There was a nervous energy at Dark Horse Gym Saturday morning. People held together in small groups, not knowing what to expect. This was the first Cannathlete training session, possibly in history, and it was clear participants did not know what to expect. Some students had some past experience combining yoga and breathing exercises with their everyday workouts. More than a few admitted with a giggle that they had had some experience with cannabis, but most didn’t consider it to be a part of their fitness regimen. “I’m don’t really know what to expect” was a common refrain, but everyone in attendance was approaching the subject with an open mind.
Seibo Shen, the founder of Cannathlete, welcomed the 25 attendees and thanked them for joining him. He quickly addressed the elephant in the room, stating that many people don’t equate cannabis use and good health as well as his hope that the day’s activities could help correct that misbelief, stating “We’re really trying the perception of Cannabis users and what Cannabis users are like.” Looking at the muscled bodies before him, that perception looked already to be on shaky ground.
Shen introduced the two men who would be running the day’s program. Jake Shields has earned multiple championships over the course of his MMA career and left an impressive mark in his time in the UFC. Denny Prokopos is a three time Jiu Jitsu World Champion, and is two weeks away from fighting for his fourth. After the introduction, Prokopos steps up and speaks on his respect and admiration for Kundalini yoga, particularly the Breath of Fire.
Breath of Fire is a series of rapid breaths to the navel. For those following along at home, place your hand on your stomach and inhale. If your hand your hand rises with the inhale and falls with the exhale, you’ve found your navel. Prokopos starts every morning with at least a minute of this regimen, and recommends three minutes before a workout. He warns that going beyond that will leave you feeling light-headed, understandable considering the intensity of the collective breaths echoing off the walls. After a sharp, deep inhalation at the end of the three minutes, Shen asks the class for their thoughts on the exersize. Much of the room was surprised by how challenging they found it to be, with a few people reporting seeing colors or shapes, and one woman described being overcome with an “ahh feeling” halfway through when she found her rhythm. “Keep up, and you’ll be kept up” responded Prokopos.
After the class found their breath, they lined up by weight and received kettlebells. Prokopos demonstrated the hinge position that was necessary for the set, a higher squat that resembled sitting forward in an invisible chair. From there, the class began swinging the bells as Prokopos shouted his mantra “Legs and hips, glutes and hamstrings.” First 5-10 reps of a slow rock up to the waist, moving to the pendulum, and finally up to throwing the bell forward up to shoulder height. Shen & Prokopos both stressed the importance of everyone finding a comfortable limit to what they were willing to do, a recurring theme that they kept returning to. After the final set, Prokopos ran through the room, making sure everyone received a high five, a welcome reassurance after a tough workout.
As the participants recovered, Shen spoke on the on the medicinal qualities of cannabis and the growing body of scientific backing behind it. The fact that THC is an effective painkiller or that CBD has powerful anti-inflammatory qualities have been well established. “With much of cannabis research still in it’s infancy due to prohibition keeping the science in the dark ages, we’re only just now getting into real, data-driven research, and we’re learning new things every day” said Shen. “The truth is, if someone patented a medicine that could do what we know that cannabis does, they’d win a Nobel prize.” He covered a few options for utilizing the healing effects of cannabis without the high, starting with the growing availability of topical creams and ointments that can offer pain relief without the high, perfect for a morning post-workout cooldown and recovery. Next, he discussed the ability of terpenes to stimulate the endocannabinoid system. Terpenes are strong-smelling chemical compounds found in many plants that give different strains of cannabis their distinct flavors. Studies have shown that simply smelling these terpenes can activate the body’s endocannabinoid system, allowing the user to engage the analgesic effects without committing to the high so commonly associated with cannabis.
That’s not to say that the high of THC has no benefits for athletes. “Cannabis helps me to find the connection between mind, body and spirit,” stated Shen. “But ultimately, with cannabis, or anything else taught today, it’s about finding what works for you rather than seeking a one-size-fits-all solution.” The three speakers had numerous examples of how the high from cannabis has helped them and others gain a sense of focus during a run, obtain insight into the mind of an opponent during a sparring match, determine creative means of escaping a hold, and be more present rather than allowing their minds to wander.
For the self-defense workshop, the class split into two groups. Shields took the larger half as the grappling veterans began to work with guillotines. Prokopos took the rookies aside to teach some basic tricks on how to escape holds or deal with pushy drunks. There was a fun energy throughout the room as the more experienced students tossed each other around and those newer to the subject were able to take control of their partners bodies with a new understanding of balance and leverage.
After what seemed like a very quick half hour, everyone sat before Prokopos in a prayer pose, starting a vinyasa inspired by the Kundalini yoga that we started the day with. The class breathed from the diaphragm to the chest, to the clavicle, to the upper clavicle, and back down, as Prokopos instructed to relax the face and shoulders. As the class rose into a sun salutation, he asked “How do you sync mind and body? Breathing and movement.” They dropped into downward facing dog, rocking back and forth with their breath, and jumped forward to place their hands on their ankles then dropped into a pushup, and began the process over again. After a few sets, the class lay flat, lifting their heads and feet six inches off the ground. I was hit with a flashback to the Presidential Fitness Test in a smelly gym fifteen years earlier; this was my undoing, and more than a few around the room struggled with that same challenge. Mercifully, Prokopos rolled into a ball with his arms wrapped around his knees, and began the Breath of Fire. From there, he sat forward, lifting his arms upward and outward and began the Breath of Fire again for two minutes. As it ended, he comforted his flock: “Everything is perfect. Enjoy your existence.” Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the final stages of stretches and breathing went by quickly. Upon completion, he spoke with an authority that had just been proven. “That wasn’t meant to be easy.” The room knew it to be true.
Shen congratulated and thanked the two dozen participants, and declared that it was time to get activated. As people picked themselves off the floor, some beelined to the next room where an EVO was warmed up with a fresh dab lined up. Others chatted with their sparring partners or neighbors on the mat, thanked the instructors, or recounted their experiences to the assorted press in attendance. There was a feeling of friendly congeniality that isn’t often associated with a workout session.
Many people chose to share their experience of the day. Rudy spoke about losing 85 pounds in ten months thanks to a sativa-driven exercise regimen. Ronda had been smoking for 30 years to combat her migranes yet had learned more about the options available to her in a three hour class than she had in those three decades. John, in great shape a few weeks shy of 63, felt similarly enlightened, and hoped that events like this could change the public perception of what cannabis users looked like and what they were capable of accomplishing. Joshua had no idea what to expect from the day, but was happy to hear professionals speak from a place of knowledge and experience. Nina loved the hands on approach, as well as the activist bent, feeling that the suspension of Nick Diaz for cannabis use was an illogical and unnecessary overreaction.
As the crowd dispersed, Denny slumped against a wall, tired and victorious. He had medicated, and was calm and content, bringing Bruce Lee’s thoughts on the formlessness of water to mind. He said he was happy with how the day had went, and how he felt more than 15 years of research and development had gone into it. “It was a dream come true” he said, without a trace of irony. “I like to be scientific & artistic, that’s what martial arts is. Kettlebells and yoga are a part of that, so is cannabis. The key is keeping an open mind, and cannabis is the key to that.” He recounted his first time using cannabis at 18, with none other than Eddie Bravo and Joe Rogan. Afterwards, he sat in a front row seat for the LA Sub X tournament, and felt he was seeing the fight from a different lens, an angle he had never seen before. “I almost felt enlightened, the light slapped my right in the face. A year later I won my first world title.”
Earlier in the day, Shen said that out of any psychoactive substance, cannabis was the most universal. He related “From culture to culture, cannabis has the highest appeal, and is used more similarly than anything else.” In discussing the unique relationship cannabis has with the endocannabinoid system in each and every one of our bodies, he half joked that it may be a sign that we were supposed to use this plant for this purpose. That may be a question more for philosophers, but what cannot be questioned is that cannabis has a great deal of appeal for many people. Members of every race and religion have found happiness and relief through the responsible use of cannabis; it is time for us to accept that the same goes for those with different body types and views on fitness. Today was the first Cannathelete event, one that brought science, wisdom, and physical prowess together. Judging by the excitement by those who were a part of it, it is far from the last.