When it comes to laughter yoga, faking it ‘til you make it is just fine.
At least, that's what Vishwa Prakash said at the start of the session that HuffPost's health news editor Amanda Chan and I wandered into recently.
It was one of a few guidelines Prakash offered, as well as keeping our eyes locked on our fellow attendees, some 20 men and women dressed in street clothes and standing in a circle in his textile design company's midtown Manhattan offices.
And with that, we were off.
Prakash traded with other leaders who led us through several "exercises" -- we clapped, we milked imaginary cows, we blew up imaginary balloons, threw them on the ground, and exploded into laughter as we popped them with our feet. In between each set, we walked around clapping and chanting, "Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha!"
"It's bizarre, it's plain weird. Adults do not behave this way," said Sebastien Gendry, who founded the American School of Laughter Yoga, the country's largest laughter yoga training program.
"You laugh, you clap and you breathe," he continued. (You also drive imaginary bumper cars, pretend to be lions and hug perfect strangers.) "Suddenly you find yourself really laughing and you don't know why. It's fun, and you feel good."
The goal of laughter yoga is to breathe and to laugh, not because anyone has cracked a joke, but because laughter is a playful, social, contagious thing. The "yoga" label is a bit of a misnomer. There are no downward dogs or inversions, just people coming together, usually for free, for a short session of laughter. And it has become something of a global phenomenon.
According to Laughter Yoga International, a group led by the founder of Laughter Yoga and Mumbai-based physician Dr. Madan Kataria, there are about 6,000 laughter clubs across the globe. In the past decade, more than 400 have cropped up here in the U.S., and organizers expect a few thousand will celebrate "World Laughter Day" on Sunday.
How and why people find laughter yoga varies. Many come to connect with a community, Gendry said, others come for catharsis or to feel better physically.
Jody Ross, now a certified laughter yoga leader, started attending formal laughter workshops several years back to help heal herself. She had chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and depression so severe she lost her job and lived, for a time, in a homeless shelter.
"I went to a seminar on laughter yoga, and I felt elated for hours later. I didn't have any pain," Ross said. "When you combine laughter and breathing, there's healing there."
Indeed, as research probes the intricacies of the mind-body connection, investigators have developed a particular focus on the possible health benefits of laughter. Some of the more prominent work has come from the cardiovascular arena.
Dr. Michael Miller, the director of the preventive cardiology program at the University of Maryland's Medical Center, previously investigated the effect laughter can have on the vascular system. In a study presented to the American College of Cardiology, Miller and his colleagues found that showing healthy adults a funny movie scene increased blood flow by more than 20 percent.
"I can tell you that if you have active emotion, it works," Miller said. "How that parlays into reducing the risk of heart attacks is still to be determined, and to what extent passive laughing, like a simple chuckle, makes a difference remains to be established."
Other studies have suggested that laughter helps burn calories and increases one's heart rate. In another, researchers from Japan found that laughter may help lower blood sugar levels -- a boon for diabetes patients.
But while such findings show promise, experts caution that the science is not fully there.
"The science of laughter is in its early stage," said Dr. Robert Provine, author of "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation." He explained that laughter is an ancient vocalization stemming from the panting of animals' rough-and-tumble play.
"It's difficult to separate the cognitive, from the social, from the physical aspects of laughing," Provine added. "Is simply going 'ha ha ha' going to give you the same presumed benefits of genuine laughter?"
We definitely had our moments of faking it.
"I had definitely never experienced anything like it before," said Amanda, who is notably nicer and more diplomatic than myself. "I must say, though, that the experience seems to be dependent on the sort of people there. Everyone was so into it and so enthusiastic. It made me feel more comfortable about laughing, too -- even though in any other circumstance, I would've surely felt self-conscious about just laughing for a half-hour straight."
As for me, I'd been dreading the class all week (I'm shy and a little prickly), but it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. I did genuinely lose it at the end, laughing so hard I cried as we lay on the floor, stared at the ceiling and guffawed together for minutes. And minutes. I couldn't get over how weird it was. Does that somewhat judgmental laughter count? I don't know. Amanda and I hightailed it out of there before the period when people chatted about their experiences.
Of course, one session can't give you much a taste of anything and the experts agree with Amanda -- it's important to find a club that feels right.
"It's really about community," said Marlene Chertok, a registered nurse and breast cancer survivor who has seen her St. Louis-based club grow from single to double digits in the past few years. "It's just a place where people can come in and laugh, regularly. It needs to feel safe."
And that safety can come even in the least likely places.
Rebecca Foster, who works for the Prison Mindfulness Institute teaching mediation and emotional intelligence skills in Rhode Island, teaches laughter yoga in men's and women's jails.
"The aggressive energy dissipates," Foster said. "You can't be tight and laugh at the same time. Who knows how profound a difference it will make -- it may not make any difference at all. But at the very least there's a sense that in this moment, in this one place, I can be a kid again."
And for all of the promise of laughter's health benefits, many not yet scientifically proven, that may be the method's greatest strength."Laughter feels good while we do it," Provine said. "Isn't that enough?"