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A Yoga High

Are 420-friendly yoga classes half-baked marketing schemes or something deeper?

By Mike Kessler

weed

It's 4:15 on a Sunday afternoon and I'm way too stoned for yoga. A few minutes ago, my old pal HD pulled his Prius into the parking lot of my neighborhood studio and fired up a lump of Golden Pineapple. It was a sativa, much too heady for me; while he smoked, I packed my own bowl with a nugget of Purple Haze, an indica-sativa hybrid that my medical marijuana "bud-tender" swore wouldn't make me anxious. I now realize that I understated my low tolerance (and how rarely I partake, anywhere from zero to a handful of times a year), and that she underestimated my ability to become needlessly nervous. Which brings me here, superbaked and mildly paranoid in a yoga-studio lobby, where I mill among the strangers and try to figure out what to do first—take off my shoes or sign in.

It's safe to say that most of our classmates are stoned, too. HD and I have come to Atwater Yoga, in Los Angeles, to attend the "420 Remedy" class, a restorative session that welcomes students who are under the influence of marijuana. Despite our shared state of mind, knowing that the others are stoned does not ease my paranoia. Lucky for me, HD is a longtime cannabis user, and his relaxed presence subdues some of my twitchiness.

Staring quizzically at the swatch of shiny fake grass in the entry room (whoa, AstroTurf has come a long way), I make the impractical decision to simultaneously register and put my sneakers in a cubby. This lapse of logic forces me to speak from across the small lobby in a voice that's louder than normal. As quickly as I shout my name, my inner critic makes me feel as though I've badmouthed the Dalai Lama or otherwise violated my fellow yogis' right to a peaceful experience. To rectify the faux pas (which in hindsight nobody even noticed), I speak to the instructor in the smooth-jazz manner reserved for massage therapists, funeral attendees, and soakers at the hot springs at Esalen in Big Sur—a voice that says, "Don't worry; I'm harmless." I explain that both HD and I prepaid online, only to elicit an anxiety-producing request: "Do you have a receipt? Any proof?"

The question is innocuous, but in my state of hyperawareness I feel accused and mildly annoyed, like Cheech Marin being stopped by a cop in mirrored sunglasses and being asked to show his green card. (Proof? I don't need no stinkin' proof!) We brandish our iPhones, present the evidence, and introduce ourselves. The teacher is Stefani. She's 40-something, warm, and lovely.

HD and I have been friends for 33 years, and our propensity for childlike laughing fits remains, uh, high. (In 1985, while running from a security guard for skateboarding in a shopping mall, I laughed so I hard that I peed in my Guess jeans.) To avoid making a scene, we agree to practice on opposite sides of the room. HD has the foresight to set up in a traffic-free zone, while I unwittingly roll out my mat in the corner next to the props. My poor choice of geography becomes obvious as I try to relax on my back while classmates shuffle past, hauling payloads of blankets, blocks, and bolsters. My synapses fire another squirt of paranoia. Am I in their way? They must think I'm so inconsiderate. Should I get my props, or wait to be instructed? Man, that guy's legs are hairier than mine!

My mind settles a bit when Stefani walks in and instructs us to lie on our backs, supported by a bolster, with our knees bent and the soles of our feet together. I focus on my breath and feel my heart open a bit, but I'm unable to relax into the pose the way I do when unimpaired. I'm fidgety. My low back feels unusually tight, as if my extensor muscles are suffocating in shrink-wrap. My neck is a jumble of tiny bones and muscles that crunch like gravel under truck tires as I make every effort to soften. More internal monologue: Is my body just beat up from yesterday's mountain-bike ride? Am I this stiff when I'm not high but too distracted by life to notice? Nah, must be the weed. You shouldn't smoke weed, Mike. Yes, you should—it creates awareness, reveals the truth. Truth is painful. Oy! So's my neck.

I try to recalibrate by coming back to my breath, but by now it might be too late. Class has only just begun, and my weed-addled monkey-mind is swinging from tree to tree, distracted by every screech in the jungle.

Burning Questions

Their effects may seem at odds, but marijuana and yoga can serve a similar purpose. The Sanskrit word yoga is derived from the same root phoneme as the English word "yoke," a synonym for "connection" or "union." Christopher Isherwood, in his book My Guru and His Disciple, defines it as "the process of achieving union with [the] eternal omnipresent Nature, of which everybody and everything is a part." If we're diligent and open-minded enough, yoga can bring us closer to nature or God or the universe or whatever we choose to call IT, after transcending, however briefly, to an expanded awareness. Ganja is just one of many plants that we humans have ingested for millennia to heighten our consciousness for ceremony and prayer, and to connect with our minds and bodies in new ways.

Not all yogis are pot smokers, and not all pot smokers are yogis. For that matter, some yoga practitioners and pot users aren't interested in higher states of consciousness at all. They just like a good stretch or a mellow night on the couch. Yet there's no denying that ganja and yoga share a large number of practitioners. In the West, both yoga and marijuana gained initial public notability in the 1960s, when thinkers and writers and artists such as Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass (né Richard Alpert), and The Beatles publicly discussed their adventures—via yoga, meditation, and drugs—into uncharted psychic waters.

They weren't the first. Many of India's sadhus—those dreadlocked, ash-smeared renunciates who survive on yoga, meditation, and the goodwill of others—smoke enough ganja to, well, see God. And pro-weed yogis have been known to invoke the spiritual classic Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master, by Swami Saradananda, which has numerous pot references and notes that "many wandering monks smoke Indian hemp"; or The Tantric Way: Art, Science, Ritual, by Ajit Mookerjee and Madhu Khanna, which discusses "drinking bhang, a drink made of hemp leaves; or smoking ganja, an intoxicant" in ancient tantric rituals.

For Liz McDonald, who owns the LA studio that offers 420 Remedy, yoga and ganja didn't converge until 12 years into her practice. "I'd read about the subtle body and the energetic body," she says, referring to the chakras (focal points), meridians (channels), and prana (life force) that, according to Hinduism and some other Eastern philosophies, exist within our bodies and can help us achieve higher states of consciousness. "I knew these were real, but they seemed impossible to truly feel. My left brain was in the way." In 2007, McDonald, then an intermittent pot smoker and a professional yoga teacher, was stoned on a beach in Brazil and decided to practice. "All those things I'd read about...I actually felt them in a very visceral way," she says. "It was otherworldly. Mixing yoga and pot took me into the next dimension."

Inspired by her experience, McDonald suggested marijuana to a few of her private clients. "Some of them are so divorced from their bodies," she says. "Some people will die not knowing how to take a full breath. It's hard for them to grasp the idea of breathing into your low back or lengthening from the crown of your head. Pot can help you work through that. I want to help people open multiple doors, so I'm doing it with multiple tools."

Most of the yoga teachers I spoke with acknowledged the potential benefits of the occasional hit off a joint or nibble on a pot brownie. "It can help break down inhibitions and allow you to explore your mind and its relationship to the mechanics of the body," says John Friend, whose Anusara Yoga empire was recently shuttered following allegations of having marijuana delivered to his business's headquarters, sexual misconduct, and improper employee management. "But you can also smoke pot and do some stupid things." Like most teachers I spoke with, Friend says he's had plenty of students who show up to class with bloodshot eyes, which he tolerates but doesn't endorse. "If you're not a respectful user, pot can diminish your yoga skills and practice," he concludes.

David Frawley, founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in Albuquerque, considers marijuana an important plant for the treatment of muscle spasms, pain relief, and excess mucus. "However," he says, "I would discourage marijuana as a means to enhance yoga practice unless it's used in a sacramental or medicinal manner, and not frequently. The attaining of higher consciousness cannot simply be gained by the use of a drug." Besides that, he adds, "Yoga practices, particularly pranayama, mantra, and meditation, are effective without it."

Some teachers, such as Helen Lavretsky, MD, insist that yogis should avoid pot—period. A professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, director of the Late-Life Depression, Stress and Wellness Research Program, and certified Kundalini instructor, Dr. Lavretsky says that an addled mind is an unclean mind, a hindrance to the quest for higher states of consciousness. "One of the first things we're encouraged to do as teachers is cleanse," she says, explaining that the use of drugs and presence of toxins in the body "alters the flow of energy." It's damaging to the brain's pineal gland, Lavretsky continues, which "is connected to the Divine." Scientifically speaking, she says, marijuana affects brain chemistry and has the potential to trigger schizophrenia and psychosis. Whether the effects are temporary or lasting, she maintains that drugs of any kind "dump you into an obstructed reality."

Epiphany Time

Back in 420 Remedy, I'm hobbling through a psychic mine-field. The class is similar to 100 other restorative classes I've taken, except that on at least two occasions, Stefani reminds us to not push too hard. "Remember, this is 420 class," she says. "No need to overdo it."

Despite her gentle reminders, each simple pose—Cat-Cow, half Sun Salutations, Goddess—is rendered more difficult by a cacophonous refrain of self-referential epiphanies, none of them positive. I need to lose 10 pounds...I really should cut out red meat...I've been emotionally absent as a husband. All this changes when Stefani says the "P" word: Pigeon Pose. It's one of the most challenging but satisfying positions I know and by far my favorite of the sitting poses. The very thought of it makes my breath lengthen and my shoulders drop.

It only takes a few seconds to sink into it. Half a minute later, my Ujjayi breathing mimics the ebb and flow of a gentle tide. The monkey in my mind takes a rest, and my body goes notably soft. Ahhh. With each exhalation, my hip flexors stretch like warm taffy. Months' worth of pent-up energy releases from my glutes. I might not be experiencing a Kundalini-fueled state of heightened consciousness, but the barriers between my mind, body, and breath are blurred. For a moment, I start to wonder what to credit for the peaceful way I'm feeling: the weed or the yoga, or both? But the thought floats away. If the slow rhythm of my classmates' breath is any indication, they're feeling good, too.

Things only get better during Savasana. My body goes heavy, my head becomes light, and only the warmest thoughts drift by. Man, I'm lucky—to be here, doing yoga with HD, one of my closest friends. To be healthy. To have an amazing wife.

After class, HD and I compare notes. He was a bit paranoid, too (he thought he'd forgotten to shut his car door), but found his flow and ultimately enjoyed the experience. At home, my wife and I fall into a loving and long-overdue "check-in" conversation—the kind that every relationship requires but has been easy to set aside as we juggle the demands of our everyday lives. How unexpected: Taking a few tokes before yoga inadvertently benefited my marriage.

For this reason alone, my inaugural stoned-yoga experience turned out positive. But I'd rather be a respectful user and let weed be the exception to my practice, not the rule. Everything in moderation.

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