You may find your average yogi in a humid, dimly lit room with ultra-Zen pan flute music playing over the speakers. But, at Church444, a cosy studio that opened in Hamilton’s Hess Village this past May, students are decidedly more chill.
They stretch while relaxed on their mats, listening to a funky lo-fi pop playlist — with a faint funky smell filling the air with every exhale.
Created by instructor Risa Maldonado, Mary Jane Motions, the first cannabis-friendly yoga class in the city, sees students loosely guided through a gentle yoga practice that emphasizes personal relaxation with the aid of pot. Classes are available online through Zoom or in studio for small groups up to six.
“I just found that I had a much deeper connection to how my body felt,” she said. “The volume in the back of your brain kind of gets turned down.”
Unlike a sweaty hot yoga class or the heavily-structured hatha, the Sanskrit word for ‘force,’ Mary Jane Motions relies very little on traditional yoga postures like warrior one and two, which involve static lunges. Instead, movements are mindfully slow and gentle with students lying on their mats for the majority of the class.
“The most we probably come close to yoga in this class is maybe using postures like downward dog,” Maldonado says.
She says the movements are built around using active strength to help create length in the body and enhance relaxation. So, this may look like floor-bound twists and seated leg stretches, or students could ask for a more active practice full of downward dogs and low-intensity body weight-based movement.
“I wanted to make sure it wasn’t ‘we’re just going to get really high and roll around on the ground’ style of class. I wanted it to have value,” she said. “It’s been amazing how well-received it’s been, to be quite honest.”
Church444 owner Monika Benkovich says some students may just want to get stoned and lie in a savasana, but using cannabis is not a requirement of the class. In fact, many students opt for sober stretching, including Benkovich herself — and her 52-year-old mother.
“I don’t smoke weed and I go to the class and I love it and we have a few other students that are also in the same boat — like my mom,” she said. “She loves it!”
Maldonado says cannabis use is not allowed in the studio, as the Smoke Free Ontario Act bars smoking in enclosed public spaces. Students who choose to smoke weed beforehand can use the courtyard outside, which is unlocked 30 minutes before class.
“So it’s not like we go upstairs and hotbox the practice room,” she said with a laugh. “We’re not that kind of Church.”
While air inside Church444 may not be thick with smoke, researchers say the science around cannabis and exercise is still pretty thin.
Stuart Phillips, director of McMaster’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence, says that in the two years since recreational use was legalized in Canada there have been very few studies to prove pot is a useful addition to a fitness routine.
“I understand the combination with yoga is maybe designed to create a degree of mindfulness or some sort of experience on a mindful level that may be different, but physiologically … there’s no benefit,” says Phillips, who is also a faculty associate with the university’s Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research.
But that doesn’t mean that the perceived benefits are bunk, he says.
“I think most people when they engage in yoga, you’re looking for a mind-body connection and I could certainly see because of the psychoactive side of THC that you could experience a heightened focus, relaxation, a sense of well-being or peace,” Phillips said. “I don’t doubt that some people experience a deeper sense of calm.”
That deeper sense of calm, “extreme relaxation” is exactly what Maldonado’s students have reported. But she acknowledges that everyone has a different experience with cannabis. Some sativa-based strains can cause anxiety, while more indica-leaning flower has led to students falling asleep on their mats.
“Of course, cannabis is not a perfect plant,” she says.
Church444’s open policy and “loose atmosphere” encourages worried weed smokers to speak up if they are not enjoying the experience, whether that means anxious thoughts or a dry mouth.
If students need assistance getting home safely after class, Benkovich says help is available. “You’re not on your own … if someone needs an Uber or a pal to sit with after class we are there.”
Despite launching in uncertain times, she says Mary Jane Motions has certainly broken new ground in a city that once boasted more dispensaries than Tim Hortons locations.
The class is about “breaking that barrier of smoking weed just to get high,” she says. “That’s what I really liked about pairing cannabis with gentle movement in particular because you are reaching a different level of consciousness.”
“It’s not just getting high and zoning out. You’re zoning in.”
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