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Cannabis, yoga and colonial legacy – shifting the inward facing gaze

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On the eve of the legalization of cannabis in Canada, the marriage of the soon-to-be and well-established billion dollar industries of yoga and marijuana is sparking a wide range of debate. Both industries walk the fine line between spirituality, consumerism, medicine and morality, couched in critical dialogues surrounding cultural appropriation and colonization.

As the ancient bond between cannabis and Eastern spirituality makes its way into mainstream culture, what vital issues are being illuminated, and what is in danger of being obscured by smoke and mirrors as it enters the above-board capitalist market?  

The East

Cannabis and Eastern spiritual traditions have a vast historic alliance. As far back as 3,000 BCE, Naga Sadhus used charas,(cannabis) and bhang(a cannabis drink), in religious ritual to worship Shiva and cleanse their souls; renouncing the sacred plant at a certain level of spiritual advancement. Cannabis is believed to be referred to in the sacred Vedic texts by the word soma, while some interpret the last of the 5 pathways to enlightenment in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ‘the use of certain herbs’, as a reference to the holy cannabis plant.

Ayurvedic Medicine takes a compellingly nuanced approach to principles of marijuana use. Ganja can be a ‘nectar’ to the soul by creating a rajasicstate of passion and presence, but can turn intotamasic‘poison’, masking emotion, and leading to dissociation and dependency.

Overall, it seems that the wisdom of both the yogic and ayurvedic traditions dissuade students from using the Bhaṅgā plant in favor of spiritual growth through disciplined practice and sobriety.   

The West          

Meanwhile in North American, marijuana and yoga have been bonded since the countercultural revolution of the 6os. Today, the ancient blend has reached mainstream society. New ganja yoga classes and festivals are budding annually, filled with students eager to get high before getting down on the mat, hoping that the psychoactive effects of THC will take them to transcendental heights.

Science has given us the ability to extract the Cannabidiol (CBD) compound from the plant, which has proven to reduce anxiety and inflammation, allowing for deeper focus, relaxation peace and mobility in practice without the opaque TCH ‘high’ that for many yogists contradicts the pursuit of mental clarity. The world is far louder and fast-paced place than pre-industrial times, and for many practitioners, merging numerous wellness modalities can bolster the effectiveness of yoga in combating the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual hazards of modern life. 

Colonial Oppression and Cultural Appropriation

But the debate over whether it’s right or wrong to combine cannabis and yoga and how best to achieve personal growth and wellness, based on ancient history or science, can easily become a red herring to the urgent issues surrounding this burgeoning mega-industry.

The dark truth overshadowing both cannabis and yoga is that indigenous peoples and their uses of both sacred system and plant were not so long ago vilified by colonial ideology. Racist anti-drug propaganda first fueled animosity towards Mexican immigrants in the US during the great depression in view of their cultural affiliation with marijuana, while 19th and 20th Century colonial missionaries hell-bent on religious conversion reviled yogis and sadhus. 

Introducing the ‘devil’s lettuce’ into capitalist markets and yoga studios without the socio-historical context of its past use for colonial oppression is the appropriation of an indigenous tool. In order for cannabis to not be appropriated and erase the violence that has been inflicted upon POC as a result of marijuana laws, the more crucial debate should be how we use this new legal landscape as a decolonizing tool for our culture, and as an invitation for us to address the ways POC people have been oppressed as a result of marijuana laws.

Returning to Core Foundations

When it comes to healing paradigms, turning cannabis into a legal healing tool destabilizes the ideologies that the psycho-pharmaceutical industry has inflicted upon our healthcare system, and can be seen as a decolonizing act by having a traditional resource now become a legitimate marketable product and biomedical tool.

These are the issues that need dialogue and action within the yoga communities of North America, above moral discourse about the ethics of spirituality and sobriety and self-interested healing and enlightenment. Perhaps the only true danger of the union of yoga and cannabis is, if only examined from a myopic perspective of self-care and capitalist interests, the ‘inwards facing gaze’ of the yoga student may turn even deeper in on itself, rather, than look outward to the social justice issues that this new-mega industry raises and reflects.

It is our moral obligation to focus on who is paying and who is profiting from this spiritual merger. If we are more concerned with whether our vape pen matches our yoga mat, then we have lost our true commitment to the core foundations of yoga: truthfulness, (satya), non-stealing (asteya) and nonviolence (ahimsa).

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Mara Munro

Mara is a writer, editor and yoga teacher working in the social good, cannabis, and wellness spheres. Her work focuses on women in business and politics, health & wellness, cannabis culture, indigenous and environmental rights, and the ancient healing arts. Mara earned her degree in English and Anthropology from McGill University, and is the Founder of Spiritual Archaeology: yoga and shamanic rituals for personal, communal and environmental healing.

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