December 30, 2012

Yoga High: Do Pot & Pigeon Pose Belong Together? ~ Amelia Edelman

Photo: Amelia Edelman

Pairing yoga with marijuana is a recipe for serious injury.

As a yoga teacher, blog editor of the drug treatment nonprofit Phoenix House and the daughter of hippie parents for whom marijuana was as normal and quotidian as coffee, I had a few different reactions to the recent New York Times article, “A Yoga High With a Little Help.”

First, the article (about pairing marijuana and yoga in a California class taught by Liz McDonald) seemed a bit absurd; sure, a lot of yogis are stoners and vice-versa, but are these people really lighting up in class?

The answer, of course, is no; as reporter Laurie Winer points out, it’s illegal to smoke on studio property, which means that these particular students are getting a buzz on at home, before class.

So a few folks are smoking pot and then meandering to their local yoga studio—is this anything out of the ordinary?

I’m sure there have been some less-than-sober students showing up in my classes over the years. Plus, we know that a yoga practice can be extremely helpful for people undergoing chemotherapy or dealing with chronic pain—and since marijuana is legal for medical use in California, the students in the Times piece may have medical marijuana prescriptions.

In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that no one with a chronic condition should be using medical marijuana without also committing to a restorative (passive supine poses) yoga practice—and they would likely discover that the poses benefit them more than the pot.

But the “420 Remedy” yoga class profiled in the Times article is a far cry from a restorative-only class for cancer patients. On the contrary; it touts McDonald’s ability to “twist herself like a pretzel” and shows a photo of her class in a strenuous lunge stretch.

An LA Weekly piece about the same class warns students they’ll likely wind up “on their backs with arms reaching straight up to hold their feet behind their heads.”

Kids, I wouldn’t advise you to try that one at home—even stone-cold sober. Trying it while stoned seems like a definite recipe for disaster.

I’m already constantly concerned with ensuring my students’ well-being and making sure they don’t push themselves too far or seriously injure themselves in class.The last thing I need is for someone to show up high and just-a-little-too-hopeful about popping up into a headstand—what if, with fuzzy judgment and coordination, he lands a crooked headstand that causes severe neck damage?

What if, with a drug-induced sense of relaxation, a student joyfully forces herself into lotus pose and ends up with a torn tendon? What if an older student, his heart rate already increased 20-100 percent by smoking weed, does one too many sun salutations and has a heart attack?

I do tend to agree with William Sands, Dean of the College of Maharishi Vedic Science, who says that “marijuana inhibits the ability to experience yoga—the inner self—and is therefore incompatible with the practice.”

When I’m moving through the asanas, I don’t want anything getting in the way of my clear breathing and clear thinking; for me, yoga is about learning how to deal with reality, not escaping from it. But my main disagreement with classes like McDonald’s lies in my sense of responsibility as a teacher—a practical responsibility to protect my students from injury.

I’ve known yogis who have slipped or strained muscles by practicing after a couple glasses of wine, a prescription painkiller or even just Nyquil—and pot is no better.

Of course, I want my students to leave class feeling relaxed and chilled-out, but I want them to feel that as a result of my teaching and their own hard work of breathing and balancing through the poses—not because they hot-boxed their car on the way to the studio.


Amelia (Emma) Edelman is a freelance writer, certifiedVinyasa yoga teacher, and the blog editor/social media specialist for Phoenix House, the nation’s largest non-profit drug treatment center. You can find her writing on/in Thought Catalog, MTV Act, Reclaiming Futures, So To Speak, Arts Politic Magazine, First Time, and others. Follow @apedelman and @phoenixhouse on Twitter.



Ed: Dareni Wellman/Bryonie W.


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Ann Jan 15, 2013 1:11pm

I would argue that any teacher stupid enough to program headstands and lotus pose for a room full of stoned students is stupid enough to get someone injured in a studio full of stone cold sober insurance actuaries, and in fact should not be teaching at all.

There are arguments to be made for not mixing pot and yoga, but this isn't one of them. It's a straw man.

Karen Dec 31, 2012 5:26pm

If you disagree with the nature of the pot yoga class, then don't attend it. It's that simple. The tone of this article sounds like the teacher is helping people shoot up in Shavasana or something.

Dee Dussault Dec 30, 2012 10:57pm

As a cannabis-enhanced yoga instructor, I feel called to comment. To blanketly assume that pairing cannabis with yoga practice is a recipe for serious injury is to have a misunderstanding of either the width of yoga practices (much more mystical and meditative than what we are often finding in studios), or to be misinformed of the spiritual possibilities of pot, or both.

Cannabis and yoga both have many faces, the consciousness-enhancing aspects of both are underemphasized in the media, but with a little searching it’s clear they have been combined since very ancient India. It’s a forgivable error that people think yoga is only vinyasa, Ashtanga, bikram, or other “yang”/body-oriented posturing, after-all, that’s mostly all we see in magazines and in studios for a variety of reasons that speak to observations of our greater culture. It’s a forgivable error that people think cannabis is only about getting messed up and goofy. Fortunately, science into medicinal marijuana is suggesting that cannabis (and non-psychoactive hemp) is a superfood for many conditions with many positive benefits, and for me, the condition of our times, the deeply pathological world we live in, the stress we consider normal, is reason enough for all marijuana to be “medicinal.”

In my classes we light up together, making the ganja a part of the practice, using it to evoke, energize, and enhance the experience. We treat it sacredly, ingesting it with conscious awareness, as a sacrament. I still do yoga “sober” sometimes, I have my own rhythms and preferences for the frequency and dose of the cannabis I use with my yoga practice, just as we yoga practitioners have differences in our practice location, or whether we like to practice with or without music, or on a mat or floor, or in various practice attire (I do mine naked as well as stoned by the way….). To say there’s only one “right” way to do yoga is absurd. If it serves you, it is the “right way.” And…. Also good to know that if there were to be one “right” way, cannabis-enhanced spiritual practice has existed in Shiva cult traditions in India that later became what we know as yoga, so what we get up to in my classes is probably a lot closer to “yoga” than many yogis are ready to admit.

Having said all that, in terms of safety, I strongly agree with Amelia: ganja-enhanced yoga is suited to physical postures that are on the restorative side. It’s too bad the original article had to show a more athletic, externalized depiction of yoga in the image. This leads us to a side-conversation about conventional representations of yoga in the west: wide lunges and twisting pretzels confer the quick stereotype, a progression and perpetuation of our body-oriented, image-oriented culture. I for one would love to see less “strong asana” in American yoga, in both our visual depictions of the vast and varied practice, and also in studio offerings, which are pretty “lite” on the spiritual side.

To me, yoga is much more prana yama that it is headstands, and no yoga is not about pushing, especially not cannabis-enhanced. What we do is joyfully incorporate pot, and in doing so, we release “yoga” from the muscular, controlled, overly-visually-oriented experience that we come to know as the practice, allowing for a much more surrendered, internal experience, the original and continued intention and purpose of the practice. When it’s all about the trippy inner experience, no yoga student will be “joyfully forcing” herself into lotus pose. In fact, my students are often less reserved because of the cannabis; they more, not less, able to listen to their bodies. I teach stuff that is groovy and interesting, not a workout that might cause injury. I wouldn’t teach a headstand to someone who was in an altered state of consciousness, but I also wouldn’t teach one to a student I don’t know very well. Headstands, like cannabis, are to be respected and entered into with mindfulness and preparedness, not to escape reality but to experience it with fewer of the fluxuations of the mind. Yoga begins now.

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