The Buzz: Cannabis and Yoga
Practitioners are at odds about whether there’s a place for cannabis in the yoga studio.
Yoga has brought numerous health benefits to practitioners for thousands of years. Considered a mind and body practice, it’s both a philosophy and discipline. There are eight “limbs,” or types of yoga, but perhaps the best-known type consists of a series of physical postures or poses achieved with mindful breathing, which encourages meditation or relaxation. Multiple studies confirm that the therapeutic effects of yoga range from increased fitness and flexibility to promoting cardiovascular function, reducing stress and chronic pain levels, and improving sleep, immune response, and even cognition.
Likewise, studies and anecdotal evidence show that cannabis and its myriad compounds are efficacious in managing pain associated with multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy, and inflammatory bowel disease. Medical cannabis may improve outcomes for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and sleep disorders. It also offers powerful properties for fighting inflammation, nausea, insomnia, muscle tension, stroke, and substance addiction.
Considering the increased popularity of and accessibility to these therapies, it’s not surprising there’s an increase in yoga classes wherein participants enhance their practice with cannabis.
Combining the use of cannabis with yoga is not a new concept. According to comments by experts published in the Yoga Journal, the ancient Ayurvedic (the Hindu term for the knowledge or science of life) texts indicate some guidelines for use, referring to cannabis used as a medicine as “nectar” and deeming recreational use as “poison” (or visha). According to the Soma Matha’s website (a group in Richmond, Virginia, that bases its spirituality on the Vedas, a large body of ancient religious texts), it’s appropriate to consume cannabis orally after it’s undergone a purification and detoxification. Purification includes methods such as boiling, soaking, and drying the plant leaves, as described in the early manuscripts.
Although cannabis has been used alongside yoga for centuries, today’s yoga instructors differ in their interpretations of the original Hindu writings and in their opinions about whether cannabis is beneficial and has a place in today’s yoga classes.
Marisa Reyes, a California-certified massage therapist, teaches tantric yoga classes combined with cannabis use. She defines these gentle sessions as including “kundalini [rapid breath] warm-ups, meditation, breathwork, dance, sound healing, and medicine songs.” Reyes says, “I am a total believer of cannabis being a sacred plant based on the Vedas. Having traveled and studied yoga in Rishikesh, India, I witnessed many sadhus [holy people] smoking cannabis from their chillums [pipes] and being in their meditative states, offering their wisdom and deep presence. This first-hand experience of ancient Indian tradition of combining cannabis and yoga was quite meaningful. It has made a huge impact on enabling me to let go of cultural and societal judgments and stereotypes about cannabis so that I can fully experience the spiritual and physical benefits she [cannabis] has to offer.”
Reyes and her partner, Michael Meier, who’s also a licensed medical massage therapist from Innsbruck, Austria, operate Purple Lotus Medical Massage and Wellness in Los Angeles. Reyes points to anecdotal evidence for her enthusiasm for merging cannabis with yoga. “I have a 38-year-old student who was in a severe car accident as a child that left his right arm mutated with extreme atrophy and nerve damage,” Reyes says. “Since he has started attending my Ganja Yoga Rituals, he has experienced increased mobility [and] improvement in his balance, and feels increased positive sensations he hasn’t felt before due to the combination of the medicine and guidance.” One student, she says, experienced healing of debilitating muscle stiffness, and another student calmed his anxiety to the extent that he is now traveling around the world.
Treating the Whole Person
People attracted to yoga may have an interest in improving their health in all modalities, including physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Some practitioners of yoga believe cannabis helps them unite their spiritual and physical selves, contributing to their overall health. Others insist that yoga brings awareness in the present moment, but that cannabis numbs that awareness. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, author of Your Brain on Yoga, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a researcher in mind-body medicine, says that while there is nothing specific in the research literature regarding use of cannabis during yoga practice, there’s an indication from a survey paper in 2017 that yoga practitioners use cannabis more than do nonpractitioners, with a discussion about the possible common goal of increasing spirituality. However, he says, it’s not possible to confirm a causal relationship from this study.
Although holistic health may be impracticable to quantify, other benefits are easier to explain. According to Marissa Frantoni, BSN-RN, a multidisciplined health practitioner and registered yoga teacher who specializes in cannabinoid therapeutics, “Yogis who use cannabis prior to their practices also report that they are more in tune with their mind and body during their practice. Delta-9-THC is thought to be responsible for these effects with the physiological benefits it provides, mainly bronchodilation and euphoria. These are the same reasons why many high-level athletes are using cannabis to improve their training
Reyes suggests that intention, setting, and the instructor’s guidance is essential. “Set and setting are vital to the quality of the experience,” she says. “Music, gentle movement, attention to breath, meditation, and deep relaxation are all influential facets in creating a warm, inviting, loving setting. If I consume cannabis and go to a regular yoga class, there is a possibility of going into a space of anxiety, worry, or paranoia since not everyone is in the same energetic state.”
Motivated by measurable results, Reyes states, “Cannabis has a powerful effect on both the physical and the energetic level when used with intention and guidance. People who have combined cannabis and yoga at our weekly Ganja Yoga Ritual have experienced deep emotional and spiritual healing, very similar to the experiences that they have had with ayahuasca and psilocybin [hallucinogenics].”
Yoga Classes and Responsible Medicine
Although many support the use of cannabis in yoga practice, recent news articles express concerns that yoga instructors of “weed classes” are assuming some responsibility for the well-being of people who may be under medical care and may have other prescription medications. Participants in yoga classes using cannabis could experience a drug interaction, anxiety, or dizziness, which could precipitate risk for falling or unsafe driving afterward. Christa Kuberry, PhD, vice president of standards at The Yoga Alliance, says, “In addition to having a discussion with their health care providers, it also is a good idea for individuals to talk with their yoga teachers about their potential use [of cannabis] in advance of participating in a class. While yoga teachers are not trained medical professionals, they should be made aware (in confidence) of a student’s use of medical marijuana as they would concerning their preferences for physical touch or other assists and other needs during class.”
According to Frantoni, “There are few risks that must be considered when combining a yoga practice with cannabis, but the risks that do exist cannot be understated. It’s imperative that practitioners be very well hydrated prior to medicating and practicing. Dehydration may contribute to unwanted symptoms such dizziness, nausea, muscle cramps, and other injuries. Cannabis can increase these effects without adequate hydration, so it’s important to push the fluids before a cannabis-influenced yoga experience.”
Danielle Simone Brand, MA, a yoga instructor of 15 years and author of the upcoming release Weed Mom, has practiced at home and taken cannabis-enhanced yoga classes but hasn’t guided one. “Cannabis is a great tool for slowing down and nourishing your contemplative nature anyway, there’s no need to go full-throttle with yoga when using THC,” she says. “Certain standing poses that require balance and/or a lot of strength tend to be too much for me, and most other people, I think, while high. For many, perhaps most, there’s a bit less coordination and a little reduction in executive functioning while enhanced—that’s part of what makes it fun and also why I wouldn’t recommend hot yoga, power yoga, or vinyasa flow while under the influence unless the person is very experienced with both cannabis and yoga (and even then, hot yoga might just be overwhelming to the senses). Instead, I recommend a gentle or moderate practice accompanied by breath work and meditation. Cannabis also tends to elevate your heart rate, and that’s another reason that going to a fast-paced, workout-style class could be risky.”
“Combining cannabis and yoga is both an ancient practice and is also a new practice, considering the legalities around the plant for the last several decades,” Reyes says. At the time of this writing, medical cannabis is legal in 33 states and approved for recreational use in 11 states. Thus, in some states yoga instructors may be tasked with checking prescriptions before the class begins. Or perhaps not. Instructors such as Reyes and her associate, Dee Dussault, author of Ganja Yoga, are offering virtual group and individual classes online.
— Michele Deppe is a freelance writer based in Seattle.