There's a lot of weird yoga around these days. We’ve all heard of Beer Yoga, Goat Yoga and the more recent but possibly not 100% genuine Chicken Nugget Yoga. But have you heard of 4:20 Yoga? A form that combines marijuana use with gentle yoga postures and is “transformative” according to its devotees, who say the mind-altering, relaxing effects of cannabis enable them to connect with their yoga and meditation practice on a far deeper level.
Using plants to enhance a spiritual practice is nothing new but leaving the big dogs – ayahuasca, peyote, mushrooms et al – aside, the use of weed to heighten our consciousness for ceremony, prayer and inner listening is age-old. In fact, as science writer Zoe Cormier, author of Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science explains: “All archaeological records indicate that cannabis is probably our oldest drug (except for alcohol), predating everything as far as we know, including opium and magic mushrooms.”
Indeed in India – the birthplace of yoga – the cannabis plant was revered and celebrated for millennia, and the country’s sadhus (holy, spiritual wanderers) have long been known to smoke chillums filled with hashish as part of their spiritual practice. (It’s even argued that Shiva – the founder of yoga – was partial to the herb.)
Following his years spent travelling in Asia and smoking with the sadhus, teacher Yogi D founded 420 YogaRetreats. “I wanted to help bring the spiritual experience back into pot,” he explains. “Modern society is in such a rush – it’s a habit to be busy and stressed; we all are overwhelmed to some degree. All yoga is so awesome for this day and age. Weed just helps you experience the asana poses from a deeper place – it gives you a glimpse into the spiritual realm and helps you relax faster.”
California-based yoga teacher and founder of 4:20 Yoga, Liz McDonald, echoes this sentiment. “Though my yoga practice is now 20 years old, the majority of it has been spent in the urban ant race, where it is undeniably harder to tune out and tune in to oneself. My students face similar challenges.” Liz began introducing marijuana into her yoga a little over 10 years ago. “I experienced a supercharged version of my practice, with major ‘downloads’ of esoteric concepts regarding the astral body. Naturally, I then wanted to apply this as a teaching tool to bypass the sceptical, more concrete minds in the classroom, and bring in the energetic components of yoga.”
“There are essentially two components to cannabis,” explains Cormier.“Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which generally speaking is the chemical that makes you feel 'high', and cannabidiols, or CBD, which is the component that has the medical properties.” Indeed, with its gradual re-legalisation and declassification in the US and elsewhere, the medicinal benefits of the herb are beginning to (re)enter into our understanding of health in the 21st century. Pro-cannabis lobbyists point to its potential to alleviate chronic pain, shrink cancerous tumours and help treat glaucoma, as well as the ongoing evidence that it is far safer than alcohol.
Dee Dussault, founder of GanjaYoga and author of a book by the same name, has also been integrating cannabis into her practice for more than 10 years. “I immediately found it made my yoga practice far more deep and interesting,” she explains. She began offering classes in 2009: “No one turned up to my first class! But now I have two full classes a week.” Much like Liz and Yogi D, she too wants to “reclaim cannabis as a spiritual and medical tool… When you’re sober there are so many benefits to yoga,” she says, “but with the addition of cannabis you have a higher baseline of relaxation – before you even start the yoga you’re already quieting your mind and becoming more present.”
The yoga taught by Liz, Dee and Yogi D is a combination of hatha and restorative. “We’re not going to get into an altered state of consciousness then show off our arm balances,” says Dee. “Cannabis-enhanced yoga should be slow and mindful. In my classes, students have their eyes closed most of the time, since it’s really about relaxing in an introverted way, without caring what others are doing with their bodies.” Yogi D agrees: “We do a slow flow of yoga poses intermingled with social conversation, laughter yoga, partner yoga and other playful elements. I encourage students to focus on conscious breathing, experiencing their bodies in the poses and finding a happy place in the stretch. Not enduring pain or discomfort – which I so often see people doing on and off their yoga mat. It's like you are stirring the sacred ganja plant throughout your being, and a deep, mellow body high settles in. The group energy in a weed yoga class is ecstatic.”
Of course, these teachers practise in areas where cannabis is legal. To my knowledge there are no 4:20 classes running in London, where I teach, but I am aware that some students turn up high to my (slow-paced) yin workshops.
“I view the plant as medicine,” explains Tom, who regularly attends my classes after smoking. “I love yoga without the weed but with the weed I just go to a different place, I feel calm, and more in my body and mind. I know it’s a weird thing to say as a lot of people associate getting high with getting out of their minds, but I associate it with getting into mine – it somehow allows me to access deep wells of both joy and grief.”
In her article "5 Reasons Yogis Shouldn’t Smoke Marijuana" Julie Phillips-Turner argues that the “calming” of the mind experienced with weed is more of a “numbing”. “We meditate to strengthen our minds, so that when we’re faced with difficult situations, we can focus and be calm and mindful of the situation,” she explains. “Consistent use of weed will lessen that capability because the mind will be used to feeling numb.” Additionally, she argues: “The feelings produced by use of marijuana is known in yoga as 'maya' or a veil of illusion. The use of marijuana is a sign that you are searching for a real life experience. Using an external source to assist with that experience is only masking the real experience that can be found within.”
Barbara Gordon, a senior yoga teacher who has taught for over 40 years echoes this: “Yoga already gets you completely high,” she explains. “Once you start doing a lot of yoga you find you don’t need any drugs!” And the world-famous yoga master, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, concurs: “By infusing ganja or some hallucinogenic drug, the chemical properties of the gross body change. The heart slows down, the breathing rate changes, the brain waves alter and the mind becomes calm and still… Is it not possible to arrive at the same point through Kriya Yoga?” he asks in his 1984 book Kundalini Tantra.
Many yoga teachers encourage a “pure” and “clean” life, excluding the use of all intoxicants. However, as Liz comments: “Try to fill a class with people under zero chemical influence (including caffeine, antihistamines, antidepressants, etc) and that class would probably be empty!”
Like anything, it’s largely about personal preference, intention, and portion control. If you don’t react well to cannabis or, for that matter, yoga, it’s probably best to stay clear; however, bad reactions don’t seem to be common among these teachers (aside from some anxiety – which I would argue most new students experience in any yoga class).
“Yoga and Ganja Yoga are just different – definitely neither is better,” says Yogi D. “For many yogis they prefer to do yoga sober, without any external stimulation. And that is perfect. But it's important not to judge others. Cannabis and yoga can be literally soul-altering but it's important to form the right intention, hang out with a great group of people and simply enjoy a conscious flow of yoga poses and meditation. Wonderful!”
*Some names have been changed