Drugs

4 Ways Yoga's History Is Fundamentally Linked with Cannabis

Pairing of the two age-old healing methodologies is on the rise, but it's not a new trend.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / CRSHELARE: A unidentified sadhu is smoking ganja (marihuana) with chillum at the Ghat of Ganges on 10 March 2013 in Varanasi, India.

It’s no secret that yoga and cannabis often work in tandem. In Colorado, Washington and Oregon, the states where cannabis is legal (along with some medical marijuana states like California), yoga studios are ramping up ganja-friendly classes. Colorado yoga teacher and cannabis advocate Rachael Carlevale recently opened a yoga business called Ganjasana that uses yoga to tap into what she says are innate connections humans share with the cannabis plant. (Carlevale is a founding member of the feminist cannabis and psychedelics education and advocacy network Cosmic Sister, started by activist Zoe Helene.) In Portland, Oregon and surrounding areas there are yoga-cannabis wellness meetup groups, and a number of studios offer pot-friendly classes as detailed in Willamette Weekly. Seattle, Washington's yoga and sound bath, which pairs yoga, cannabis and musical vibrations, is a local favorite according to the Stranger, and there are plenty more examples.

While the pairing of the two age-old healing methodologies is on the rise, it’s by no means a new trend. Yoga and cannabis are intertwined in antiquity. In India, the birthplace of yoga, the sacred status of the cannabis plant, or ganja/hashish was revered and celebrated as an integral part of culture for millennia. Then In 1961, despite significant opposition from India, the U.S. pressured India and other nations to sign an international narcotics treaty banning cannabis as a dangerous drug at the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in New York. This was part of the disastrous, decades-long U.S.-led global war on drugs, which demonized cannabis beginning in the 1950s.

At long last, just this decade, the herb’s status as a medicine is beginning to reemerge. With its gradual re-legalization in the U.S. and elsewhere, the public is relearning about its potential to help children with epilepsy, shrink cancerous tumors, alleviate chronic pain (more safely and successfully than opiates), and provide feelings of relaxation and bliss in a much safer way than alcohol.

Even as cannabis was legally banned for public use in India, a number of yogic sects continue to use the herb.

Photo: An unidentified sadhu smokes a chillum during the mass Hindu pilgrimage Kumbh Mela in Nashik, India. Via Shutterstock.com/

As yoga and cannabis have each established themselves in Amerian culture as well, the original links between the two are seldom acknowledged, especially in the yoga scene. Many of the taboos surrounding marijuana hold strong among big-name yogis, despite a vocal and growing group of yoga teachers and others actively working to reestablish their links.

Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), said in an interview earlier this year that he sees the ties between medicinal plants like cannabis and psychedelics coming full circle to reunite with meditation, Buddhism and yoga. 

"There is this cultural coming together of cannabis and psychedelics with Buddhism, meditation, yoga, which is tremendously encouraging," Doblin said, noting that in the '60s and early '70s many people experimentally combined psychedelics or weed with meditative practices. With criminalization, many turned to non-drug alternatives and there was a bit of backlash. "There came this anti-drug aspect to Buddhism and meditation... And now, what we see is this coming together again of Buddhism, meditation and psychedelics [and cannabis] in kind of a parallel process." 

Typically, well-known yoga teachers in the West tend to either avoid the topic of pot or rail against its use. Their reasoning usually calls on an important tenet of yogic philosophy: the necessity of a “pure body.” In general, Western yogis who avoid cannabis do so because they see it as an intoxicant in line with alcohol and harder drugs that alter reality or provide false enlightenment. But that doesn't mean they don't use cannabis. I've spoken with more than one well-known yogi off the record who prefers to keep their weed use in the closet for fear of being judged as impure and scaring off students.

But the fact that cannabis use is still a no-no among many serious yogis is frankly hypocritical. When you look at the early roots of yoga, it becomes evident that the plant is not only celebrated in yogic history, it may have influenced yoga's earliest creation.

Here are five ways the early history of yoga is fundamentally entwined with the cannabis plant.

1. Lord Shiva has a beloved relationship with cannabis.

A version of a Hindu legend I learned in a pot-friendly yoga class in Portland, Oregon, says that one day, long ago, before time as we know it, Lord Shiva, god of yoga (and the auspicious creator/destroyer, divine masculine husband to divine feminine Shakti, and part of the triad of supreme deities in Hinduism) became the god of cannabis. He was scorched in the heat of the sunlight when, by a stroke of luck, he happened upon a cannabis plant. Cannabis plants grew only in places where the cosmic ocean of the devas, or gods, had dripped Amrita, the elixir of life. Wherever the divine nectar Amrita touched down, a cannabis plant sprouted. Shiva consumed the plant’s leaves and was rejuvenated. So, cannabis became a favorite part of his diet, and he became known as the Lord of Bhang—which is a traditional edible preparation of the herb in India. 

There are countless other stories about Shiva using bhang, burning ganja as incense or smoking it from a slender, cone-shaped "chillum" pipe to find peace, respite or inspiration. In Hindu culture Shiva is generally recognized as a lover of the plant. Often, if you look closely at depictions of the god, you'll notice he’s holding a bundle of herbs or a pipe. Some images show him immersed in swirling plumes, or even inhaling (below).

Photo: Nagwalgarh, India—Lord Shiva and his wife are portrayed smoking a chillum on a fresco. Via Shutterstock.com / .

Chris Kilham, an author, ethnobotanist and Fox News' "Medicine Hunter" (he is also husband to Zoe Helene of Cosmic Sister) says traditionally cannabis and yoga have never been separate. As the founder of Medicine Hunter, Inc. Kilham has traveled the globe exploring various uses of plant medicines for healing and ceremonial purposes. 

“Throughout the entire Indian hemisphere, I’ve gone to at least many dozens of Shiva temples and there’s always cannabis there; there’s always hashish there,” Kilham said. “People will often smoke and then listen to or participate in kirtan—singing of holy songs.

He continued, "In the case of yoga, and this is consistent [in myth], at one point the gods were having some sort of family squabble and Shiva just didn’t want any more of that, so he went outside and lay under a big, monster cannabis plant and ate some of the leaves. He got loaded, and went, ‘Oh my god, this would be ideal to give to mortals so that they could have some experience of me and worship me.’"

So, Kilham confirms, the foundation of cannabis' relationship to yoga goes back to Shiva.

2. Early Tantric cults revered cannabis.

Tantra is an ancient ritualistic Indian tradition whose early cults influenced the evolution of yoga; in particular, the physical postures, or hatha yoga. Early Tantric practitioners revered cannabis as a link to the divine, according to an article in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs by cannabis historian Michael R. Aldrich.

"Tantric cannabis use in India arose in about the 7th century A.D. in an explosive mingling of the doctrines and practices of Shaivite Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism," Aldrich wrote.

He explains that there are three strands of Indian tradition interwoven in the Tantras. The first is, "the magical or ceremonial use of marijuana... As in so many other shamanistic traditions of ancient Asia, the earliest use of cannabis in India was both medical and religious."

Aldrich writes that the role of cannabis in Tantric ceremony, "is thus to enable the worshippers to feel the divinity within and without themselves."

3. The Vedas record ancient yogis using cannabis.

To this day, some of the most dedicated Indian yogis—the ones who eschew society to live in caves and meditate all day—use ganja. In particular, the sadhus, Hindu holy men and mystic yogis, are known for their use of the cannabis plant for spiritual purposes, especially on holidays. To these yogis, cannabis is a tool to aid in reaching nirvana, or liberation from the perceived existential limits.

Lexa Gillespie, a yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon, recalled a powerful encounter during a visit to India with a sadhu in a boat on the Ganges River.

She hadn't previously realized the traditional connection between ganja and yoga, but noticed the holy man was carefully preparing herbs to smoke. His body was covered in cremation ash as part of a holy ceremony, and he was reciting a mantra to himself. Gillespie asked a translator to ask the sadhu what he was doing. 

Photo: Portland yoga teacher Lexa Gillespie encountered a sadhu on a boat in the Ganges river. 

"He relayed the message and as soon as the words flowed into the sadhu's ears, a huge smile suspended across his face," Gillespie recalled. "He said in a heavy accent, 'ganja.' And despite the fact we were in the 'Ganga' River, I knew this was not what he was trying to say. He repeated himself, then continued, to say: 'Ganja is moksha.' My heart smiled."

Gillespie continued, "...Here is this holy man that has renounced his life for a total spiritual pursuit, using cannabis to achieve moksha, the Sanskrit term for liberation."

According to the earliest texts of spiritual guidance recorded in Sanskrit, theVedas, sadhus have been pairing charas—a name for a particular handmade form of cannabis hashish—with their yoga practice since 2,000–1,400 BCE. The text also records sadhus as drinking bhang, Lord Shiva’s “Nectar of the Gods," for medical and spiritual purposes. TheVedas are among the oldest known body of texts in existence and are the foundational source behind the development of yogic philosophy as well as Hinduism.

4. The Sutras may mention cannabis.

The Yoga Sutras, compiled around 400 CE by the sage Patanjali, outline the basic principles of yoga in 196 sutras, or threads, and is widely considered the authoritative yoga text. Arguably, Yoga Sutras 4.1 mentions cannabis

“The subtler attainments come with birth or are attained through herbs, mantra, austerities or concentration...”

Some argue that by “herbs,” the Sutra did not mean to include cannabis.

Yoga teacher Ganga White, founder of the White Lotus Foundation, (Yoga Journal has called one of the “architects of American yoga,") does consider the Sutras to include cannabis with the mention of herbs. In a recent email, White stated, “Cannabis has a long tradition and advocacy in India and Nepal with the sacred ‘temple hash’ used by yogis. We seem to have a symbiotic relationship with these alkaloids and our bodies are loaded with cannabinoid receptors."

White continued:

"Cannabinoids are one of the most promising and cutting edges in medical research. I don’t say all this to advise or recommend, just to help those with negative or fearful attitudes, those who don’t light up, to lighten up a bit. There have always been advocates and opponents to the bud...

"Yoga enthusiasts that need some sort of textual reference and approval have none less than the Patanjali Sutra, book 4, verse 1 which says that awakening can come various ways—occurring naturally or congenitally, from meditation, from suffering, from the inner flame, or from herbs and elixirs. So whether it is an ally, a medicine, or a poison for any individual is relative to that individual. Certainty is what we want, but relativity is what we have!”

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. She currently works part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide. 

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