The Neal Pollack pilgrimage: On ganja yoga, pot pretzels and understanding

Dussault confidently led us through a guided meditation, in complete control. This included a lovely color-coded tour through our body’s chakra system. These are classical yogic energy centers that correspond with various moods or states of being. She ended, as one does, with the sahasra, the crown chakra, having us imagine that a great beam of light was shooting from the tops of our heads. That wasn’t hard to do. I was so high. Or was I? The difference wasn’t exactly clear at that moment.

A chill breeze flowed through the almost-dirty room. My yoga mat smelled like eight different shades of ass. Outside, there was a lot of traffic noise. Inside, I could hear the Merchants Of Reality guys doing dishes. It didn’t matter. My body glowed with ecstasy. As I arched my back, I felt my thoughts and sensations becoming one with the infinite universe.

I’d been in San Francisco for two hours.


Surprisingly, or maybe not, Dussault’s Ganja Yoga stands alone in the United States. There’s a “4:20 Yoga” class in L.A.’s Atwater Village, but I took it a couple of times when I was living down there. It didn’t go nearly as far as Ganja Yoga. There was certainly no smoking on the premises. You’d come to class high and take your chances. Otherwise, if you’re looking for Ganja Yoga, your only other choice outside of the Bay Area is classes in Vancouver or Toronto.

There aren’t weed yoga classes in Seattle or Denver, the two largest cities where recreational weed sales are legal, at least none that I could find. I suspect that’s mostly because no one has pulled it together to start a class yet, but there are also other reasons. Mainstream American yoga culture, as it’s currently balanced, has a different conception of clean living.

An almost rigid asceticism holds sway in Yogaland, its practitioners drenched in stoic vegan purity. There are good reasons for this. My Boulder-based yoga teacher Richard Freeman, who knows more about yoga than all of this year’s 200-hour teacher-training graduates combined, says that though marijuana may allow you to experience ecstatic yoga states “temporarily within a limited field,” the overall effect is that the mind is less able to focus.

“When relationships, details of everyday life and one’s own yoga practice are dealt with under the influence of marijuana,” he writes on the website of his studio, The Yoga Workshop, “the result is often a lack of completion, an absence of external feedback and an inability to postpone pleasure. Yoga practitioners who smoke during, or after their practice on a regular basis tend to plateau in their practice and gradually lose their edge, their intellectual capacity and brilliance. They lose the ability to watch their minds on deep levels and wind up grasping for pleasurable states without having completed the work and understanding that would normally give rise to such states.”

Most North American yoga, including the style I trained in under Freeman, derives from inscrutable, ancient texts that preach rigorous physical and intellectual discipline. Indian teachers like Patthabi Jois and BKS Iyengar popularized it in recent decades, demanding hard, exacting work and physical and mental purification. By cleansing the mind and body through concentrating, meditating, ritually breathing, exercising, and following a rigid series of moral codes that makes the Ten Commandments look like a note from a permissive parent, the practitioner can achieve a higher mental state, and profound inner peace. In this worldview, marijuana is just a cheap shortcut, almost a cop-out.

But just like weed has sativa and indica and everything in between, there are many branches of the yoga family tree, which use different technologies to achieve the same result. Dussault comes from a variant tradition. She was trained in Toronto in the lineage of Swami Satyananda, the founder of the Divine Life Society, which is less well known in North America. This style falls into the category of tantric yoga, which holds that all sensations, pleasurable and painful but mostly pleasurable, are worth studying and serve as excellent delivery systems for the ecstatic mental liberation that yoga promises. The sensual and the practical combine. In an email to me, Dussault spelled it out:

“I think cannabis and yoga are so powerful when combined because both already lend themselves to becoming more embodied, sensually-aware, relaxed, and receptive to ‘non-ordinary states’ of consciousness (such as auto-hypnotic, meditative, and trance states). Sensually, both yoga and cannabis encourage the user to really go deep into things like how music feels in one’s body, or to notice the way the sunlight shines on the lake just so. They both can help us become more present to the world around and inside us, to temporarily, but increasingly, move beyond the linear, goal-oriented, conditioned experiences that tend to comprise much of daily life in our frenzied, busy, competitive era.”

This is the great promise of Ganja Yoga.

On Tuesday, the night after my first Ganja Yoga class, I walked off Haight Street into Golden Gate Park. It was only 6:15 p.m., but the park felt like midnight at the apocalypse. In the distance, large groups of meth punks and their grimy pit bulls gathered around burning pit fires, making low, sinister conversation. Sketchy looking guys walked around the park, holding dime bags, saying “meth, weed, meth, weed,” as though the two things were somehow equivalent.

Dussault has recently started offering Tuesday night classes at The Red Victorian, a bohemian-style hotel run by a culture-hacking collective. The facility is Ganja Yoga-friendly but not ganja-friendly; there’s no consumption on the premises. Dussault’s strategy has been to advertise a nearby 15-minute “nature walk” in Golden Gate Park before class starts. I was told to “meet by the pond,” a fetid little reed-depository near a sketchy-looking bridge. Dussault would have a red light. We’d gather around it and we’d all get high together.

I waited ten minutes. No one showed up. I stood by the dread swamp and got stoned by myself. Far be it for me to break protocol. Then I walked out of the park. Back on Haight Street, I saw Dussault, rushing toward the park, carrying a blinking bicycle light.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, “my little red light was in the other bag.”

So I followed her back into the park, where she frantically ran around looking for people. There had been ten pre-registrations online, and they’d all been told to meet by the pond. She talked to a homeless man sitting under a bridge. She talked to a jogger. She talked to a couple that obviously didn’t have yoga on the brain. None of them were Ganja Yoga students. Finally, we walked back to The Red Victorian, where a dozen people sat on their mats, patiently waiting for class to start.

“I guess they pre-medicated,” she said, and calmly started passing around waivers.

The crowd in the spacious events room at The Red Victorian reached at least 20 people, maybe more, some of whom may have been high, though the guy next to me said, “I’ve never smoked pot in my life, but I’m staying upstairs and there was yoga down here, so that’s a win.”

“Before we start, you guys,” Dussault said, “we’re going to have a brief word from our evening’s sponsor.”

A young woman who works for a medical-marijuana delivery service gave a very chill, matter-of-fact presentation. She was there to speak on behalf of a small company than makes cannabis-based muscle balm. “We’ve got some free samples for you if you want them,” she said.

As we began our practice, she came around to our mats, putting down a business card and a little round sample container of balm. First came the pretzels, and now this. Every Ganja Yoga class offered a fresh treat.

But on Tuesdays, the treats are even fresher, because they’re accompanied by Thai yoga massage. As Dussault guided her students through the poses, a massage professional drifted among the mats, looking for bodies that needed adjusting. I moved my hips back into child’s pose, stretching my arms in front of me in supine bliss. Suddenly, invisible hands were working my lower back and thigh bone, separating, opening, creating more space so the yoga vibrations could course through my shushumna nadi, the central energy channel that connects me to the divine.

It also felt really good when she gave me a neck rub.

But other than the massage, this was just straight-up restorative yoga, without a lot of frippery. Dussault dropped one “feel the cannabis working with your body,” and one “feel like you’re moving through maple syrup,” a Canadianism rarely heard in a U.S. yoga class. Other than that, she kept it very straightforward, and I found myself trusting her guidance. Ganja Yoga would just be a cheap gimmick without a good teacher, and Dussault is a very good teacher.

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