What's So Funny?

Laughter-yoga fans hail the health benefits of giggling for no reason

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Danny Kim for TIME

Laughter Yoga session at Better Laugh led by Dr. Alex Eingorn.

Did you hear the one about the group of strangers who gathered in a room and burst out laughing for no reason? Neither had I. So when I went to my first laughter-yoga class, I felt as if I wasn't getting the joke. I dutifully joined the other students, ages 20 to 90, in such exercises as clapping while uttering loud, rhythmic reps of "Ho ho! Ha ha ha!" and cracking up while pretending to be on a phone. I hated it. But I have to admit that after 30 minutes or so, I started to feel a little less stressed.

The irony of laughter yoga — there are more than 400 clubs in the U.S. dedicated to this mind-body therapy — is that jokes are a no-no, because humor is subjective. Participants are led through laughing exercises interspersed with deep breathing. (The breathing and the wind-down period at the end of class are the only parts borrowed from traditional yoga — no mats or athleticism required.) Feeling awkward is O.K. Just jumping in is what matters. "We say, 'Fake it till you make it,'" says Vishwa Prakash, the founder of New York City's YogaLaff and the instructor of my class. "After a while, it becomes infectious. And it is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves."

Just how healthy is still unclear. Sustained mirthful laughter — the kind stimulated by, say, the Marx Brothers — has been shown to provide benefits that include improving blood flow, lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the immune system. The benefits of fake laughter, which advocates claim has all the same pluses, are scientifically murkier. "I think it's reasonable. Fake laughter certainly has the same physical, aerobic effect," says Dr. Lee Berk, a psychoneuroimmunologist at Loma Linda University who has studied laughter for 25 years. "But there has been no peer-reviewed proof on laughter yoga. I think the claims need to be validated."

In the meantime, enthusiasts, including senior citizens, cancer patients, corporations and even prisoners, swear it changes lives. Kik Williams, a laughter-yoga instructor in Providence, R.I., says that when she first started, after witnessing bombings in the Middle East, she was jittery and angry — and faked the laughter. "Eventually, it became real laughter," says Williams, who after eight months was able to give up medications for depression, asthma and ADHD. "Now if I stop for a few weeks, I feel the difference. It's a real stress buster." And proof or no proof, that's nothing to laugh at.