Ganja Yoga

Just when you thought America’s $6 billion yoga industry couldn’t get any wackier, a new yoga “hybrid” ? “Ganja Yoga” – is sweeping down from Canada into the hills and valleys of northern California, establishing firm roots in the state’s politically charged – but highly fertile – pot culture.

Its supporters say it’s a joyous celebration of the Almighty Weed that powerfully enhances yoga’s curative and meditative powers.   But critics say its sullying yoga’s already-tarnished good name, and potentially exposing practitioners to real harm.

Its appearance couldn’t come at a better time for California’s pot legalization movement, though.  The movement suffered a huge blow when Proposition 19 lost badly at the polls last November.  And more and more studies are showing that Americans, especially teens, are abusing ever more powerful strains of marijuana at higher rates, and getting chronically addicted to boot.

While many Californians have embraced the “medical” marijuana movement that allows cancer patients and other chronic pain sufferers access to pot legally, they’re not quite ready to see pot unleashed on the general public with impunity.

But now supporters of legalization can cite the spiritual blessing of the one of the world’s oldest meditative practices as further evidence of weed’s therapeutic benefits, further boosting their cause.

Supporters of Ganja Yoga say there’s nothing wrong with “getting high” to do yoga.  They cite ancient Indian yoga cults, as well as counter-culture celebrities like Timothy Leary and the Beatles, who blended the two practices.

And Ganja Yoga studio owners say they’ve established internal guidelines to keep things from getting out of hand.   The first rule? “Don’t just come to class to smoke dope.”  The second?  “Bring your own dope.”  The studios don’t want to get themselves into additional legal trouble by actually doling out joints, or providing bongs and pipes to their students.

The third rule?  “No dealing.”  That’s also, in part, a legal question.  Selling dope and using small amounts are two very different things under California law.  Police who find more than an ounce on studio premises ? even if it belonged to one of the students – could bring criminal charges against the owners, too.

But the final rule appears to be almost spiritual in nature:  “No mooching.”  That means don’t come to the studio looking to get high off of someone else’s dope.  Bring your own dope, or be content not to smoke at all.

And if someone else freely offers you access to his or her weed? Well, apparently that’s not mooching.  It’s simply sharing, and a form of what yogis like to call “seva,” or “self-less service.”

Seva’s also the philosophy of the ganja yoga studio, which traditionally provides class participants with tea and assorted “munchies” after class.  Some studios also feature live musicians to further enhance the atmosphere.

No one knows how many Ganja Yoga classes currently exist – at least publicly.  But in addition to California, Ganja Yoga studios are popping up in Colorado and other states where pot use is decriminalized.  Dan Skye, senior editor at New York-based High Times magazine, which supports legalization, told the Toronto Global and Mail last September that he applauds the Ganja Yoga trend.  “Pot is changing medicine; it’s changing recreational habits,” he says.

But the idea that yoga practitioners need to get high to enjoy the benefits of yoga strikes many long-time yoga practitioners as absurd, of course.  Yoga is one of the most natural “highs” around, they say. Why try to “enhance” it with drug use that invariably constricts blood flow and breathing ? the very opposite of what yoga’s intended to do?

Some aspiring yogis in the field of substance abuse prevention and treatment are also appalled.  They extol yoga as a way of instilling the spiritual and physical discipline that many drug users desperately need to stay abstinent.  Celebrating ganja yoga sends the wrong message, they say.

And there’s also concern that adding dope to the yoga mix could increase the possiblity of injury, already a chronic problem, according to data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Getting high, far from sensitizing you to your body’s movements, can weaken your concentration, and undermine the “mindfulness” needed to hold difficult poses safely.

In fact, Ganja Yoga’s just the latest in a series of rapidly-morphing yoga “variants” that reflect the industry’s never-ending quest for new niche markets outside the older baby boomer and younger Generation-Y segments that have largely sustained it to date.

Another variant on the rise is “Naked” or “Nude” Yoga, a calculated attempt to adapt the yoga studio experience to urban gay men.   Part of its perverse charm is its ability to skirt the lines of legality by offering a safe and nominally “spiritual” public environment for exhibitionism, voyeurism, full nudity, and sexual intrigue – if not outright sex.

Apparently, no one’s actually practicing “Downward-Facing Doggie” in the studios – not yet at least.   But the hint of readily available sexual encounters – more than the need for isolated gay men to find new ways to “connect,” as one of its founders, Aaron Star, innocently insists – is what’s driving the new trend.  And in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, where the trend started, it’s showing real signs of taking off.

Star has even produced a series of soft-core pornographic videos called “Hot NudeYoga Virgin,” which leave almost nothing to the imagination.

And there’s also been a slow but steady rise in nude yoga advertising, most recently in the pages of the industry trade magazine, Yoga Journal.  Kathryn Budig, a high-profile celebrity yoga teacher based in Los Angeles, has twice posed fully nude for the clothing manufacturer Toe Sox, which produces yoga booties and other yoga “leisure wear.”

Another yoga manufacturer, Lululemon, has published a highly provocative ad in which a woman performing the pose known as “Camel” models the company’s close fitting knit pants that promise not to reveal the outlines of female genitalia while worn.  The title of the ads?  “Just Say No to Camel-Toe.”

And that’s not all:  a growing number of yoga industry events and conferences are starting to feature models who are topless, though in these cases, there’s no graphic nudity ? the exposed parts of their bodies don’t face the camera.

The rise in nude advertising for yoga has already touched off a debate about whether the yoga industry’s drive for commercial acceptance – and profits – is taking an ancient Hindu-inspired meditative practice far from its spiritual roots.    In the September issue of Yoga Journal, the magazine’s co-founder, Judith Lasater, published an open letter in which she publicly criticized the nude yoga trend.

But the fact is, yoga, as an industry, has brought many of these dubious marketing trends on itself.   The yoga mullahs who dominate the industry have fiercely lobbied against any efforts by public authorities to regulate their teaching practices or how their studios operate.

Of the estimated 70,000 yoga teachers currently operating in the United States, barely a quarter have even the minimum 200-hour training certification, and even that can be obtained in as little as six weeks.   And one can set up a tax-exempt yoga studio even faster than one can establish a storefront church.

Resisting the interference of fiscally predatory state authorities who couldn’t tell one yoga pose from another is one thing.  But yoga trade associations have taken no steps toward serious self-regulation either.   Yoga in the UK treats the teaching credential more like a form of “licensure,” with a minimum of 500-hours of training required, and an established curriculum that can take at least three years to complete.

It’s not perfect, but it does help screen out charlatans and wannabes ? to say nothing of the crass exploiters.  Where, for example, was the public outrage among American yogis when teachers of Dahn Yoga, a self-styled South Korean cult that practices a form of meditation not even recognized as “yoga,” was repeatedly accused of brainwashing its members, subjecting them to physical abuse, and bilking them and their families out of their personal fortunes?

It took CNN to finally air the story in January 2010 after years of quiet complaints from consumers that went nowhere in the yoga industry.

In fact, for all its hip veneer, yoga’s already become one of the most unabashed examples of free-market fundamentalism operating in the US today.   Yoga CEOs, men like John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga, a feel-good offshoot of  Iyengar Yoga,  who was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine, know they are on to a good thing.   They don’t want to see the industry flat line, as it did in the late 1990s, the last time yoga burst onto the scene.

In this setting, the basic attitude seems to be “the more yoga, the better.”  Why disagree with someone else’s yoga if it’s helping to spread the yoga message ? and enlarge the consumer market for all?

Just fire up a spliff ? and relax.  Nude, if you like.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at



Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at