A 65-year-old woman in a Prius pulls up beside me blasting Enya. Clearly, I’ve arrived at CBD Yoga.
In New York State, the debate over recreational weed is on the table, with gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon and her running mate Jumaane Williams setting it as a centerpiece of their campaign against incumbent Andrew Cuomo. But so far, stories of “high tea” and “green yoga” are generally relegated to the Left Coast (and more recently, Massachusetts and Maine). New Yorkers, however, are finding a new and ambiguously legal way to enjoy some of the benefits of the cannabis plant.
CBD yoga isn’t a novel concept. The connection between cannabis and yoga can be traced back to the practice’s ancient Indian roots: Cannabis is referred to in the Vedas as one of five sacred plants, and images of the Lord Shiva with his chillum are ubiquitous.
When I walk into Jolie Parcher’s CBD yoga class in Amagansett, NY, a chimney of smoke rises from a hunk of burning sage and a sitar player is seated cross-legged, strumming away. As we settle onto our mats, Parcher explains that CBD oil might make us feel a little more relaxed, allowing calming sensations; it could also alleviate pain in the muscles or joints, allowing us to move with more freedom. Then she instructs us to turn our palms up if we want to receive the oil.
I swish the tincture around in my mouth and swallow, then lie back on a bolster and let the sound of the sitar carry me away. It’s been an intense summer—travel and family and work, work, work. It had been a while since I’d found space on my mat.
My thoughts begin to stretch out, like traffic on a busy road slowly thinning. I begin to linger on the space between the cars. It isn’t necessarily the CBD that’s relaxing me—it’s likely the yoga, a body meditation of sorts. Many who study the effects of CBD, though, argue that it enhances that mind/body connection.
“CBD elevates consciousness and puts you in deeper touch with your body,” says Lou Sagar, founder and CEO of The Alchemist’s Kitchen, a New York City-based company that specializes in herbal remedies. Sounds a little bit like getting high. And as the gentle yoga class unfolds and the distinct flavor of weed lingers on my tongue, I’m not quite sure where the yoga ends and the CBD begins.
Parcher, who’s owned her yoga studio in Amagansett since 2000, is an aromatherapist who regularly brings plant extracts into her teaching. Other oils come out during our practice—Parcher delivers peppermint oil to rub on our bellies and cedar oil to inhale in meditation. The CBD feels not like an outlier, but instead like one of a thoughtfully curated bouquet of oils selected to get us all in the zone.
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That’s the sensibility of the Alchemist’s Kitchen, which grows cannabis plants in Upstate New York strictly for CBD, then extracts oils and makes balms, capsules, and tinctures for healing purposes. CBD (cannabidiol) is derived from cannabis, but it doesn’t have the psychoactive effects of THC, the compound people are usually seeking if they want to get high. “We have a farm in upstate New York which is licensed for hemp and CBD, not THC,” Sagar tells me. “Now the whole plant can be grown with lower levels of THC.”
This is a new direction for growers, who, for many decades, had been breeding cannabis with progressively increasing levels of THC. “For a long time, people wanted lots of THC and dramatic impact,” says Mitch Earleywine, professor of psychology at SUNY Albany and author of the book Understanding Marijuana. “That often happens with the prohibition of any drug. So growers bred the ones that had the most impact and got less and less CBD each generation.”
The only way to legally sell CBD in states like New York—where weed isn’t yet legal—is if it has .03 percent or less THC in it—not nearly enough to get you stoned (a microdose is considered to be about 5 mg THC). Sagar sees it as a non-toxic remedy for some of the most common ills in our society, like chronic pain management and anxiety.
Earlywine tells me that CBD has indeed shown promise in early research as an anti-seizure medication, an anti-inflammatory, and a potential sleep aid. “It also looks like CBD doses can be good for pain in a subset of folks,” he adds.
“Is CBD the silver bullet that’s going to fix everything?” Parcher asks. “No. But it’s a tool.”
In class, we hug our knees into our chests and Parcher encourages us to imagine “creating space” on the inside. I spend long moments moving my thigh bone around in my hip socket, discovering places where I was unknowingly gripping. The inward exploration is both physical and mental. There is space, for me, without the sudden pressing thoughts that might pop up after a heady joint, and none of the twitching to-do list that flips on after a cup of coffee. Just a little more space.
The reason CBD might create a different reaction from THC, my experts tell me, is that the two interact with different receptors in the brain. THC, explains Earleywine, is a partial agonist of the CB1 receptor, which means it binds to that receptor and causes it to fire differently. CBD, on the other hand, doesn’t affect that receptor at all. The effects of CBD are outside the brain, in the body, he says.
It’s time for savasana. With each strum of the sitar, I visualize my brain waves. CBD oil, peppermint, and sweet cedar mingle in my body. Parcher lifts my feet and swings them side to side, then props my legs over a bolster. I settle back, into my mat. I feel lifted and grounded at once. Is it the CBD? The yoga? It’s hard to tell. But there’s definitely a shift, and not a trace of paranoia.
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