This is your yoga practice on drugs

If you’ve been paying attention to yoga “news,” you’ve probably seen some story about people practicing while smoking pot.

Via the Justice Department, “loose marijuana”

Like stories about naked yoga, the ones I’ve seen have been pretty high on the funny references and puns (something I’d never do, of course), but I’m not sure I’d cite any of them as a serious look at whether pot can aid a yoga practice.

Perhaps the most serious look at it came from Richard Freeman. A while back one of his “ask the experts” focused on it:

What impact does smoking marijuana have on prana and ashtangavinyasa yoga in general? — Matt

Smoking may allow you to focus the prana temporarily within a limited field, but the overall effect is that the mind is less able to focus because the drug short circuits the more holistic approach that a full eight-limbed practice cultivates. Both the pranic and mental backgrounds of any focused state of mind have to be cultivated meditatively throughout the day by dealing with relationships, emotions, and the practical things of every day life.

Now, the New York Times has picked up this tantalizing topic (continuing the paper’s fascination with yoga and adding a twist). I’d give it a little credit for suggesting some more substantive reasons for combining yoga and pot than other pieces. Among the people quoted is Leslie Kaminoff, who has commented here a few times:

Human beings have been cultivating the herb for thousands of years. “At least some of the ancient sages were probably stoned out of their minds,” said Leslie Kaminoff, a Manhattan yoga teacher and author of “Yoga Anatomy.” Though he said he does not use or teach with any kind of enhancement, Mr. Kaminoff noted that “drugs can be a tool, and every tool has a positive and a negative aspect to it.”

Yet, with the exception of fringe groups composed of people like Ms. McDonald, most yoga teachers will tell you that drugs have no place in the practice. “One of the things yoga teaches, even in something as simple as holding an uncomfortable pose, is how to tolerate reality,” said Nancy Romano, a private instructor in Los Angeles. “So any substance that fiddles with our ability to be with what’s really happening would not be helpful in a yoga practice.”

As a child, Ms. McDonald, 34, had what was considered severe scoliosis; now, thanks to her yoga practice, she is able to twist herself like a pretzel and stand on one leg — the “bird of paradise” pose.

She is well aware that many in the official yoga industry would disapprove of her 420 class and doesn’t care. “I find it to be a valuable tool in teaching,” she said. “Disbelief is my biggest obstacle. People don’t believe that they can feel their heart beat or that they can send breath into their lower appendages. A little pot relaxes them into comprehending. And if you want to just lie down in my class, that’s O.K., too.”

William Sands, dean of the College of Maharishi Vedic Science at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, represents the stringent opposition. He has just finished writing a book on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who mentored the Beatles and introduced the West to transcendental meditation. Dr. Sands said that “marijuana inhibits the ability to experience yoga — the inner self — and is therefore incompatible with the practice of transcendental meditation.” To Dr. Sands, yoga is the full package: a physical and mental discipline.

Others make a distinction between the kind of discipline required for yoga and for meditation.

Ms. McDonald said she understands why certain yogis disapprove of pairing the practice with pot. “Some devotees have literally dedicated their lives to yoga,” she said, “and as a result they tend to see it as an ideal, beyond human flaws, capable of our salvation. I think that perfection is found by authentically being in the present moment, rather than as an outcome of enlightenment. So I’m not afraid to admit I’m not perfect and come out of the closet on these issues.”

Here’s the part that I find the most interesting, which may just mean the part that I’m most skeptical about — of course, I’d say I’m pretty solidly skeptical about all our attempts to understand the “roots” of yoga. To me, it always sounds like people put onto yoga what they want to find there. For instance:

Dee Dussault of San Francisco is another rare instructor who advertises what she teaches, in her case Ganja Yoga. Ms. Dussault traces the division between what she calls tantric yoga and straight yoga to the Buddha, who advocated purity.

“Tantric yoga says you use whatever tools are available to get to a place of transcendence,” she said, adding the caveat that marijuana must be used “mindfully.”

Yoga and herb intake have been linked since ancient times. The yoga sutras, written in Sanskrit before the time of Christ, are considered the practice’s foundational text. The sutras list herbs as one of five methods to lift the veil of ignorance, or the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious. Dr. Sands, though, expressed skepticism, saying that the “herbs” in question could be as uncontroversial as cardamom. “People who interpret the sutras’ use of ‘herbs’ as marijuana,” he said, “are looking for a rationale.”

But Mark Haskell Smith, the novelist and author of the nonfiction “Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup ,” is pretty sure that the sutras do not refer to cardamom. A yoga practitioner for 20 years, Mr. Smith said he occasionally uses pot when he practices. When he does, he said, he finds that “I go more deeply into the asanas,” or poses.

“Part of the point of yoga is to relax the body,” he said. “And marijuana helps a lot of people to do that.”

The Times story is pegged to yoga in Colorado and Washington, where voters just approved looser marijuana laws. It suggests we could be seeing more “ganga yoga” classes in those states as a result.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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