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How Marijuana Impacts Your Nervous System
In states where marijuana is legal, “stoned yoga,” or basically doing yoga high, has become a lucrative business. It’s trendy, people love it, but like all things that seem too good to be true, doing yoga while high may be masking true feelings of physical and emotional pain—delaying true spiritual work and personal growth.
The high that people experience with marijuana is from THC’s affect on the nervous system. While not everyone has the same response, weed generally increases feelings of calm by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Marijuana simultaneously boosts the reward hormone dopamine, making the experience even more fulfilling. People who get high say they feel less anxious, more relaxed, more self-awareness, and more meditative and spiritual. Some say they feel more coordinated and are less injury prone when practicing yoga while stoned.
While cannabis can prompt dopamine hits and reward chemistry, research also shows that with continued use, dopamine levels decrease and the enhanced feeling of fulfillment declines. This effect encourages you to chase the reward with higher doses and more frequent experiences with weed.
Ayurveda, Tamas, Rajas, Sattva, and Weed
According to Ayurveda, marijuana is a soma, or sacred, plant that can play a role in promoting a meditative state. Alcohol in small amounts has similar effects. But the potential benefits from both cannabis and alcohol are often outweighed by the risk of overuse, abuse, and a dulling of consciousness. Ayurveda describes cannabis as a tamasic, or inertia, drug, which suggests that is has ability to numb your senses.
Cannabis was initially sanctioned by Ayurveda for pain reduction (which was the primary reason it was legalized, too), and not for spirituality. Because it had a numbing and calming effect, it was also used to help seekers who were over-stimulated, over-thinkers, and had trouble settling down in meditation or yoga. It was not the plant to ultimately deliver higher states of consciousness because, as a tamasic drug, it blocked pain in the body and dulled the senses and the mind.
Excess tamas is a state of consciousness in which you’re withdrawn, stuck, introverted, and fearful. This can explain why, for some users, excess cannabis can cause anxiety, fear, and being overly self-conscious. In Ayurveda, tamasic behavior is most commonly caused by the overstimulation of rajas. Rajas, or aggression, is a state of consciousness that is fueled by stimulation, aggression, and action. In its imbalanced state, rajas can lead to excess sensory stimulation and addiction. Rajas also stimulates dopamine (think making money, shopping, movies, sex, food, and an endless number of stimulating activities that help you feel satisfied).
From the Ayurvedic and yogic perspectives, rajas and tamas are fleeting in nature and unable to bring lasting contentment and higher states of consciousness. Being in tamasic or rajasic states can often help motivate people to find more balance and lasting contentment, when they realize they are hard to please or too depressed to take action. A balanced and content state of consciousness is called sattva, or harmony.
Sattva is a state of natural self-awareness, rather than the illusion of self-awareness that you may experience while high. Sometimes you can find sattva with cannabis, which can help you turn down the noise of incessant mental chatter.
No doubt yoga, too, is better when the mind is quiet and the body is more relaxed from cannabis. But beware of the trap—the notion that cannabis itself is raising your consciousness. A true sattvic state, which is the spiritual goal of Ayurveda, is lasting contentment, and is not brought on temporarily by a high that dulls your senses and feelings of pain (physically and mentally).
Determine the amount of sattva, rajas and tamas you have in our in all areas of your life with our Emotional Body Type Quiz.
Ayurveda, Pain, and Cannabis
Using a drug like cannabis, which was initially legalized to block pain, as a tool to increase self-awareness is a contradiction. Cannabis blocks pain and the awareness of that pain. In Ayurveda, pain is tool for getting your attention, so that you can go to the pain, work through it, and then experience bliss. This process helps you develop higher states of consciousness. In Ayurveda, blocking pain curbs spiritual progress.
Sadly, we have a culture that avoids pain and discomfort at all costs. When we feel depressed, we take antidepressants. When we’re in pain, we take pain killers. And when we’re sad, we seek sugar, shopping, or some other means of rajasic sensory stimulation.
Ayurveda describes the process of emotional numbing as a pull from sattvic, loving, compassionate behavior to rajasic forms of sensory stimulation. When your senses become overstimulated and your nervous system is depleted, your mind cannot settle down and it naturally seeks a tamasic drug like cannabis. A tamasic experience can feel very peaceful, even spiritual, but it is really just a numbing experience. For a tamasic person to find their spiritual path, they have to find the courage to leave their tamasic cocoon and re-enter reality, even when it is painful.
Weed and Spirituality
The Vedic use of cannabis, in the context of spirituality, was, yes, to facilitate transcendence, but with the understanding that use of this drug could easily be abused and mask some of the deeper work that needed to happen.
The medical benefits of cannabis are well-studied. Dialing down mental stress and giving the nervous system a break to heal is one of the great gifts cannabis has given to the medical community. But like all medicines, weed should be used sparingly for specific reasons—with great respect and moderation. The downsides and addictive nature of chronic cannabis use are now becomes well understood.
When I was studying Ayurveda in India in the 1980s, I would go to many temples and ashrams. The most striking thing about these spiritual places was always their impeccable cleanliness. The floors were always swept, there were fresh flowers, and there was no trash to be seen—even the dirt around the temple was regularly swept and manicured. I visited two temples in India that were known for their cannabis practices. One was the Janaki temple in Varanasi and the other was an ashram and temple north of Haldwani in the Himalayan foothills. The Janaki temple was overgrown with weeds, dirty, upswept and the most unclean temple I have ever been to. The temple in Haldwani was better but still noticeably unkempt compared to the standard of most every other temple I had visited. This lack of cleanliness, organization, and attention to detail is a classic sign of tamas. A tamasic state of being is withdrawn. Tamasic states help you retreat from the world. What often follows is a lack of self-care, cleanliness, and organization.
So is stoned yoga bad? For some, it may provide initial benefit to those who need help turning off their minds, settling down, or handling the physical strain of a yoga class. But just remember, the traditional use of cannabis was primarily to help block pain, or, in a spiritual sense, it was used as a temporary tool to help train the mind to be able to silence itself. My suggestion is that if you must use cannabis, use it as a tool to become the master of your own nervous system. I recommend finding your spiritual path on your own, without the aid of cannabis, or any other drug that promises spiritual awakening.