Wednesday, April 20, 2016

420 Yoga - Is it High Time?

420 Yoga – Is it High Time?

If you’re a yogi, then you know all about the post-yoga high; that floaty feeling that all is well, that you are one with the universe.  You forget your troubles. (And sometimes your shoes or where you left your car.) It’s one of the reasons we get hooked on the practice. We become aware that we are not our troubles, or our shoes or our cars, and that we are connected to each other and that there is a higher power. These after effects are calming if not downright intoxicating!

Why not get high first and then practice? If yoga practice is designed to alter our awareness, why not enhance the experience with pot? Is it just another tool to shift consciousness? Is it a yoga prop? It’s legal for medicinal purposes in many states. Just like other prescription drugs. There is no question that drugs can dull the pain – physical or otherwise – that can leave us so distracted that we are unable to be in the present moment.  There is no question that that shift of awareness can make us feel safe enough to look at and explore the pain.

And before I go any further, let me just say, there is nothing less yogic than saying *I* know what yoga is – and what it is not. Which is almost always followed by an imperious tone decrying: MY yoga is better than your yoga. Or worse: I’m practicing yoga and you are not. So I’m literally squirming in my seat right now, aware of that presumptuous possibility as I state my views.

I know that some of my students use medicinal marijuana.  Though not in my class, to my knowledge. I have lots of students with high anxiety, chronic pain, PTSD and other chronic conditions. It goes with the territory in therapeutic and restorative yoga. I understand the benefits of pot for pain, nausea and anxiety. I want my students to feel better. I want them to feel accepted. I want them to experience the deeper dimensions of yoga. I just don’t wanna do it from the cheap seats.

By that I mean, I absolutely do not support getting high and practicing yoga. (Keep reading for one possible exception!)

Here’s the thing. Life IS easier when you take the edge off. Like right now, I’m thinking if I had a margarita RIGHT NOW, I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable with how this is gonna land with some people that I care about, including aforementioned students. I would be funnier. (Buy me a drink some time and you’ll see!) I totally get it! When life gets uncomfortable, we look for distractions…. Of all kinds!

For the sake of argument, let me explore its opposite. What if it weren’t a distraction? What if that margarita were just an assistive device? A prop that led me to an expanded experience of who I am? I’m all about using props to make the practice better. Advocates say, pot is a spiritual experience. (To which my inner bitch responds, “So is freebasing cocaine. Is that next?” “So is sex. Are we gonna….” You can see that the scenarios are endless.) Seriously, though, I absolutely agree that smoking pot reduces pain and anxiety, et cetera. So what’s the problem? Why not use pot as an assistive device while practicing? Why am I being such a bitch?

There is a lot that is unclear in the research of THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. So I’ll stick to what IS clear and irrefuted in the scientific literature that supports my, oh so humble opinion.

Almost immediately, THC stimulates the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the pleasure/reward center of the brain. But what goes up (artificially) must come (sometimes crashing) down. And after a couple of hours, dopamine down regulates, which can lead to sadness and even depression. Can you say vicious cycle?

THC alters the parts of the brain “which helps control memory, mood, concentration, time perception, and motor skills.” (See for full article.) It discombobulates your ability to concentrate and move your body. It distracts you from feeling what is happening in the moment. This is the opposite of the intention of yoga asana practice.  No one would recommend getting high and operating heavy machinery. Do you really think less of your most precious vehicle, your body?

Smoking pot has really improved my memory. Said no one. Ever.

THC increases heart rate between 20 to 100 percent! Do you really want to be less aware of what is happening in your body, possibly double your heart rate and then do a physical practice that requires more of your heart in the most literal and basic way?

As a student, your answer might be yes. As a teacher, I have to “Just say no.” And I have. More than once, a student has come to me before class and confided that she took some kind of mind-altering medication to alleviate something or other. My first question:  Did you drive? This is where nonjudgment and nonviolence collide at the intersection of accountability. In these situations, I have tried to persuade said student to stay for a super simple restorative practice. (Think SNL skit as you imagine this conversation.) If I can keep you off the road, I’m contributing to the well-being of all beings – at least the ones on your drive home.

I get the temptation of showing up under the influence. I get the pain of isolation. I’ve been in the kind of physical pain where I could not practice moving or sitting. And I shudder to think of the damage I might have done if I had taken something to make me unaware of the pain so I could practice. Because pain of any kind is a warning that something is wrong, that you are in danger. And covering it up doesn’t remove the danger; it simply removes – or at least dulls - your capacity to experience it. And yes, maybe the danger is an illusion, the psychic pain of separation or the mental anguish of PTSD and panic. I know these as well. And I believe that trading in one illusion for another with a mind-altering drug misses an opportunity for the discernment that is yoga.

Granted, I am lucky. I have a strong practice and lots of tools and support to guide me. So that even though I may be thinking, this would go down easier with a margarita, I also know that that is a signal that I need to get curious instead.  If I think a margarita will make me funnier, what’s really in my way? (blow back) I know that clarity will come with the tools of my practice and the support of a few “foxhole” friends. (For Brene’ Brown fans, that’s marble-jar friends.)

Which not everyone has. And that’s my exception. I have had private clients who have cancer, PTSD, or chronic something-or-other who have no one and no thing to support them. They have taken anti-anxiety or other meds so they wouldn’t puke or panic in a session. But a big group of people who may have racing hearts and paranoid thoughts, who are unfocussed and disembodied, who have some underlying condition that is so serious that they can’t practice sober? Way out of my league. I don’t even know what league that is.

Instead, what if you could come to yoga class in all of your messiness – sober. We don’t need more places where we feel safe to numb out; we need more spaces where we feel safe to be real; where we feel seen and held and supported so that we can feel the depths of who we are. We need ring-side, drug-free seats  for that.

We need yoga to be the gateway drug to awareness.

That’s my unpopular, uncomfortable opinion.  It’s not intended to change yours. It’s just a response to people who have asked for mine. AND it’s High Time we realize that our opinions, like our pain, our not The Truth of who we are.

Leslie Kazadi

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"Just Relax!" - How to Unwind your Mind

“Just Relax!” – How to Unwind your Mind

Modern life is stressful. Despite the fact that we have Darwin-ed ourselves out of the food chain and despite the fact that we are technically living in the safest time in history ever in gross terms, stress is rampant.  Fortunately, you have a built-in, automatic stress response system to handle stress.  Unfortunately, that system hasn’t evolved much since the Darwin Days. 

Your sympathetic nervous system is designed to automatically pump you up with hormones to increase energy and strength in a fight/flight/freeze survival response.  You’ve probably heard of it; you’ve definitely experienced it.  Something clicks in your brain and suddenly, it’s on!  It feels like life or death.  You start sweating profusely to cool off during your death-defying battle.  Your heart rate increases as blood flow increases to your vital organs and decreases to your limbs so that if you get injured in your fight, you bleed less and can keep fighting – or run for your life!  This is an amazing survival technique that would work fabulously if you were running away from the proverbial tiger.  All of that energy and adrenaline surging through your veins would save the day – and by that, I mean your life.  Then once the tiger is gone, your body returns to “normal” via the relaxation response.  It’s the balance of nature.  It’s perfect. 

Except! it goes awry in modern stress when the perceived danger is something simple like sitting in traffic, facing a deadline or having a difficult conversation.  Your mind tricks your body into thinking you are in a life-or-death situation and the nervous system reacts as if you have a tiger chasing you, when really, it is just your thoughts – or maybe that third cup of coffee? -- making you think you will just die if you are late for an appointment, miss a deadline or get rejected.   Fortunately, this doesn’t result in a fight to the death.  Unfortunately, you become filled with stress hormones with no socially acceptable outlet to expend them.  So you can stay in this heightened sense of alert, all pumped up with energy and strength without any real danger -- which doesn’t sound all bad, right?   In the short term, you can feel like a super hero.   You can be super productive.  No wonder you can get addicted to the adrenalin.  

The problem is it gives you tunnel vision (think road rage) focusing on the perceived threat (that idiot in the Prius) and reducing your higher, more rational thinking (calm) mind so that you tend to make bad decisions (ejecting your middle finger, blaring horn or shouting your favorite expletive here).  And just maybe, you feel just a little bit out of control (as you fantasize about -- if not actually -- running the Prius driver off the road. Or worse.). Now you might actually be in danger because you just replaced Big Oil as the number 1 enemy of said Prius driver. 

Chances are you don’t end up doing 25 to life for running over the Prius driver.  Chances are you do end up replaying the injustice and/or fantasy in your head, feeding your stress response.  Now you don’t so much feel like a super hero.  You may feel like the victim of your uncontrollable mind.  The long-term danger is adrenal fatigue and chronic stress. Since stress is the root cause of many diseases, you need to get off the roller coaster and relax.

Why can’t you just relax?! Nothing like someone saying, “just relax!” to send you over the edge.  Invoking the relaxation response doesn’t come so naturally.  In the short term, being relaxed isn’t life or death, so your body doesn’t automatically turn the panic switch off so well as it switches it on.  But when it becomes chronic, stress is a major cause of heart and other disease and actually IS life or death. 

No wonder yoga has become so popular!  The relaxation response is invoked by slowing down the breath, repeating the same rhythmic movements – think sun salute – repeating a simple phrase, bringing attention to the present moment (which attention to the breath and body spontaneously does), meditation techniques, and systematically relaxing your muscles.  Basically, yoga offers all the major tools that invoke the relaxation response. 

And when you can’t get to yoga, say, because you are in traffic, a meeting, a deadline… you can still slow down your breath, count your breath, repeat a soothing phrase (probably not one with 4-letter words and/or our boss’s name), choose to relax something – anything! You may not feel like you can pause your thoughts, but you absolutely can change the channel.  Re-mind yourself of the bigger picture. And observe that, in fact, the world is not ending, there is no tiger chasing you, and you are probably pretty safe. 

You can choose to look on the bright side.  It’s easy to get help with this. In this stressful day and age, you can listen to guided meditations that will find the bright side for you. There are lots of apps for that! And there is another yoga class starting any time you like online.  Check out for thousands of options, including lots of gentle and restorative classes by me that will help you unwind your body and mind for less stress and more joy!

Leslie Kazadi, Certifiied Yoga Therapist