Who is Madan Kataria? An Interview with Laughter Yoga Founder Madan Kataria

I recently had the great honour and privilege to talk to Laughter Yoga founder and all round laughter legend, Madan Kataria. I got the chance to find out what drove Madan to create the now world-wide movement that is Laughter Yoga as well as ask him about the future of Laughter Yoga. Madan also shared with me two amazing stories where Laughter Yoga was able to benefit health and well-being. 

It’s safe to say that without Madan and his incredible drive to bring the benefits of laughter yoga to the world we wouldn’t today have Laughter Yoga established in over 115 countries around the world. 

Madan, thanks so much for coming along today. I’d thought I’d start right at the beginning and ask how you came to start Laughter Yoga

Madan Kataria:

Okay. I was practicing as a family physician in Mumbai, a big metropolitan city of more than 20 million people. And life can be very stressful if you live in a city like Mumbai, and added to my stress was I started editing a health magazine called My Doctor. This this publication was coming out in two languages, so editing a magazine and coming out every month with a publication is not funny, it’s very stressful. I started looking for ways to de-stress myself, so I thought of writing a series of articles about stress management because I wanted to release my stress.

So, I wrote about many things to reduce stress, but in March, 1995, I thought of writing an article about laughter being the best medicine. I really touched my heart that maybe within me, I felt that this is something I’m missing. And after finding so many benefits of laughter, so many research papers on laughter, I thought nobody’s laughing, let me start a laughter club. So, I started the first laughter club with five people by telling jokes in the beginning. But jokes didn’t work for more than ten days. We ran out of good jokes. And then, finally, I thought that if jokes are not working, how can we laugh without jokes? So, I looked for an idea.

I found in a book called ‘Emotions and Health’ which said that even if you act like a happy person, your body doesn’t know the difference, your brain cannot differentiate. I said, wow, we can make laughter as an exercise. You can get the same benefits either way.

So, I went to the park next day with 50 people standing in front of me and we started faking laughter. But believe me, we couldn’t fake for even 30 seconds! Everybody was laughing for real, and then people started falling on the ground laughing. And we laughed so much that we didn’t laugh even with the best of the jokes we’d been telling for the last 10 days. And I said, ‘that’s it, we don’t need anything, provided you laugh in a group and look at each other, you don’t need anything.’ You just laugh because laughter is contagious, laugh is infectious.

So, based on this idea, we started creating laughter exercises. Then, I was also a practitioner of yoga. Every day, I used to practice pranayama, the breathing exercises. I found parallels between breathing exercises and laughter, because laughter itself is a breathing exercise, when you’re laughing, you’re exhaling carbon dioxide, so you get more oxygen. The business of getting more oxygen is your prolonged exhalation, I said, ‘my gosh, what do we do when we laugh?’ Of course we are exhaling. So, that’s the way I thought of combining breathing and laughing together, and this is how laughter yoga came to be.

Learn the 6 ways Laughter can improve Children's Wellbeing

What an amazing start to a movement that is now all around the world. So, you started in the one park, and then, how long was it before that began to grow

Madan Kataria:

From 1995 until 1999, I went all over India to spread this laughter club. In India, it was easy because everybody goes for a morning walk; there are hundreds of people already there so we could set up informally. I used to train people to run the laughter club, and they will learn from each other. And we managed to set up more than 500 clubs within a year. And then, maybe more than a thousand clubs all over India.

And one fine day, an article about laughter appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the psychologist Steve Wilson, he read this article and he invited me to the U.S. They said, ‘Doc, this is an interesting idea. We should bring it to the United States.’

Of course I visited the United States and demonstrated laughter yoga in 14 cities in one month. American people loved it. And from there, I went to Germany, Switzerland, all over Europe, and then, UK, Japan, Australia. So I think by 2005, in 10 years, we covered more than 50 countries. And then, I started teaching coaching training systems. I said, ‘I can’t go everywhere, so I must start training the teachers, and they can train the leaders.

And this is how laughter yoga has now reached more than 115 countries. Not only social laughter clubs, then, laughter yoga went to senior centres, schools and colleges liked it. We also introduced it in companies, corporations, because there is a lot of stress there. And then, came physically challenged, mentally challenged, blind schools, and now, it’s gone into hospitals for people who are suffering from chronic diseases, cancer centres, dialysis centres, all over.

To find out more about the many health benefits of Laughter Yoga, click here

And when you first started this, right at the beginning, did you ever have the vision that this was going to be this big a movement?

I was visualizing that this is such a good idea that this should get all over the world. I didn’t think that it would spread as fast as it did. And the reason it spread was people were getting instant benefits from it, because normally, you do any exercise program or even if you do traditional yoga, it takes a few weeks before you can feel the benefits. But with laughter, my gosh, people can feel the benefits from the very first session, and people are jumping to the roof and they say, ‘yay’.

And 25 years…well nearly 26 years here you are, talking to me! From those 26 years, can you share some memorable moments with me?

My memorable moments were being with 10,000 people when we celebrated World Laughter Day in Taiwan. That was a big gathering, and it was a very good energy. Then, I set up a Guinness World Record with 16,000 students in India. And that was amazing. I couldn’t believe that we could make 16,000 people standing in front of me and laughing in a big crowd. And then, one of the companies from Russia invited me to Moscow. So, there was 7,000 people in the indoor stadium. And that was a challenge for me because I had to make them laugh through a translator. And this guy translator was damn serious! So I kept my text to the minimum and straight away started doing laughter exercises with them, and they loved it. You don’t need any translation for laughter and I managed to crack up 7,000 people from a Russian company.

You’ve passed 25 years already so what is your vision for the next 25 years?

The way laughter yoga is changing lives around the world, I feel that the next pandemic would be a mental health pandemic. It’s going to be very, very serious. And I can’t think of any other method than laughter yoga which can really address the mental health issue. People are falling sick, like for example, cancer is the third major killer, which means 6% in this whole population of the world are at risk of having cancer, and it’s not funny when you have something like cancer.

After the age of 60, every person might have one or two chronic diseases, and I feel that laughter yoga is needed everywhere. At the moment, it’s a social club movement, social laughter club movement. But now, it’s getting into senior centres. The aging population is increasing all over the world, and it’s going to be three times in the next 20 years. So, when you grow older, you lose your laughter. So, my vision is that, at least, we should set up one million social laughter clubs in the whole world in the next 20-30 years and make the whole world like a family. Because now, you see laughter club buddies all over the world, how they identify with each other. We look the same, same way, very good, very good.

We laugh the same way, and I feel that laughter is a great connector and this is something which I can envision to bring world peace through laughter. If our community starts increasing, we are contenders of the world peace we can bring. Second is that every senior centre will have one or two laughter yoga facilitators all over the world. It’s on the way. Like currently 200 centres in America, they are practicing laughter yoga. More than 5,200 senior centres in Japan, like that everywhere. Laughter yoga is now the most favourite with seniors as an exercise program.

We also see that children are losing their laughter, so we need to introduce laughter yoga in the curriculum of every school. What I see in the next 10 to 20 years, it will be implemented as a part of the curriculum in different schools. All the physically and mentally challenged people, different kinds of disabilities, they find laughter yoga one of the most uplifting exercises. Every cancer hospital, dialysis centre, chemotherapy centres, they all need laughter yoga. I’ve seen that in the next 10 to 20 years, every company will have a laughing room in their company, because stress is mounting so much. There’s no way we can manage stress without laughter. So I am telling the companies, if you can have a smoking room in your company, why not a laughing room?


Learn the 6 ways Laughter can improve Children's Wellbeing

We definitely need to get more people around the world using laughter as therapy. I’d like to see the car parks of companies filled with toys and games so everyone working there can spend an hour each day just having fun and laughing.

Yeah. One of the things I envisioned is that there should be one minute of laughter for world peace at the opening ceremony of Olympics. We are trying hard for Tokyo Olympics, I don’t know, time is short, but we’ll try. In some of the forthcoming Olympics, from the Olympic stadium,the  moment that they light the torch, the whole stadium would laugh. And then, people watching at home, they should laugh at home. So, that will build a consciousness.

Also, I feel that every country should have a laughter yoga university centre. Laughter yoga is a thing to be taught. It should be taught in every university. It should be a part of the university, because we have learned enough of business, but we never learned how to laugh.

There will be a Laughter yoga headquarters in India very soon, we are on the way, and followed by that we want to set up one national centre for laughter yoga in every country all over the world.

I was speaking to Jeffrey Briar two weeks ago, and we were talking about colds. He mentioned that he hasn’t had a cold or been a little sniffle for, I think, he said four years. When was the last time that you consciously remember having a cold?

I don’t remember. Actually, maybe 10 years ago, I had a cold for one day and it went away. I thought it would last for two-three days, but I started laughing and it went away in one day. So, in my last 25 years, once or twice, maybe max, and that also did not last more than a day.

A lot of laughter yoga has had to move to digital platforms because of Covid. What do you see as the future of laughter with zoom and digital?

Yeah. Actually, even before COVID struck, I used to tell people that laughter yoga allows us to laugh during difficult times also. It’s part of my teaching that laughter can help us to keep our mind positive during difficult times, and then along came COVID. And let me tell you, laughter yogis is the only ones who were laughing the hardest during COVID, nobody else. Because we learned to laugh much before COVID came in. And I want to tell you COVID is not going to go away right away. It might be one or two years more. And people have now learned to work from home. A lot of people are working from home, and it will continue like that.

So, digital applications, what we have learned with laughter yoga is going to continue even when COVID goes away. The good thing about digital learning is that we can laugh every day, if we want to. We can laugh several times in a day whenever we want. But that was not the case with social laughter clubs in the west. They meet once in a week, once in 15 days. But the COVID thing has really added a new dimension to the way we laugh and communicate through electronic media, digital media. So, I see this is a big breakthrough to have, almost like we can have the target to make one billion people laugh now. Through the digital media, it’s so easy.

So I see teaching coaching training methods are going to change partly to digital, then, 50% physical. Because we used to spend a lot of time telling the content and history during our physical training, I thought that can be done online. But once you finish with your 30 day part, then, okay, meet for two, three days, bingo, you’re done.

I think breakthrough laughter clubs will be happening every day now. And they are not going to stop even digital or even when this COVID goes away. And it’s not about COVID, COVID is just a symbol of challenges we have. We already have… Do you know how many people died in 2019 of cancer? Almost like 18 million people all over the world. Now, COVID, didn’t kill 18 million people. How many people die of suicides and depression? COVID can’t kill that? Challenges will continue to come. So, that’s why sooner or later, every person should learn to laugh. We should get certified what we call professional laughers and professional laughter yogis so that we benefit the most when we start teaching other people.

I see a great future of laughter yoga, and I’m so relieved that COVID has given us the push, COVID has taught us that how important it is to laugh, how important it is your health. Laughter is for health, laughter is for happiness. And we get both. You know what is the easiest way to be happy? Just be with happy people, that’s it.

Obviously, 25 years, lots of stories. Two stories from you, Madan, of people that have come up to you and said how laughter has changed their life.

Okay. I remember one guy from Hyderabad, India, he had every disease you can name. He had diabetes, he had heart disease, he had hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, everything. And he was so fed up that he contemplated suicide. And one morning, he went to a park and he saw a group of people laughing, and he was welcomed and he felt very nice on the very first day. So, he decided to continue to be a laughter club member.

After six months, most of his problems went away. He was very healthy, and he was looking forward to life because he was loved by laughter clubbers. Then, he decided that he’s going to celebrate his birthday on the day he joined the laughter club. Isn’t it amazing? So, he changed his birthday. He said, ‘I was almost dead, now, I’m reborn in the laughter club. And my birthday is the day when I joined the laughter club.’

Amazing. Amazing. One more story. Come on.

I remember where I lived in Mumbai, there was a gentleman called PT Hinduja. He was almost like 75, between 75 and 80. And he said that he was a company secretary dealing with law. And he came to the laughter club and he said, “Doctor, can I join it? But I don’t know how to laugh. I’ve been a serious person all my life.” I said, “Give it a try.” And he continued, and he started enjoying. Day after day, he started discovering his childlike laughter. And we couldn’t believe, after one month, he was the most popular laugher in our laughter club. From a serious lawyer, to… Then, we held one competition in Mumbai, best laughing man in Mumbai, so who laughs the best. Guess what? That Mr. Hinduja won the title. He was the best laughing man.

And then, after one year, we held national championship. We had a yearly conference in India. And guess what? He won. So from a serious lawyer to a laughter champion at the age of 75, which is no joke. That is very interesting. I feel that if anybody’s serious… Because we all have a child within us, and I asked him, “How could you do that?” He said, “I’m just finding a child within myself. And this is how I rediscovered my child within me. And laugher yoga helped me.”

Thank you Madan, for sharing your wonderful stories and of course for giving us this amazing gift of laughter yoga.