The History of Cannabis Use & Yoga

The History of Cannabis Use & Yoga

The History of Cannabis Use and Yoga

Humans have been using mind-altering substances since the beginning of time. 

`Suffice to say, our fondness for using drugs as a tool for mind exploration and spirituality is nothing new. Much of psychedelia and drug culture is thought of as a recent pop culture phenomenon, but it’s not the flower power of the 70s that gave wind to this idea. In fact, using cannabis to enhance meditation traces back to father time himself. 

Old as Father Time 

The word “yoga” was first mentioned in one of the oldest sacred texts, the Vedas. Written between 1500 and 1200 BCE, the Vedas are a set of four ancient Sanskrit scriptures. The Rig Vedas, which is the earliest amongst the four, is a collection of over a thousand hymns and mantras to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests. According to the Vedas, yoga was believed to “lead to the union of one’s awareness with that of universal consciousness.” 

In other words, yoga is a tool for bringing stillness to the mind as a way to reach a state of pure awareness. Other texts written after the Vedas define yoga further as, “Being equal minded in both success and failure.”

Though there is no true consensus on yoga’s origins –other than its development in India– both commonly accepted theories on its chronology credit the Vedas for defining yoga as a practice. In the Rig Veda, there’s also the introduction of what we now recognize as Lord Shiva. (Note: The word Shiva is used as an adjective in Rig Veda as an epithet for several deities, including Rudra. As we know of him today, Shiva and Rudra are viewed as the same personality in Hindu scripture. Thus, the two names are used synonymously.)

Shiva is one of the most widely worshiped deities and takes on many forms in Hinduism. They are said to be the controller of time itself and have the responsibility of carrying out the process of destruction at the end of creation. Shiva is also known as Adiyogi Shiva, the patron god of yoga and meditation.  

And lastly, Shiva is known for having a penchant for pot. 

Match Made in the Heavens 

In India, there is a heavy association between Shiva, the god of yoga, and cannabis. The same texts that pass on legends of Shiva also mention the use of cannabis throughout. Yes, long before the War on Drugs shaped the minds of many generations in America, cannabis was seen as one of the five sacred plants. In the Vedas, cannabis is described as a “bringer of freedom” and “source of happiness.” It was also commonly used as a medicine for the Gods, with Shiva taking a particular liking to it.

One Hindu legend suggests that the onset of fever was the ‘hot breath of the gods’ who were angered by the afflicted person’s behavior. Using cannabis appeased the gods, hence reducing fever. Shiva, who as we mentioned is also the god of destruction, frequently used cannabis to calm himself and bring him back to a meditative state. 

Legend has it that his favoring of ganja started after an intense debate with his family where he left and slept beneath a cannabis plant. When he woke up, he was hungry and decided to eat some of the leaves. Shortly after, Shiva felt euphoric and refreshed from the whole ordeal. 

Because of these legends, cannabis has been used for thousands of years in the worship of Shiva. In fact, Maha Shivaratri, or “The Great Night of Shiva,” is one of the most popular celebrations in India. It marks the day Shiva saved the universe from darkness and married the goddess Parvati. Hundreds of holy men (and women) travel around Nepal and India to partake in these worship rituals. 

During the festival, cannabis is ingested orally in a form called bhang. This can either be wet cannabis leaves formed into a pill or a drink combined with milk and various spices. Typically, smoking cannabis is a practice reserved for holy men and women who have dedicated their lives to ascetic practice. 

The story and association between yoga and cannabis surpass Lord Shiva, though. Other ancient Yogi texts, like the Yoga Sutras, mention potions, possibly containing cannabis, that can help move one forward on the path toward enlightenment. Other cultures too, like the Ancient Chinese, referred to cannabis as, “the drug that takes away the mind.”

What We Know Now

Thanks to innovations in science, we can now prove that Shiva’s usage of cannabis and yoga is no coincidence. In 1992, our understanding of these ancient texts would forever be changed by the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Though the ECS was discovered through cannabis research, it’s active in our bodies whether we smoke weed or not. This system is what keeps our bodies at homeostasis. It’s responsible for our mood, memory, pain, inflammation, appetite, sleep, and more. When something isn’t working the way it should, our ECS kicks in and helps regulate the issue. 

Raphael Mechoulam, the scientist whose lab is credited with isolating the first endocannabinoid described the ECS as simply “being responsible for our healing.” 

When we ingest cannabis, the cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) attach to our bodies’ natural receptors. This is why we experience effects such as euphoria, the munchies, and “feeling high.” It’s also an explanation for why when our bodies are out of whack –maybe we are experiencing insomnia or pain– that smoking cannabis can help us get back to a state of normality. Similarly, research also proves that cannabis slows the perception of time – which makes it all the more interesting that ganja is associated with the Hindu deity of time itself. 

However, smoking cannabis isn’t the only thing that kicks our ECS into overdrive. Research shows that we can increase the production of endocannabinoid receptors through things like exercise, dancing, and singing. 

In a study at the University of Nottingham, researchers found that cycling increased their participant’s endocannabinoids by 19%, and singing increased them by twice as much. Though this was a small group study, it gives reasons for scientists to explore more about the possible yoga-ECS association. If movement and singing (or chanting) are responsible for elevating our ECS, then this could prove as scientific evidence for yoga’s various therapeutic benefits. 

Experts are still trying to understand the ECS fully, but so far, we know it seems to play a large role in healing our bodies. And our ancestors who proceeded us by thousands of years were able to access these healing benefits through vehicles like cannabis and yoga. Though there is still much more research that needs to be done, all we know is that if it’s good enough for the Gods – it’s good enough for us. 

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