On a recent dark and wintry night in the quaint, family-oriented neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, a handful of soul-seeking students gathered at Area Yoga for an experimental yoga class that touted a deeper connection to the Self. The 70-minute offering, “Yoga Nidra with CBD Oil,” was guided by Shep Lantz, a newly appointed yoga teacher just five months out of training in India, who talked up the medicinal properties of the cannabidiol (CBD) oil as a cure for his anxiety. CBD oil, one of at least 113 active cannabinoids that make up nearly 40 percent of the cannabis plant, has also been shown to be beneficial for fighting inflammation, nausea, insomnia, muscle tension, bone fractures, stroke and other chronic diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. CBD is now legal in all 50 states, under the condition that the product is devoid of any trace of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—marijuana’s psychoactive property.
The Yoga and Weed Debate
With weed yoga classes on the rise in states like California and Colorado where recreational marijuana is legal and CBD oil classes popping up in other liberal-leaning states, a debate is brewing among practitioners whether an altered state of consciousness is conducive or counterproductive to achieving the ultimate end goal of oneness.
“Cannabis, for me, is a medicine for the physical, emotional, and spiritual body,” says Darrin Zeer, who created 420 Retreats in Colorado, an experiential offering that promotes “ganja yoga and meditation” for healing and pain relief. Zeer argues that mind-altering substances were originally used as ritual during Vedic times as a means of expanding consciousness. He says the holy Hindu sadhus—Indian ascetics who’ve renounced material life—he spent time with consider ganja to be a sacred medicinal plant that benefits mind, body, and spirit. Zeer also attests that the practice of using marijuana with yoga has helped relieve his chronic joint and back pain and has expanded his own sense of self-awareness. “For some people, cannabis can help open the spiritual door and give them a peek,” he says.
Rachel Ginsberg, a yoga practitioner in Brooklyn agrees that marijuana aids her yoking her spiritual and physical selves together. “I find that when I’m high, it’s easier for me to let go of a lot of the things that are regularly occupying my monkey-mind,” she says. “For me, it’s a matter of helping me get into a deeper, more meditative space where I can tune into my body and give myself what I actually need.”
But yoga and Ayurveda, India’s 5,000-year-old medical science, aim to cultivate a clarity and purity of mind, known as sattva, one of the three gunas (modes of existence). If sattva is what a yogi is striving for, does it really make sense to be mixing THC—or beer or wine for that matter—with practice?
The Ayurvedic Perspective on Marijuana
Ayurvedic texts describe marijuana used as medicine as a “nectar,” but used recreationally as a “poison.” And recent research shows marijuana has innumerable medicinal benefits for those experiencing chronic pain, undergoing chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, among other uses. But another one of the gunas, tamas (the quality of dullness or inertia), can help explain how Ayurveda views marijuana use becoming problematic.
“THC is considered tamasic in Ayurveda,” says Ayurvedic practitioner Dr. John Douillard, who leads Yoga Journal’s Ayurveda 101 online course. “Tamasic drugs hide things like pain and emotions.” He explains that years of overstimulation and the emotional ups and downs of life can wear out the mind, making it prone to addiction, withdrawal, dissociation, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Douillard says what may begin as a recreational vice in a rajasic (passionate, present, or excited) state can be detrimental in a tamasic state, as the mind attempts to reestablish a false sense of safety and becomes dependent.
While Douillard agrees that CBD oil can be beneficial for neurological and musculoskeletal inflammation, he points out that CBD oil did not exist in Ayurvedic times. “Marijuana was used in some spiritual settings to help still the mind, but never for any length of time because of the tamasic dullness of the mind it can create,” he says. And though there are ashrams that condone marijuana, Dr. Douillard clarified that they are indeed rare and are classically frowned upon, as spiritual advancement becomes hindered when the mind is in an impure state.
Smoking marijuana also poses a problem for the doshas. Another Ayurvedic practitioner known by her alias, Wolf Medicine, says marijuana can aggravate the vata dosha when smoked. “It’s very drying to the entire body, not just the lungs,” she says and instead recommends edibles for medicinal use, as they send the beneficial properties to the bloodstream faster than smoking. Weed yoga classes, on the other hand, she says, sound more like a gimmick than a healing modality.
Ayurveda seems to be telling us there’s no shortcut to inner peace—by pipe or otherwise. To achieve a sattvic state, you really have to do the hard work of navigating the complexities of the mind and emotions, traversing the ups and downs of rajas and tamas through the discipline of your asana, pranayama, and meditation practice.
See also Ayurvedic Quiz: Discover Your Dosha