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The best medicine? “How Laughter Yoga helped me to recover from depression – and now I teach others how to chuckle their way to better health”

Sara Kay laughs out loud all day long for a living. She isn’t a comedian but she does recognise that a hearty belly laugh is brilliant for well-being and particularly mental health. After training to be a Laughter Yoga teacher in 2016, Sara now offers in person and online classes and coaching via her company Serious Laughter.

This year, Sara began offering online Laughter Yoga sessions for the College of Medicine, which has proved a big success. Here, Sara reveals how her own struggles with mental health inspired her to encourage others to learn to laugh out loud in the name of better health…

After her own mental health struggles saw her endure a period of depression, Sara Kay joined a laughter class at a well-being event in 2016. The session inspired her to train as a Laughter Yoga teacher and she now runs sessions online and in person. This year, she began running classes for the College of Medicine (Picture credit Sara Kay)

TELL US ABOUT SERIOUS LAUGHTER AND HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Serious Laughter was born from my own mental health struggles. Having gone through a divorce and come out as LGBT in 2016, depression took hold of me and life was a real struggle. I realised my mental health had been declining for many years.

It was at a well-being event in March 2016 that I discovered a class simply called ‘laughter’. It wasn’t a comedy class but instead a series of playful exercises; and at the end we sat on chairs with our eyes closed and let our laughter out.

I felt the laughter bubble out of me; it was a bit strange but a good sensation and it definitely planted a seed in my brain as I searched for more laughter classes. A longer Laughter Yoga session followed and I had a light bulb moment – I felt de-stressed and so calm and joyous afterwards.

A phone call to the Laughter Yoga Master Trainer in London let me to train as a teacher in late 2016. I began running weekly community sessions in towns near to where I live – in Knutsford, Macclesfield and Chorlton – and then started doing classes in retirement homes, and later facilitating corporate workshops. Eventually, I began training others to become Laughter Yoga Leaders to spread into their own work.

HOW EASY IS IT TO MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH?

Firstly, the term yoga can be a little confusing – it refers to the deep breathing we do after laughing, which leaves us low on air – rather than any specific poses or moves. Creating laughter when you’re not feeling like it is hard, especially to do so on demand.

Generally, I warm up participants a lot through breath work and movement. There’s proven exercises that work every time. It’s definitely harder for some people to ‘let go’ but the breathing exercises work well. One lady in our community sessions howled all the way through and then told me afterwards: ‘I didn’t enjoy that at all’ – thankfully she was joking!

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There’s always a longer warm up for new participants as the first time is the hardest, the second time is much easier and the third time your mind remembers what is going to happen, so it is then that you start to really enjoy it, and receive even more benefits by relaxing well into the exercises.

WHAT ARE THE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF LAUGHTER YOGA?

The mental health benefits are positivity – we activate serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins when we laugh. The ‘feel good’ hormone, oxytocin, also enables social bonding. There’s resilience too – this is a coping exercise, you’re in an unusual situation.

Physically, Laughter Yoga decreases stress on the body which can help with boosting the immune system and in turn help to reduce illness. It also controls blood sugar, which keeps your heart healthy and lowers blood pressure while increasing the breathing capacity of the lungs.

It sends endorphins through the body, which is a natural pain killer and exercises facial muscles. It can be quite physical, which can help improve stamina.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE LAUGHTER YOGA ON THE NHS?
Absolutely. Yes! Laughter Yoga should be prescribed on the NHS. Our bodies would be kept much healthier if we all practiced Laughter Yoga daily. We’d gain mental strength and positivity, which could mean many less medical prescriptions and treatment, which would also save the health service money. Deep Yogic breathing and Yoga has a very calming effect on the body which de-stresses us. Less stress means less illness. It’s really a win-win.

For more information on Sara’s Laughter Yoga sessions, visit seriouslaughterwellbeing.co.uk