As yoga asana becomes more prevalent in mainstream American culture, niche classes and fusion classes frequently emerge. Some of these fusions seem fairly organic - yoga and Pilates for example - others are a little more out there (anyone for Karaoke Yoga? Or perhaps hula hoops or trampolines are more your style?) While hybrid classes are often criticized for trivializing, commercializing, and/or misrepresenting yoga, proponents of these hybrids argue that fusion arises from creative expression; an earnest desire to merge two (or more) passions, and to introduce asana to people who might otherwise shy away from it.
But whether kitschy combo classes induce eye rolling, or make you (perhaps literally) jump for joy, the truth remains: asana does get combined with lots of seemingly unrelated stuff - even marijuana. And honestly, in a world with yoga raves, yoga for dogs (Doga), nude yoga, stand up paddleboard (SUP) yoga, and a multitude of yoga and wine tasting excursions, is a 420-friendly class really that surprising?
One class in particular¨420 Remedy Yoga¨ has garnered frequent mentions in the press (including a 2012 New York Times Profile and a recent write up in Yoga Journal). While 420 Remedy is one of the more highly publicized pot-inclusive asana classes, it’s far from the only one of it’s kind. Popular “cannabis-enhanced” classes can be found in San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver (B.C.), and with recent partial legalization in Washington state and Colorado and other U.S. states likely to follow suit, it’s not too difficult to imagine this trend taking off in other major cities too. According to their website, attendees of 420 Remedy don’t actually get high in class, they’re asked to partake before they show up. Some classes, more commonly those found in Canada, allow students to take their edibles and vaporizers into the studio, with ¨bring your own herb¨ policies (no buying/selling allowed) - not dissimilar to what you’d find at one of Toronto’s cannabis cafes.
Yoga and pot? Really? That doesn't exactly fit with the whole clear, calm tranquil mind thing, does it?
Despite the fact that I live in a city where both yoga and weed are very, very popular (hi, Portland), the thought of combining them never crossed my mind. They seemed genuinely diametrically opposed to me; so much so that I’ve even found myself declining a post dinner party puff with an earnest “No thank you, I have yoga in the morning.” Honestly, I was a little indignant when I first learned that weed-friendly yoga classes were a thing. Yoga and pot? Really? That doesn't exactly fit with the whole clear, calm tranquil mind thing, does it? But as I sat stewing in my own indignation, my outrage morphed into a sort of curiosity and a bit of self-inquiry. Was I just being a “yoga snob” here? What’s the draw of these classes anyway? I mean, aren’t standing balance poses hard enough when you’re not stoned? My own aversion aside, what was it that caused me to respond so critically? I mean, I don’t really have a desire to do practice on a paddle board either, but it’s not like I find SUP yoga an affront to my profession or anything. I’ve cracked at least a smile or two watching DOGA demonstrations on Youtube (come on, you just can’t scowl at a maltese in utkatasana), and I’ve sipped wine at yoga retreats without feeling the least bit morally conflicted. So what was the deal anyway? Why did I find the idea of toking up before trikonasana so much more troubling than showing up to class with glow sticks in tow, or practicing partner poses with a chihuahua?
Aside from it’s medicinal use, I’ve mostly thought of marijuana along the the same lines as junk food, or cocktails - something “fun” but not particularly healthy or conducive to my practice. It wasn’t really until I moved to Portland a few years ago that I began to notice that not everyone associated weed solely with college parties, 90's alt. rock, and the consumption of copious amounts of frozen convenience foods, though I’m not sure that this was change of location, so much as just growing up a bit. Initially, I was surprised to find that plenty of health-conscious Portlanders who wouldn’t touch a bagel bite with a ten-foot pole would happily consume a pot brownie or two as long as they’re vegan and gluten free, of course. I also began to notice more people referring to ganja (a word that actually does have Sanskrit origins) in terms that seemed almost spiritual. And it turns out, there is of course, more to cannabis than what my own cultural biases had led me to believe…but it’s complicated.
Proponents of practicing with pot sometimes cite Yoga Sutra 4.1 as an example of the historical co-mingling of yoga and cannabis:
Janma oshadhi mantra tapah samadhi jah siddhyayah
“Siddhis are born of practices performed in previous births, or by herbs, mantra repetition, asceticism, or by samadhi.”
The key word here is “oshadhi” or “herb” - specifically a medicinal herb. Of course we don’t know what specific herbs Patanjali is referring to here, but it can be - and has been - argued that if we're talking about herbs that are powerful enough to result in siddhis (supernatural powers), we’re probably not talking about just turmeric or ginger. Cannabis Sativa is indigenous to India, so it makes sense to wonder if maybe there’s some connection here. Still, to claim this lone aphorism as an enthusiastic endorsement for cannabis-fueled yoga seems like a stretch, and attaining cool “powers” isn’t really the point of classical yoga anyway, right? Don’t the Sutras themselves warn us that attaining siddhis can be distractions and impediments in our practice?
While the Sutras don’t go into detail on the use of herbs, there’s no question that plants (including plants of the more “powerful” variety) play a role - both from a therapeutic/medicinal standpoint, and a spiritual standpoint - in the practices of Ayurveda and Tantra. Even so, the presence of psychoactive herbs in spiritual and healing traditions is hardly an ancient thumbs-up for getting baked before your hatha class. While I’m certainly not rallying against anyone’s individual right to use herbs recreationally, I do think that using “because Tantra!” or “because Patanjali!” to justify or spiritualize a personal penchant for Mary Jane shows a profound lack of understanding of and respect for the established philosophical and spiritual tradition. When we’re talking about the spiritual/historical/ritual use of cannabis, opium, or other drugs, context is key; “It's important to distinguish between recreational use of drugs and serious use of drugs,” reminds Yoga International faculty member and author Sandra Anderson, “and the ritualized use for spiritual purposes is deadly serious and not recreational.”
The Ayurvedic View
Similarly, in Ayurveda (often referred to as yoga’s “sister science”) cannabis is generally viewed as something that can be useful, but here too, it’s not to be taken lightly. “In Ayurveda, cannabis would be taken as part of a remedy, not alone, or for recreational value,” explains Ayurvedic practitioner and therapist Kathryn Templeton. “It’s considered a minor herb in Ayurveda. There are remedies that include cannabis mixed with counterbalancing herbs that will support stimulating digestion and removing phlegm. It’s not a common remedy, and it’s not used in countries where cannabis is illegal.” According to Templeton, cannabis remedies have also been used for dulling pain, or to expedite herbal Ayurvedic formulas, as cannabis is sharp and heating in quality.
"The general consensus" says Templeton, "is that cannabis is initially rajasic (agitating or over-stimulating) and with extended use, tamasic (bearing qualities of inertia and lethargy), creating mental imbalances in all dosha Prakruti (individual constitutions) with recreational use."
When used without a counterbalance, marijuana is considered to be either agitating or dulling to the mind. “The general consensus” says Templeton, “is that cannabis is initially rajasic (agitating or over-stimulating) and with extended use, tamasic (bearing qualities of inertia and lethargy), creating mental imbalances in all dosha Prakruti (individual constitutions) with recreational use.”
In other words, no matter what your dosha is, from an Ayurvedic standpoint, smoking or otherwise ingesting weed for fun definitely isn’t recommended. “All plants are useful for creating balance,” reminds Templeton, “but if they’re not used for balance, they create imbalance.”
Cannabis in The Classroom?
So what does this actually mean for teachers and practitioners? From an Ayurvedic standpoint, it’s not that cannabis is bad, but it is powerful, and in a lot of places, still not legal. “We have an obligation to our students to be clear about our goals,” says Templeton. “If we’re working with a sattvic (clear, balanced) attitude, and supporting our students to change their lives from, “getting by”, to living a life with meaning, joy and ease, then we need to offer practices that we understand will support a movement toward sattva [clarity and balance]. From Ayurveda's point of view, a suggestion for any herb to be consumed, without proper Ayurvedic understanding of the impact on dosha balance, offers no real benefit and could be reckless. Cannabis is not known to support sattva,” she adds, “rather just the opposite. This makes any suggestion from yoga teachers, to their students, to use the herb for yoga practice a misguided and uneducated suggestion.”
"and although it is possible to alter consciousness to extraordinary states with drugs, it does mean you are dependent on the drug, and not on your own mind."
And what about our personal practices? “Yoga in general is about Self-mastery,” reminds Anderson, “and although it is possible to alter consciousness to extraordinary states with drugs, it does mean you are dependent on the drug, and not on your own mind.”
Ultimately, I think that’s where it gets tricky, and maybe one reason why cannabis enhanced practice feels like a more precarious combination than say, practicing partner poses with a poodle. While it’s not super likely to mistake puppy playtime for samadhi, the line gets blurrier when mind-altering substances are haphazardly mixed into spiritual practice, especially when practices like pranayama and meditation come into play as well. As Anderson reminded me, “the subtle consequences of drugs are still unknown to us.”
As is often the case, maybe it all boils down to intention. Are we just practicing to feel good, or are we practicing for the sake of really getting to know ourselves? If it’s the former, then sure, getting high can feel pretty awesome, though arguably, are we even practicing yoga at that point? And does it actually matter? But that’s probably a whole different blog post. If our intention is Self-awareness, Self-knowledge, and Self-realization, then, as far as yoga is concerned, a clear, calm, tranquil mind really is far more powerful than any herb.