That high you can get from yoga may come from endocannabinoids — substances naturally produced by the body that are chemically similar to active compounds in cannabis (marijuana).
Studies have shown that yoga can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, possibly because of the calming effect of the endocannabinoid system.Javier Díez/Stocksy
Although there’s a wide range of choices when it comes to wellness practices, yoga continues to rise to the top, both in terms of its growing popularity and its embodiment of the mind-body-spirit connection. Across yoga techniques and approaches, common elements include controlled breathing (mind), physical postures (body), and meditation(spirit), which often combine to create a state of bliss. Even as researchers are trying to understand why and how yoga produces the bliss response, scores of scientists are investigating a part of the body known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). While the research connecting yoga and the ECS is virtually nonexistent, potential links might help explain their complementary roles in reducing stress.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system is believed to have evolved in humans more than 500 million years ago, with the primary role of maintaining balance (homeostasis) in the body.
The ECS relies on messengers (neurotransmitters) called endocannabinoids, a class of compounds that are chemically similar to plant cannabinoids — notably the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) in cannabis (marijuana). Endocannabinoids interact with special receptors located throughout the body in order to achieve homeostasis.
Scientists are exploring the two-way relationship between the ECS and the central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, immune system, digestive system, reproductive system, major organs, and many other parts of the body. The goal of these studies is to better understand how the ECS affects everything from sleep and appetite to pain sensation, mood, and stress.
Enlightened Path and the Yoga Sutras
The yoga-ECS relationship can be traced as far back as 200 B.C., when an Indian sage named Pantañjali (also known as the father of yoga) is believed to have lived and written the Yoga Sutras, a manual for enlightenment. Many yoga practitioners point to the beginning of chapter 4, where Pantañjali mentions potions, possibly containing cannabis, that can help move one forward on the path toward liberation and enlightenment.
Today, experts hypothesize that like other forms of mind-body medicine, yoga may be a cannabimimetic — something that produces a cannabinoid-like effect — that works by stimulating one of the two key types of ECS receptors, called CB1.
CB1 is densely distributed in parts of the body involved with emotion, memory, and movement, explains Ethan Russo, MD, a neurologist and cannabis researcher based in Washington State. According to a review published in the December 2018 issue of Molecular Aspects of Medicine, it’s possible that mind-body practices such as yoga and tai chi boost mood by activating CB1 signals in the central nervous system.
So, whether ancient yogis used cannabis to enhance their yoga practice or their yoga practice activated the ECS, the relationship is believed to be dynamic.RELATED: Does Yoga Count as Exercise?
The Evidence for a State of Bliss
Studies show that yoga has positive effects on mind-body interaction. “We know that meditation and yoga increase alpha rhythms [brain waves that indicate a state of wakeful rest], produce a subjective state of calm, and sometimes result in almost a blissful-like sensation,” says Dr. Russo.
This is where things get interesting, because while scientists originally attributed yoga’s mood-altering effects to endorphins (causing the so-called “runner’s high”), some of the few studies that have been conducted on this topic now point to the ECS.
The evidence for this goes all the way back to a study from 2003 in the journal NeuroReport, which found that subjects who ran on a treadmill or cycled on a stationary bike for 45 minutes at 70 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate significantly increased their blood levels of a type of endocannabinoid called AEA, also known as “the bliss molecule.”
Other research supports the hypothesis that the ECS is responsible for the mood boost created by healing practices like meditation (a component of yoga), massage, and osteopathy (a type of alternative medicine that involves manipulating muscles and joints). A study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association showed that healthy participants who received osteopathic manipulation experienced feelings most commonly associated with THC — the compound in cannabis responsible for the "high," or feeling of euphoria. Levels of AEA (the bliss molecule) appeared to increase as well.
Another study, this one published in Medicine Science Monitor, involved women who reported experiencing feelings of emotional distress. After participating in twice-weekly hatha yoga sessions for three months, the subjects’ levels of the stress hormone cortisoldecreased significantly. The ECS may have something to do with that; as Russo explains, the ECS kicks in before the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis begins producing cortisol in response to a real or perceived threat.
Enhancing the Path to Enlightenment
There are many choices for yoga beginners and enthusiasts, ranging from gentle to strenuous, cold to hot. But proving that everything old is new again, cannabis yoga has been gaining fans, building upon the original tenets of the Yoga Sutras as well as the Shiva cults that used ganja (marijuana, or bhang) to enhance deity worship.
The San Francisco–based hatha yoga instructor Dee Dussault, author of Ganja Yoga, says she pioneered the movement 10 years ago after experiencing a serious overuse injury and finding that small amounts of medicinal cannabis incorporated into her practice appeared to counteract some of the inflammation and pain and enhanced her ability to go deeper into meditative aspects. Today, she offers regular studio classes that permit students to bring CBD or THC products for personal or shared use. (Importantly, cannabis is approved for both medicinal and recreational use in California.)
Russo says that while some practitioners believe that the use of cannabis in any form during yoga is inadvisable, many people find its muscle-relaxant effects improve pliability, making it easier to assume otherwise challenging poses. Dessault says that her Ganja Yoga classes are slow-paced and especially beneficial for older people with pain. She has certified and trained roughly 25 Ganja Yoga instructors across the country and offers online classes as well.
There is a lot we don’t know about the relationship between yoga and the ECS, but the consensus is clear: Yoga can boost feelings of well-being and provide a variety of health benefits, including better sleep, less pain, and improved heart health. It's hoped that researchers will one day have more answers about the ECS’s role in the bliss response.
By Liz Scherer
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD