A newly published study finds that people who practice yoga after consuming marijuana experience improved mindfulness and mysticality, indicating that setting and behavior may play an important role in modulating a person’s cannabis experience.
The paper, published as a University of British Columbia psychology dissertation, aimed to explore “the impact of contextual factors during cannabis use on well-being outcomes.” As author Sarah Elizabeth Ann Daniels wrote, such considerations are common in the realm of psychedelic therapy but less so when it comes to cannabis.
“When using other psychoactive drugs to treat mental health conditions, researchers pay particular attention to contextual factors beyond the direct drug effects, such as the mindset, setting, and behavior, as there is considerable evidence that these factors can significantly impact the therapeutic outcomes,” Daniels observed. “These factors are rarely considered during therapeutic cannabis use.”
The study’s results “generally indicate that what you do while you experience cannabis effects matters,” the paper concludes. “Mirroring psychedelics, this study supports the concept that set and setting during cannabis use may significantly impact the therapeutic benefit of the drug.”
To test whether context affected someone’s cannabis experience, Daniels had 47 participants self-administer cannabis twice, one week apart. During one session, they practiced yoga. During the other, they did whatever they’d normally do when high. The most common activities were eating, watching TV or movies, doing housework, socializing and participating in hobbies.
Participants were scored on measures including “state mindfulness,” “mysticality of experience,” and “state affect.”
State mindfulness measured “both traditional Buddhist and contemporary psychology models of mindfulnesses,” including awareness of both mental states and bodily sensations. Mystical experience, meanwhile, referred to feelings of experiencing eternity or the infinite, a sense of peace and tranquility or a loss of one’s usual perception of time.
Daniels found significant improvements in respondents’ reported mindfulness when they practiced yoga with cannabis. Their mysticality of experience was also greater, even though Daniels acknowledges that mysticality is more traditionally associated with psychedelic substances. “While cannabis is not considered a traditional psychedelic,” she writes, “recent evidence indicates that it shares many commonalities with psychedelic-induced altered states.”
As for state affect—essentially one’s emotion and mood—no significant difference emerged between yoga and non-yoga sessions.
Studying the impact of set, setting and other variables the paper refers to as “extra-pharmacological factors” is crucial to understanding the therapeutic potential of cannabis, Daniels writes, noting that accounting such factors helped clarify early research about psychedelics.
“Much like studies of cannabis today, studies of psychedelics in the 1960s were producing wildly variable results,” the report says. “Researchers at the time began to explore and document the impact of set and setting on the subjective drug effects, and how outcomes could be influenced by extra-pharmacological factors became a crucial consideration in studies of the effects of psychedelics and psychedelic psychotherapy. Indeed, once set and setting was attended to, recorded psychedelic experiences shifted from overwhelmingly negative to overwhelmingly positive.”
Seventy-two percent of participants (34) said they’d mix cannabis and yoga again. Not only did yoga seem to make their cannabis experience better, but cannabis also seemed to enhance their enjoyment of their yoga practice:
“The most frequently reported theme was enhanced physical awareness (n = 15), which captured an increased awareness of the body, movement, and physical sensory experiences. For example, participants reported they were more ‘in touch’ or ‘in tune’ with their body and their body’s needs, and felt their body, sensations, and sense of movement on a ‘deeper’ level. They particularly emphasized that this was different from their usual (sober) experience of yoga, stretching, or physical activity, and that this experience represented a gain or a change from their experiences without cannabis.”
Six participants had never practiced yoga before, while 30 said they practiced “rarely or sometimes.” Another 11 said they did yoga often or very often.
“These findings suggest that paying attention to contextual factors and providing guidelines for therapeutic cannabis users may improve clinical outcomes when using cannabis to support mental health and well-being,” Daniels wrote.
The results could have implications for how to best tap into cannabis’s potential benefits—or even avoid potential risks. “Physicians have long described a knowledge gap pertaining to best practices when prescribing cannabis for therapeutic purposes,” the report says. “Providing specific behavioral directions as well as psychoeducation on the role of set and setting may stand to maximize benefits and minimize harms of therapeutic cannabis use. Based on the high degree of acceptability of the yoga intervention, yoga or similar mindful movement may be a useful recommendation.”
Daniels also suggested that the feeling of being “high” shouldn’t be discounted among researchers seeking to understand how cannabis works.
“A typical trend in the pharmaceutical field when developing medications based off of traditional psychoactive plant medicines (i.e., cannabis, psychedelics) is to seek to remove the psychoactive effects. The focus is often on a biological mechanism while the ‘high’ is seen as an undesired side effect,” the study says. “The results of the current study provide more evidence to support the intrinsic therapeutic value found in the altered states of consciousness occasioned by such psychoactive drugs.”
The U.S. government itself has named the consciousness-altering potential of psychedelics as one of their major side effects. A $27-million project announced in 2020 by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, was intended to work toward the development of pharmaceuticals that worked similarly to psychedelics but without “significant side effects, including hallucination.”
Pairing marijuana and yoga, meanwhile, is nothing new in the cannabis community. Classes combining the two have been around since at least the early years of state-level legalization, and likely much longer. But the reported benefits of those activities have been mostly anecdotal.
Back in 2018, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi )\(D-CA) even recommended marijuana and yoga (done separately, however) as alternatives to opioids. “Marijuana, yoga, all kinds of other things that are homeopathic but are not addictive in this dangerous way,” she said.
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