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Cannabis and Yoga: Connecting History, Science, and Current Potential

Cannabis and Yoga: Connecting History, Science, and Current Potential

Published
December 4, 2019
Are cannabis and yoga a synergistic pair, or a sacrilegious mixing of two sacred practices? A shared history between cannabis and yoga offers useful perspective, as well as an understanding of modern trends.

Is toking up the yogic way, or does it cloud your abilities? Due to the long use of both yoga and cannabis on the Indian subcontinent, one might think that the two were historically used together. But like the complexities of the plant and this centuries old practice, the reality isn’t so simple. 

Based on the latest research, cannabis originated in Central or Southeast Asia and has been cultivated in India for millennia. The earliest written reference to cannabis in the country appeared in the Atharvaveda, around 1500 BCE. Cannabis is regarded as one of the five sacred plants in the Vedas, a collection of Indian ancient holy texts. The plant was once revered as a guardian angel and is a vital part of certain Hindu holy festivals in the present day. [1][2]

In religious scripture, cannabis is associated with Shiva the Destroyer, one of the principal Hindu gods. Shiva represents the divine masculine who creates and transforms the universe. Cannabis preparations were sometimes “poured over Shiva’s stone phallus” in temples in order to pacify him. Shiva’s divine feminine counterpart Shakti is sometimes incarnated in the most powerful form as Kali. Cited rituals make a cannabis offering to Kali, to calm her destructive energy. [1]

In order to properly discern cannabis use in the practice of yoga, one must pinpoint a definition of the word. The bending, moving, and breathing that most people consider yoga, is actually referred to as the “asanas”. But the practice of “yoga” in the traditional sense means far more than this. Yoga is a pervasive way of life. 

According to Puravi Joshi, a British Indian yoga instructor, the practice of yoga was embedded in all that her family did. Joshi reported, “This is because true yoga isn’t just a workout. It is an ancient Indian philosophy espousing an eight-limbed approach to conscious living." [3] The 8 limbs of yoga include how you treat yourself, how you behave towards others, the postures (or “asanas”), breathing, inner awareness, meditation, and more. For clarity of this article, the term “asana” will be used for the movement/physical component of yoga, and “yoga” for the practice as a whole. 

The Case for Purity in Yoga

Ayurveda, a specialized section of medicine used for thousands of years in India, considers yoga an integral part of the system. Ayurveda seeks to find clarity of the mind and body. For many traditional practitioners, that doesn’t include cannabis. Ayurvedic thought emphasizes that there isn’t a shortcut to inner peace, and that one has to do “the hard work of navigating the complexities of the mind and emotions” through discipline, yoga, and meditation practice. [3]

The basis for keeping cannabis out of yogic practice also has roots in the Vedas. Ayurvedic practitioners sometimes cite that cannabis can be used to escape from pain or emotions, and that it can be used without intention. [5] It is true that cannabis can be used both in excess and without thought. Yet, Anandakanda, an anonymous foundational work of Ayurvedic practice, included 43 Sanskrit synonyms for cannabis. [2] So it is also clear that some practitioners viewed the plant as a sacrament and an integral part of the spiritual practice of yoga.

could thc and cbd in cannabis work synergistically with yoga
Can THC, CBD, and yoga work together synergistically?

The Cannabis Eating Yoginis

Cannabis undoubtedly has a place in the ancient context of yoga, especially in the arm of Tantric practice. According to Michael Aldrich, a scholar on the use of cannabis in India, "Regardless of the preaching of contemporary orthodox swamis who urge their followers not to use drugs, the tradition of drug yoga is an ancient and honorable one in India, developed to its fullest extent in Tantric practice.” Tantra Yoga uses unorthodox techniques to create a connection to the oneness of the entire universe. Tantra viewed the body as a tool for delight and exploration. It entails breaking the taboos of traditional practice, such as drinking alcohol and eating meat. Conventional yoga requires sexual abstinence.[1]

Tantric practice unifies the ceremonial use of cannabis, the consumption of mind-altering substances, and sex in order to achieve enlightenment. This arm of yoga quickly became associated with sex when it was introduced to the Western world, but that is only one aspect of this practice. The integration of cannabis and sex into tantric yoga practice developed at the same time in the late Vedic period, around 500 BCE. Hindu folk medicine considers cannabis to be one of the best aphrodisiacs in the herbal compendium.[1][2]

Tantric practice utilizes cannabis use in an extremely intentional way, implementing intricate rituals during ceremonial rites. Tantra is based on worshipping the divine incarnation of the feminine and masculine spirits, the God and Goddess Shakti and Shiva. Meditation and yoga are believed to grant practitioners Siddhis, which are magical powers and abilities leading to spiritual advancement and potentially nirvana. Siddhis were said to be attained at birth, by using herbal drugs, by chanting mantras, and via meditation. In Bengal, cannabis itself is considered a siddhi.[1] Tantric yogic thought believes that cannabis is a crucial tool, but only when used in its appropriate context.

Kundalini is a school of yoga that is strongly influenced by tantric practice. In traditional kundalini rituals, participants take cannabis after a 24 hour fast before the ceremony begins. Ingesting large amounts of cannabis is believed to be an "ideal way to attain a sense of one's own divinity through euphoric experimentation with the powers of one's mind.” Through the union of the divine and the human in tantric ceremonies, couples are able to connect to the "divinity within and without themselves." [1]

Cannabis and yoga: potential synergies

While the cannabis and yogic practice have a long history of parallel use, there hasn’t been much investigation on the two in combination. Less historical information is known about the use of cannabis during asana practice. There is ample room for exploration on the potential synergies of cannabis during yoga (asana, meditation, and breathwork). 

As a general connection, chronic stress damages the endocannabinoid system (ECS), due to lower levels of endogenous cannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG. Stress management techniques may reverse the effects of chronic stress on the ECS. As a result, yogic practices such as asanas, deep breathing, and meditation may relay mild effects mimicking those of cannabis. [6] Dr. Dustin Sulak, director of Healer and a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, has reported that many of his patients can achieve a “cannabis state of consciousness” with meditation or asanas alone. According to him, “They have found the switches to flip in their inner pharmacy to give them the desired effect without cannabis”. [7] 

Cannabis and yoga may be used together to help relieve pain.

Straight edge yogis cite cannabis as an escape from harmful memories, which may actually be the right medicine for many who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A growing number of studies have focused on cannabis for anxiety, stress, and PTSD. The ability of certain varieties of cannabis to cloud the mind may help people cope with past trauma and move forward in their lives. Groups of military veterans have reported that the plant can alleviate the symptoms and ailments that arose from their time in combat. And some even mix asana and cannabis together. One case is Bryan Fant, who served in the military and later turned to cannabis to treat physical pain and PTSD. He also became a yoga teacher, a move that vastly changed his life and inspired numerous others in a similar situation. A 2018 study specifically examined the role of yoga for veterans with PTSD. [8] There are also studies examining yoga for depression, which mirrors the growing exploration of cannabinoids for the condition. [9][10]

Another harmony between cannabis and yoga is the ability to decrease inflammation. Cytokines are mediators of the immune system and responsible for the inflammatory response within the body. Physical activity boosts the body’s ability to produce cytokines at optimum levels to maintain a healthy immune system. Since yoga involves movement/exercise (asanas) and mind-body relaxation techniques (meditation and breathing), researchers found that these techniques reduced resting levels of inflammatory cytokines. [11] Since inflammation is the root cause for many ailments, this aspect is worthy of ongoing investigation. 

Pain management is another reason that people turn to yoga and to cannabis. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating many functions within the body, including pain modulation.

Pain management is another reason that people turn to yoga and to cannabis. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating many functions within the body, including pain modulation. Both endogenous and plant derived cannabinoids act on many pain targets simultaneously. Pain signaling and processing is controlled via CB1 receptors, while inflammatory response is dictated by CB2 receptors. Several studies have indicated that cannabinoids may play a role in pain relief through their anti-inflammatory properties. Scientific investigation has also demonstrated various interactions between opioid, cannabinoid, and TRPV1 receptors in regulating pain. [12]

Nishi Whiteley, author of Chronic Relief and a longtime yoga instructor, has seen some of her students experience substantial pain relief during yoga. She reported that one of her students came to class “on hands and knees” if necessary to manage the side effects of cancer and chemotherapy, as well as a teenager with cerebral palsy who found deep benefits of yoga practice for coping with symptoms. 

Whiteley mentioned the fundamental emotional component to most chronic illnesses. “We carry these emotions in our body,” she said. “I can see the unraveling happening in their face and body as they go through the poses.” Whiteley reported that the act of movement during poses can boost oxygen in the blood, stimulate endocannabinoid production, and reduce inflammation which can result in measurable therapeutic benefits. [13] 

While there hasn’t been specific research on the synergy between cannabis and yoga practice, many folks report positive benefit to having the two as part of their lives. It appears that cannabis may boost the therapeutic benefit of yoga, and vice versa. Some who ingest cannabis before doing asana report that it allows them to be more in their body. The fundamental key to asana practice is the constant awareness of the inhalation and exhalation. Many cannabis activated yogis find that they are more able to focus on their breath, and may also give them stronger focus during their practice. They can easily flow from one pose to the next for an hour or so, when without the plant they may only be motivated to practice for a short amount of time. 

Whiteley explains that, “Cannabis allows me freedom in my body that I do not experience otherwise. It is as if my mind, body, and soul are united in a healing gentle flow of movement; a poetry of sorts. My thinking mind gives way to my intuitive mind and my body follows in a way that feels like freedom is running through my veins...  A tremendous amount of discovery takes place in my body and beyond.” [13]

When using cannabis for asana, meditation, or breathwork some find that the cerebral haze provided by THC-dominant chemovars (“strains”) can help give them the boost they need. A little psychoactivity may help them “tune out” in order to “tune in”. In addition, CBD-rich varieties may help with anxiety and enable people to feel more comfortable during an asana session. According to Whiteley, some of her students report a few tokes before a class “does wonders”. [13]

When using cannabis for asana, meditation, or breathwork some find that the cerebral haze provided by THC-dominant chemovars (“strains”) can help give them the boost they need. A little psychoactivity may help them “tune out” in order to “tune in”.

Increasing dialog on the benefits of cannabis-inspired asana practice has begun to take shape. Cannabis themed yoga classes are becoming all the rage in areas where public consumption is legal. As awareness grows and research expands, we may see more investigation on the connection on how yoga practice and cannabis work in combination. 

various yoga poses with cannabis

Cultural Misappropriation and the War on Drugs

Our modern interpretation of yoga was introduced to the West from Paramahansa Yogananda, who brought the practice in Europe and the USA in the 1920s. The modern-day interpretation of the word “yoga” makes most people think of colorful mats, stretchy pants, lit candles, and a studio full of active people. But the fundamental essence of yoga is based on self-love, awareness, and a lack of materialism. That is a far cry away from where we find yoga today. [3]

Western yoga often falls into materialism. Yoga mats are expensive, not to mention the snazzy clothes to match. Yoga pants, while often pretty and flattering to the figure, are not necessary to practice asana. Many people report that they would go to asana classes more often if they weren’t so expensive. Fancy yoga retreats in areas such as Thailand, India, and Bali appear in areas where the locals couldn’t spend the equivalent of their monthly earnings on one day of a retreat. 

The pay to play model of modern yoga practice goes against the fundamental essence of traditional belief. In both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, those interested in tantra yoga could only become students when they are initiated by a guru.[1] There is often a critique about the “whitewashing” of yoga, where teachers from North America and Europe come from afar in order to host retreats in the East, leaving out the opportunity of talented local teachers and the community surrounding them.[14] Some practitioners chant various Sanskrit words during class, with no context or reference to what these words mean in the context of true yogic practice- which is vast and nuanced. Both the yoga and cannabis world must consider the foundations of where their practices came from.

cannabis and yoga history

The history of cannabis cannot forget those who have done the heavy lifting. Spanish and Portuguese colonization brought cannabis to the Americas in the form of hemp. Cannabis then became part of Mexican folk medicine until it was later criminalized by the anti-immigrant and racist policies of Henry Anslinger during the “Reefer Madness” era in the USA. The plant was also an instrumental tool for jazz musicians, descendants of freed African slaves, who used it to fuel their creativity, and to soothe the pain of racism.[15] We wouldn’t have the pervasive use of cannabis in the USA had it not been for People of Color (PoC). 

Presently, PoC are disproportionately targeted on the War on Drugs. Black and Latinx folks end up in prison at a higher rate than white people, despite the same rate of cannabis use.[16] These unjust policies create difficulty for those trying to find work when they get out of jail, and are left out of employment possibilities in the booming cannabis industry. However, social equity programs in various states aim to level the playing field and give opportunities for PoC to participate in the industry. [17] 

The trend towards CBD products oftentimes demonizes THC, unfairly breaking the plant into components, deeming some “good” and others “bad”. CBD is widely popular in a variety of social and economic classes, while THC is not. There are still people, mainly PoC, going to jail for using THC-dominant cannabis while CBD is rapidly being decriminalized and legalized. [18] The parallels between the worlds of cannabis and yoga must also create equal opportunities and just policies for all. 

Cannabis and Yoga: With or Without You

Bring on the increased interest in yoga practice and the connection to breath and meditation. Let’s inspire those who use cannabis as medicine and to explore consciousness. The growing interest in cannabis with yoga practice is worthy of specific scientific investigation. 

Let’s remember the fundamentals of these practices and who brought us these teachings. Yoga is not just about doing poses in fashionable in yoga pants (CBD-infused or not). It’s about a deeper glimpse into your own self-actualization, healing path, and connect to the all-encompassing universe surrounding us. Cannabis is more than one compound. We aren’t fully free to use the plant until it is liberated from its prohibition. And yoga is far more encompassing than going to a studio class. And one or both in combination should be used with reverence for those who brought this awareness to us. 

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Sources Cited:

  1. Aldrich, Michael. "Tantric Cannabis Use in India". Journal Psychedelic Drugs, 1977.
  2. Russo, Ethan. "Cannabis in India: ancient lore and modern medicine". Cannabinoids as Therapeutics, 2005
  3. Joshi, Puravi. (2018) “Do You Really Know the True Meaning of Yoga? Thoughts from a British Indian Yogi”. Yoga Journal
  4. Rice, Andrea. (2018) "Ayurveda’s Take on All the Recent Mixing of Marijuana and Asana". Yoga Journal
  5. https://www.newsweek.com/heated-debate-about-combining-yoga-marijuana-1054692
  6. McPartland, John, Guy, Geoffrey W.& Di Marzo, Vincenzo. “Care and Feeding of the Endocannabinoid System: A Systematic Review of Potential Clinical Interventions that Upregulate the Endocannabinoid System”. PLoS One, 2014
  7. Fundación Canna. Meet the Experts: Interview with Dustin Sulak. (2018) 
  8. Cushing RE, Braun KL, Alden S. “A Qualitative Study Exploring Yoga in Veterans with PTSD Symptoms”. Int J Yoga Therap., 2018
  9. Breit, Sigrid, et al. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front Psychiatry, 2018.
  10. Project CBD. CBD for Depression. (2019). 
  11. Vijayaraghava, Ambarish, et al. Effect of Yoga Practice on Levels of Inflammatory Markers After Moderate and Strenuous Exercise. J Clin Diagn Res, 2015 
  12.  Vučković, Sonja, et all. Cannabinoids and Pain: New Insights From Old Molecules. Front. Pharmacol., 2018. 
  13. Nishi Whiteley, personal communication with the author (2019).
  14. Pasha-Robinson, Lucy. (2018) Americans who practice yoga 'contribute to white supremacy', claims Michigan State University professor. The Independent. 
  15. Lee, Martin A. Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana. Scribner, 2012. 
  16. ACLU. “Report: The War on marijuana in Black and White”. (2013).
  17. https://mjbizdaily.com/chart-marijuana-social-equity-programs/
  18. Senter, Amber. “We Have to Acknowledge That CBD Use Is a Privilege” Marie Claire, 2019.

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