The cannabis plant has been highly enamored by the Hindu population since ancient times, cultivated by coastal farmers in China. In fact, cannabis is even mentioned in their sacred text, called the Atharva Veda, as one of the five sacred plants to offer relief from anxiety.
Dating back to 1000 BC (some would suggest even earlier), Hindus looked at cannabis as a source of joyfulness, a way to reduce their anxiety and fear. They were known to use every part of the plant for some sort of medical application, whether it was physical or spiritual.
Around 1000 BC, practitioners of Hinduism consumed their marijuana in three primary ways, either as charas, which is a psychoactive resin similar to hashish, in an edible form historically known as bhang, or as good-old ganja.
In Excerpts from the Indian Hemp Commission Report, the Hindu God Shiva is said to have claimed cannabis as his favorite choice of food, and that drinking bhang early in the morning would cleanse the user of all their sins.
But many of the benefits that drinking bhang or smoking hashish from a chillum—both of which are highly revered in Hinduism for their mediation-inducing features—are found in the ancient practice of yoga.
Historians are unable to pinpoint exactly when the practice of yoga, a spiritual and physical practice that stems directly out of Hinduism, but the word Yogachara was undoubtedly used to describe a spiritual and meditative practice by the 3rd century BC. Different schools of yoga began to arise during the medieval era, starting with Bhakti yoga, which was focused on living through love and devotion of their God.
Once Tantra yoga arose in the 5th century, the practice became much more focused on self-worship, reaching the higher deity through your own being. Through Tantra came Hatha yoga, which appeared in the 8th century, and is the form that is commonly practiced in the Western world today. Hatha is a form a “psychophysical yoga,” a combination of bodily postures, breathing, and meditation. Though cannabis use and yoga practice are seldom paired together within ancient religious Hindu texts, the intertwining of the two relaxation practices are starting to become a reoccurring theme in the United States.
Out in San Francisco, yoga instructor Dee Dussault has founded Ganja Yoga, a class where groups of men and women gather in a hybrid art gallery-cannabis collective studio to toke up and practice hatha yoga.
In Southern California, Liz McDonald has been teaching her “420 Yoga” class on Saturday afternoons (which starts on the dot at 4:20 PM). The two instructors are pioneering the rising trend, which has taken flight in conjunction with the increasingly lax marijuana laws in California and in other states in the United States. Once the stigma behind cannabis began to wane away, the use of it had suddenly became a prominent tool for yoga teachers to help induce relaxation and focus into their students.
“I find it to be a valuable tool in teaching,” McDonald said to the New York Times back in 2012. “Disbelief is my biggest obstacle. People don’t believe that they can feel their heartbeat or that they can send breath into their lower appendages. A little pot relaxes them into comprehending.”
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Under the pressure of the U.S.-led United Nations back in 1961, India was pressured into making ”the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant" illegal, although leaves and seeds have been vaguely left in legal territory. There’s a hint of irony in the rising use of cannabis in the practice of Hindu-based yoga, seeing as the United States led the UN collation to ‘convince’ India to make cannabis illegal. But still, classes such as Ganja Yoga and 420 Yoga may provide some insight into whether or not cannabis could have been regarded as a valuable tool for yoga during ancient Hindu times.
Although the law still stands in its more recent 1985 format, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the government has been known to be reasonable about the consumption of bhang. The historic edible preparation is known to be sold out of government-licensed street stands in certain parts of India, consumed at religious festivals and weddings, and also used as a prasad, which is a material substance ingested after the worshipping of Shiva, the Great Spirit.