With TikTok’s newfound love of pilates, Instagram’s fascination with gut health, and mushroom lattes popping up on the menus of our local coffee shops, it’s clear that “wellness” is going mainstream. But one clear positive exists amongst the health crazes and the diets-in-disguise: more and more people are beginning to understand how our mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically linked.
Interest in yoga, meditation, and other Eastern approaches to health and wellbeing is at an all-time high. Now, after decades of stigma and misinformation in the West, government authorities, healthcare systems, and the public are starting to accept that cannabis is medicine. And whilst combining cannabis and yoga isn’t just the latest wellness trend, its spiritual significance is clear. The two have harmoniously co-existed for thousands of years – so let’s delve into why.
Cannabis and yoga: the intersection of spirituality
Yoga is the practice of breath work, meditation, and poses called asanas that aim to connect the mind and body through present-moment awareness. Originating in ancient India, yoga is a mental, physical, and spiritual practice that can be traced back over 5,000 years.
Just like yoga, using cannabis can also be linked to spirituality. Although being high isn’t an intrinsically spiritual experience, it can be just that for some people. Many choose to use cannabis to assist spiritual growth and to ponder philosophical subjects, and people have done so for thousands of years.
Since cannabis can allow the user to access more of their mind and to feel more connected with their body, this seamlessly fuses with the practice of yoga. The combination is far from revolutionary; cannabis and yoga have been intertwined for thousands of years. As Christopher Kilham, author, ethnobotanist, and spiritual expert recalls, “I’ve travelled the Siberian, all along the Silk Road, the Himalayas, different parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia. Cannabis has just proliferated. It became part of not all spiritual practices, but many.”
Nowadays, it is not uncommon to smoke, vape or consume a cannabis edible prior to a yoga session. Many claim the fusion to have immeasurable physical and mental benefits that last beyond the mat.
Why do people combine cannabis and yoga?
Cannabis and yoga may sound like a complementary flavour fusion to most. Others may be entirely sceptical of the idea. Would you not burst into a fit of giggles in the studio? Or fall into a deep sleep during savasana? Well, weed affects everyone differently. And whether surprising or not, getting stoned and doing yoga – for many people – are actually hugely compatible activities.
Perhaps the main reason that yoga-goers choose to incorporate cannabis into their sessions is to ease pain and stiffness. There is an abundance of both experimental and clinical research showing that cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major cannabinoids in the Cannabis sativa plant, can target some of the pain pathways in our nervous system and dampen the sensation of pain. For this reason, many use cannabis to facilitate a yoga flow, without the physical discomfort that may have previously prevented them from doing so.
Aside from helping people to loosen up physically, cannabis could also offer similar mental benefits. It is touted by many for its ability to clear the mind and deepen the meditative state. During savasana, for example, it could be the key to switching off anxious thoughts and fostering stillness of the mind, helping to hit the pause button on a stressful day. Others find that cannabis can sharpen their focus, which may lead to improvements in their poses, form, and breathing techniques.
Iz*, who has been regularly practising yoga for nearly a year, told leafie that she often smokes weed for spiritual enhancement and self-reflection. Iz decided to incorporate cannabis into her yoga practice because she found that “you can get very in your head [when high] so it was nice to…experience how weed can feel just for your body.” She says that cannabis helps to deepen her practice and allows her to feel more connected to her body and her movements. “When I was in child’s pose I felt very grounded,” she shares, recalling one particular stoned yoga experience, “[I] felt like I was part of the earth.”
When I was in child’s pose I felt very grounded, I felt like I was part of the earth
Countless others have shared their own experiences of combining cannabis and yoga, with many of their recollections mirroring those of Iz. “My movements were beat-driven, pulsing, and oceanic,” writes lifestyle and beauty editor Lindsay Kellner when describing her experiences during a Ganja Yoga session.
According to Christopher Kilham, ”when you combine cannabis with yoga practice, you can go deeper into the actual sensory experience of that happening.” Kilham believes that cannabis can enhance the spiritual aspects of yoga. “It takes you deep and allows you to open up and have a greater sense of expansion of mind, body and spirit,” he tells Forbes.
A biological state of bliss
When it comes to the benefits of combining cannabis and yoga, the testimonials are in abundance. But is there any scientific weight to the claims that cannabinoids can enhance yoga’s mental and physical benefits?
The major cannabis compounds, better known as cannabinoids, interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). This complex cell-signalling system is responsible for maintaining biological stability within the brain and the body, helping to regulate our mood, appetite, sleep, pain levels, immune health, and much more. Cannabinoids effectively “supplement” this system, supporting the ECS in its vital functions.
Although researchers have established that yoga benefits the mind and body via numerous mechanisms, there is some evidence to suggest that the ECS is involved. As detailed in a 2018 review, it is theorised that CB1 receptors in the ECS are activated by mind-body activities, such as Tai Chi and yoga, and that this helps to boost our mood. This follows similar evidence linking the “runner’s high” to the ECS, which found that exercise releases the endocannabinoid anandamide, also known as “the bliss molecule”.
Far more research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms underpinning the mental and physical benefits of yoga, but even leading researchers in the field of cannabis medicine seem to agree. Neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher, Dr Ethan Russo, claims that “research supports the hypothesis that the ECS is responsible for the mood boost created by healing practices like meditation,” so there is certainly reason to believe that the ECS is, too, involved in the mental and physical improvements seen with yoga.
Does cannabis really have a place in a yoga studio?
Whilst stoned yoga certainly sounds like a lot of fun, it isn’t without its risks – and it definitely isn’t for everyone!
By reducing pain and stiffness, cannabis can help your body to feel relaxed and comfortable during a yoga session. This is arguably a good thing, but it also means that it becomes easier to overexert yourself. Others may find that cannabis doesn’t help sharpen the mind and actually impairs their focus, further increasing the risk of injury. A general rule of thumb, therefore, is to keep doses low and move slow. Keep poses simple; no headstands or crow poses, no matter how invincible you feel!
Cannabis won’t be everyone’s stress-busting tool. In fact, for some, smoking weed can trigger intense feelings of anxiety, panic, and paranoia. It’s not uncommon to experience racing thoughts after consuming high doses of THC, which is the opposite of the mental clarity that yoga and meditation aim to achieve. It’s not going to help everybody to enter a calmer state, so learning what works for your body is key.
The concept of stoned yoga has also been met with some criticism from prominent figures in the yoga community. Despite the fact that yoga is historically intertwined with cannabis, Kat Heagberg, author, yoga teacher and editor of Yoga International claims that these historical ties are tenuous and that the push for commercialised cannabis yoga “shows a profound lack of understanding of and respect for the established philosophical and spiritual tradition.”
Others also believe that bringing cannabis into yoga or other meditative practices acts as a “cheat code” to enlightenment. Within the holistic Indian medicine system of Ayurveda, it is taught that “there is no shortcut to inner peace”. That said, modern science has shown that alternative pharmacological avenues can be of equal value. As argued by Darrin Zeer, founder of 420 Retreats, “for some people, cannabis can help open the spiritual door and give them a peek.”
The future of cannabis yoga
In US states where the recreational use of cannabis has been legalised, there are already countless cannabis-focussed yoga companies, pop-ups, and retreats, with the spiritual practice said to be a “multi-million dollar business”.
In the UK, however, legal restrictions on recreational cannabis use make things trickier. Though many choose to incorporate weed in their at-home yoga practice, there aren’t yet any official cannabis yoga groups.
Instead, many yoga-goers are choosing to incorporate CBD into their practice. Being non-psychoactive and completely legal, CBD products cannot get you high. But they can offer similar pain-relieving and stress-busting benefits to whole-plant cannabis, so CBD is a great place to start for anyone seeking a little plant-powered boost to their yoga sessions. Whilst cannabis won’t elevate everyone’s yoga sessions, nor will it immediately unlock the door to enlightenment, it does hold immeasurable value in the practice of spirituality. The more you learn about both weed and yoga, the more apparent their compatibility becomes.
*Names have been changed at the request of the individual.
Editors note: After the publication of this article, Kat Heagberg contacted leafie to clarify her position on cannabis and yoga: “I wrote that article well over ten years ago. I want to go on the record to say that I’ve grown and changed and learned a whole lot since I wrote that, and that it no longer reflects my personal opinion.
“I myself have experienced plenty of benefits from cannabis products, and I want to sincerely apologize if what I wrote back then in any way added to stigmatization, shame, lack of access, or worse for anyone.
“I also want to go on the record to say that that article no longer reflects my personal beliefs or opinions and that I would have no problem attending a cannabis yoga class myself these days (or even teaching one for that matter, though I haven’t done that yet!)”