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How Laughter Yoga Can Help People with Parkinson’s

  • Health

April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, an opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of this progressive brain disorder and its symptoms, and support those living with it.

For me, that means also raising awareness of a practice that published studies indicate can provide relief and support.

Yes, I’m talking Laughter Yoga.

Laughter Yoga can be a powerful tool to address some of the non-motor aspects of Parkinson’s disease.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

More than 100,000 Australians live with Parkinson’s, a complex progressive neurological condition that’s not easily diagnosed.

It’s not simply another ailment for the aged. Around 20% of people living with Parkinson’s are of working age.

Actor Michael J Fox was just 29 when he was first diagnosed in 1991, still riding high from his 1985 role as time-travelling teen Marty McFly in Back to the Future.  He was a poster boy in many a teen girl’s room in his Family Ties sit-com days and has been a vocal champion for a cure for years.

Other well-known people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease include singers Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond, boxer Muhammad Ali and comedian Billy Connolly.

Parkinson’s is categorised as a ‘movement disorder’ – tremors may come to mind, but it’s much more than that and some people don’t even experience tremors!  Parkinson’s doesn’t just affect movement though. For definitive information, check out the Parkinson’s Australia website.

Non-motor symptoms may include pain, sensory changes, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory, speech, and sleep.

What is Laughter Yoga?

Laughter Yoga is a process developed by a doctor in India in the 1990s that enables us to laugh without jokes or humour. It’s a playful combination of gentle stretches, clapping, chanting, belly laughter and deep slow breaths, typically wrapped up with a guided meditation.

It works on the premise that the brain doesn’t differentiate whether a laugh is ‘intentional’ or a response to something funny or humourous when a person participates willingly.

Laughter Yoga and Parkinson’s

It’s with these non-motor aspects of Parkinson’s that Laughter Yoga can play a powerful role, in terms of relief and improved quality of day-to-day living.

Laughter Yoga is well documented for a range of benefits. As the saying goes ‘laughter is the best medicine’:

  • Reducing feelings of anxiety and depression
  • Boosting mood
  • Winding back stress
  • Increasing oxygen circulation
  • Improving blood flow
  • Reducing blood pressure
  • Enhancing social interaction
  • Encouraging a sense of playfulness
  • Improving sleep
  • Relieving pain.

Read more about the general benefits of Laughter Yoga.

Some of the research has been quite specific to Parkinson’s.  A 2017 Iranian study concluded Laughter Yoga was a beneficial complementary therapy for people living with Parkinson’s disease.

Specifically, the researchers found a significant drop in the anxiety levels and improvement in the sleep quality in those who participated in an eight-week program of twice-weekly 45-minute laughter yoga classes.

Why? In part because Laughter Yoga has been scientifically proven to increase dopamine – a feel-good chemical released by the brain that helps nerve cells send messages to each other.  Symptoms of Parkinson’s start to appear when the brain can’t make enough dopamine to control movement properly. Laughter Yoga also helps release serotonin and endorphins.

Doing laughter exercises, coupled with yoga breathing, decreases tension in the neck, shoulder, and abdomen muscles, making it much easier to move.

Laughter Yoga exercises the lungs and chest muscles, supporting better breathing.

As for sleeping better, that can be enjoyed as a result of the combination of pain relief, muscle relaxation, blues busting and improved breathing.

Read the full Iranian research paper here.

Laughter Yoga for carers too

You don’t need to have a diagnosis of Parkinson’s – or any other condition! – to do laughter yoga. It’s for all abilities and ages, and popular as a stress management tool too.

But let’s recognise that many of those 100,000+ Australians living with Parkinson’s disease probably have a family member who ‘cares’ for them – and life may be a rollercoaster ride for them too.

Carers need to care for themselves and Laughter Yoga is a fun way to do it that’s effective in addressing stress, mood and energy levels.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s. The fact that Laughter Yoga can reduce physical, mental, emotional and social stress and keep you connected is surely reason enough to seek out this joyful healthful exercise practice and give it a go. Find locations of volunteer-run community laughter clubs, in-person and online, in Australia. I also deliver fee-for-service sessions for organisations, online and in-person in south-east Queensland, and train others in the practice to deliver for their groups. Feel free to drop me a line: I’d love to hear from you.

HeatherJoy Campbell is a former medical journalist turned wellbeing practitioner using laughter yoga as her main platform. She lives in south-east Queensland. She’s a global ambassador for Laughter Yoga International.