission to be happy and use laughter to promote your happiness.”

Photo by Alexas_Fotos

References used: 

Manjunath, N. K., Raghavendra, R., Shenoy, S. R., Vadiraj, D., Krishna, S. G., Kumar, S. V., … 

              Shantha, S. J. (2007). What are the effects of laughter yoga on stress in the workplace? Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Retrieved from https://laughteryogawithalexa.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Bangalore-S....

Schwartz, A. (2019). The Loneliness of Alexithymia. Retrieved from  

              https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/the-loneliness-of-alexithymia/.