Weed Yoga

On a chilly Tuesday night in downtown Oakland, with a backpack full of spare clothes hanging off my shoulder, I left the 19th Street BART station in search of my friend Ed. He was the one who had let me know about the evening’s event: a weed yoga class. Ed is a cannabis industry veteran and a trusted source of what’s new and exciting when it comes to all-things-weed, but this was an event he needed a wingman for because neither of us knew what to expect.

I’d heard about stoner-themed events like this, but I’d never thought of participating in the past. We had hoped for a fun, relaxing evening - just a yoga class that happened to incorporate smoking weed - but we both worried that the whole event would be incredibly cheesy. On our walk to the venue we talked about our expectations for the evening, and I imagined people comically hitting pipes during each pose’s inhalation and releasing exaggerated clouds of smoke on each exhalation. We had no way of knowing what it would actually be like, but I had hopes that the event would be a bit more substantial than all that.

Not far from Oaksterdam University, the first cannabis “college” in the United States, we found the address we’d been looking for. Ed and I entered through a deceptively nondescript front door in one of the older buildings on the block, signed our waivers, and rode a sleek elevator to the top floor of this thoroughly-renovated facility.

I live in Los Angeles, but I immediately identified the Oakland building as part of a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood. In the lofts of downtown LA, and evidently in downtown Oakland, the general aesthetic of this type of property involves exposed brick walls juxtaposed against reclaimed wood and stainless steel. The result is a faux impression of “grittiness” and raw, undeveloped materials coupled with sleek appliances to remind the occupants that a lot of money had in fact gone into these renovations - a necessary reminder to justify the high cost of rent associated with these types of properties.

When we got off the elevator on the top floor, we saw that an open-air office had been transformed into our “yoga studio” for the evening. The lights were dimmed and candles placed around the room. Yoga mats were rolled out, plastic blocks laid out for balance and stability, and an assortment of sponsored cannabis products were displayed on a small coffee table in one corner of the room.

“There are some prerolls on the table, and some vape cartridges as well,” our host announced. “Oh, and some infused tea bags next to the ceramic mugs - they’re labeled indica or sativa. You can vape inside but smoking is only allowed on the porch.”

My friend and I grabbed an indica preroll and stepped out onto the porch. From our perch there above the busy Bay Area street we could see the neon lights and rooftops of downtown spread out in every direction. The view from the porch was impressive, but the office-space-cum-loft environment and the sort of hokey ways people were discussing weed inside made the actual practice of yoga feel secondary.

I took up yoga nearly two years ago when I had to give up running after a bad knee injury, so even though I knew weed would be a component of the class, I still came in excited for an engaging yoga practice. (I know, I know - weed and yoga, I’m hitting all the California stereotypes.) The experience that ensued once class began, however, seemed sort of - well, more bougie than I had anticipated.

Our instructor gave good yoga cues, but the cartoonishness of the event overshadowed a lot of the actual yoga practice. Some attendees disregarded everything the instructor said. Instead, they seemed content to just lie on the floor and roll side-to-side with a vape pen in-hand, getting super lit while everyone around them did yoga.

“Breathe out as you arch your back like a cat, then inhale as you move into cow pose” our instructor said. We coordinated each breath with a specific movement. Just as Ed and I had predicted, the room hissed with the sound of vape pen inhalations on each breath in, leaving small puffs lingering in the air after each exhalation. I wanted to make a joke about how yoga poses usually force farts out of everyone’s bodies instead of vape clouds, but I decided that this wasn’t a fart joke kind of crowd.

There was an odd sense of seriousness about the class. Some participants seemed to take it a little too piously, and even those who seemed indifferent to the yoga component were very serious about the weed aspects. It quickly became clear that getting very high was the focus, rather than just being a relaxing element added to elevate a yoga class. That wasn’t the fault of the instructor or the organizer, it was just the vibe from the crowd that particular night. Many attendees in our class seemed to have no prior experience with yoga whatsoever - which is fine, of course. Everyone’s had a first time at something. But if you come to a yoga class just for the free weed, are you missing the benefits that yoga has to offer? That was the sense I got looking around the room: people didn’t come to learn yoga but to have a quirky story for their next dinner party. It seemed to be more about the novelty of the experience than the experience itself.

Our class seemed to go by quickly, a series of slow movements and long-held poses. Most of us didn’t really break a sweat, though I suppose it makes sense that a weed yoga class would be pretty mellow. After all, smoking and feeling winded don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.

After the closing “namaste” from our instructor, we all filed slowly into the back of the room to brew cups of cannabis-infused tea and socialize a bit. But after ninety minutes of vaping and silent yoga movement in a candle-lit room, we all struggled to pep up and get talkative. A few attendees introduced themselves, most of them people who work in the cannabis industry and saw this as a potential networking opportunity. Mixed in with all the freebies on the coffee table, our hosts had left pamphlets and postcards advertising the various cannabis brands who had evidently sponsored our yoga event. One cannabis brand actually left a pile of stoner coloring books meant to catch people’s curiosity, exaggerating the already cartoonish nature of the entire “it’s like Uber/Grubhub/Tinder, but for stoners” craze.

It’s certainly hard to contest the obvious advantages of cannabis legalization - nonviolent weed-related arrest rates ostensibly go down, police have more time to tackle serious crime, and cannabis is grown and sold safely, with profits benefiting tax payers instead of black market drug dealers.

But one strange side effect of legalization that many did not see coming is the “Disney-ification” of weed.

Cannabis, once socially acceptable in many states only for seriously ill medical patients, has quickly become something of a gimmick, a way of adding a “quirky” new spin on something already a bit classist and exclusionary (for example, all-inclusive “weed vacation” destinations). Many people remain incarcerated for marijuana-related arrests, all while affluent suburbanites embark on pot tours, gourmet cannabis cuisine pop-ups, marijuana weddings, stoner bed-and-breakfast retreats, and yes, even weed yoga. I suddenly felt a certain pang of guilt over the event I was at. I’d gone in with earnest expectations, hoping for an enjoyable workout that just happened to involve cannabis. But it wasn’t quite a yoga class, and it was far afield from what legal cannabis was supposed to be about.

None of this is to say that weed weddings or retreats or yoga classes are inherently bad; for many people, being able to consume cannabis at these events merely brings the practice out into the open. And yes, the silly, almost cartoonish post-legalization weed culture can be a lot of fun for certain niche communities and subcultures. But the question remains: how do we make those communities more inclusive across race, age, and socioeconomic status? Wasn’t equality and inclusivity touted as one of the ostensible end-goals of legalizing cannabis? A room full of people vaping weed while pretending to be interested in yoga cannot be the culmination of legalization. I’d rather see nonviolent offenders’ criminal records expunged than watch another tech industry entrepreneur blow vape clouds while stretching on the floor.

If legalization has any hope of genuinely correcting the errors of the past, a more inclusive dialogue needs to be had at every level of the cannabis community before the existing disparities become even more cemented in our culture. Everyone seems to be asking, “How can we capitalize on the weed trend in new ways?” instead of asking the more pertinent question, “Where do we go from here?”

Illustration: Summer Orr

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