Laughter is the best medicine may sound like a platitude, but, when it comes to laughter yoga, there’s plenty of truth to the saying.
Conceived by Indian medical doctor Madan Kataria in 1995, laughter yoga is a form of gentle cardiovascular exercise and meditation. It combines the deep breathing that is commonly practiced in yoga with physical movements and simulated laughter. The encouraged playfulness and silliness of these exercises often leads to real — and very contagious — laughter.
Today, laughter yoga is practiced in more than 65 countries. Individuals of all ages and abilities take part — including those with dementia. Joanne Morcom, a trained laughter yoga leader and registered social worker at Extendicare Cedars Villa in Calgary, has led laughter yoga classes for individuals with mild to advanced dementia for five years.
The classes, which are offered on-site to residents of Extendicare Cedars Villa, unfold much the same way each time. Seated in a circle to encourage eye contact and socialization, Morcom warms up her group with jokes, songs and clapping before leading participants through deep breathing and laughter yoga exercises. One of the group’s favourite laughter yoga exercises is Lion Laughter, where everyone holds their hands up like lion paws, sticks out their tongues and tries to laugh from the belly.
“That produces real laughter because of the expression on people’s faces,” says Morcom.
For individuals with dementia, laughter yoga has numerous benefits. Laughter has been found to reduce anxiety and agitation, resulting in improved mood. An additional benefit is that it produces laughter without participants needing to understand a joke or punchline.
According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can also improve circulation, diminish stress and increase endorphins (the body’s natural painkiller and feel-good hormone), promoting a sense of overall well-being. And, since it encourages togetherness, laughter yoga also offers social benefits to individuals with dementia.
“Sometimes, people who have dementia need a lift — as we all do — and laughter yoga helps them feel good about themselves,” says Morcom. “And the contagious nature of laughter really enhances interpersonal relationships.” [ ]