Fighting Senior Loneliness With Laughter

Alok Mahadevia, certified Laughter Yoga Leader

Loneliness in senior care settings has been a long-term concern, but the physical distancing required of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the prevalence of loneliness in these settings. Some facilities have developed virtual programming, socially distanced activities and events, and outdoor or window visits with family members to help combat this loneliness.

Alok Mahadevia, who goes by Loki, takes a different approach. As a certified Laughter Yoga Leader, Mahadevia teaches the technique to corporate professionals, parents in schools, patients in hospitals, and more. He’s also bringing laughter yoga (virtually) to residents in senior care settings, helping to fight loneliness and boost endorphins.

Understanding Laughter Yoga

According to CNN Health, laughter yoga was founded in 1995 by Madan Kataria, an Indian doctor. It combines group exercises with deep breathing to promote overall health. Mahadevia notes that laughter yoga is based on the principle that voluntary or fake laughter has the same psychological benefits as spontaneous or real laughter.

Yoga incorporates the ancient breathing techniques of Pranayama, and laughter acts like a natural painkiller, decreasing cortisol and increasing creativity. “Laughter releases serotonin and endorphins, so you’re getting happy and high without taking any drugs, and without any side effects,” explains Mahadevia.

He adds that laughter yoga boosts immunity and has been known to help patients with chronic illnesses where other therapies have failed. “Loneliness kills a lot of people. Laughter is the antidote to that,” he explains. “With most laughter yoga exercises, we fake it till we make it – meaning we fake laugh as a group, but when we make eye contact, it becomes genuine and contagious. It genuinely changes your outlook to a positive one and helps you live longer.”

Mahadevia first discovered laughter yoga while living in Redondo Beach, California in 2018. “I experienced loneliness for the first time. I had to have a podcast or music on in the background at all times so that there was another voice there besides the one in my head,” he says. “I’m from Mumbai, so I’m used to being surrounded by people and laughter. I decided that I wasn’t going to sulk about my sadness, I wasn’t going to be selfish – I was going to use that pain as a call to action to transform myself into a better human and make a positive contribution to this world.”

Mahadevia first saw people doing laughter yoga in Priyadarshini Park, Mumbai. While he initially thought it was odd, he researched it and its scientific benefits. After teaching himself some exercises online, he visited a retirement home and shared laughter yoga with the residents. “It was met with roaring laughter, teary eyes, and people saying, ‘Loki, I’ve never laughed like that.’ It also made me feel lighter,” he explains. From there, Mahadevia became certified as a Laughter Yoga Leader.

Fighting Loneliness with Laughter Yoga

Mahadevia has found a broad audience for his laughter yoga workshops. While his in-person workshops have been attended by seniors, corporate professionals, hospital patients, and more, his Zoom sessions during the pandemic have reached more than 700 people in 16 countries, ages ranging from 10 to 70. “Loneliness has no age restriction,” he notes. “Youngsters have the highest anxiety levels ever recorded, so laughter yoga is for all age groups.”

His in-person pre-pandemic workshops were structured to include an introduction and icebreaker, a 45- minute laughter yoga session that highlights its benefits and includes laughter exercises, and a concluding five-minute meditation. Since the pandemic, Mahadevia has only offered workshops via Zoom or other video calling platforms.

While the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a major health threat, Mahadevia is using laughter yoga to address a second highly concerning issue. “There has been a silent epidemic brewing for a long time – loneliness,” he says. “This virus has exposed that more. Seniors, unfortunately, have been the biggest victims. I wanted to show that laughter can be more contagious than COVID, so Laugh With Loki was born.” Laugh With Loki consists of weekly online laughter yoga sessions conducted via Zoom, and they’re attended by people all over the world.

Mahadevia also hopes to offer more virtual workshops to senior living communities. “When I teach laughter yoga, seniors love it and feel lighter at the end of it,” he says. Mahadevia notes that would love to reach out to more facilities to share laughter yoga with residents.

During these workshops, residents learn how to perform laughter yoga on their own for long-lasting benefits. “It’s the easiest thing ever,” says Mahadevia. “If you start your day with these exercises, your energy and outlook will be significantly better.” Residents can start with the exercises in this video.

Given the stress and isolation of the pandemic, the benefits of laughter yoga are more needed than ever. “Right now I’m seeing loneliness rise to disturbing levels, and I want to help people feel less alone,” says Mahadevia. “Laughter yoga is a biological hack that makes anyone feel happier in five minutes or longer, so why not share it?”

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