Holistic Balance: Yoga and the Endocannabinoid System

By Aubree Kozie; Edited by David Webster

You are standing in a yoga class, eyes dead ahead, sweat on your brow, one foot firmly planted on your mat the other against your thigh in tree pose. You inhale, and at the bottom of your exhale, you rest in this position which is both active and peaceful. Balanced.

This moment of stillness you feel on the yoga mat may be one of the only moments of true relaxation you have throughout your busy day. There is a lot to keep up with in today’s rat race, and it’s likely that you have noticed your yoga practice plays a special role in balancing out the scales between work and rest. 

Yoga supports balance on both a literal and metaphorical level, on a micro and macro level. Not only does it help you stand on one foot and keep you from tearing your hair out when life gets sticky, the scientific community also reveals for us the ways in which yoga manages and balances our wellbeing of body, mind, and spirit both long and short term. You may know that yoga has been linked to better sleep, improved blood circulation, pain relief, positive mood, and reduced stress (Hempure, 2019). You may also know that yoga has been associated with a reduced risk for major fatal chronic illnesses including stroke, heart attack, diabetes and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

However, what you may not know is that the mechanism by which yoga induces its many health-promoting and sustaining effects is increasingly linked by empirical evidence to the endocannabinoid system.

That’s right, you heard me — the endocannabinoid system (eCS) which was originally discovered as a result of the study of psychoactive cannabis plant, showing that it actually plays a major role not only in how yoga benefits our wellbeing, but how our wellbeing is regulated period. 

The Homeostatic Regulator

 The eCS was originally studied because it is the system through which exogenous cannabinoids (phyto-cannabinoids) are received and processed in the body, but it serves a much more vital and expansive role in the body. The eCS is the body’s natural homeostatic regulator (creating balance), managing embryonic developments, neural plasticity, neuroprotection, immunity and inflammation apoptosis and carcinogenesis, pain relief and ability to cope with stress, memory consolidation and retrieval, appetite, and metabolism. When the body is hot it cools it, when the body is inflamed it reduces inflammation, and when the pain receptors are active it decreases pain.The eCS is mindful for us when we are not, helping to regulate our body and maintain homeostasis, or balance. 

The body produces endogenous or naturally occurring cannabinoids which regularly activate this system, that  fit into endocannabinoids receptors located on the surfaces of cells throughout the body, particularly in the central nervous system. Evidence shows these receptors grow more concentrated in areas affected by a disease. Then, as more cannabinoids bind to receptors in the area of disease, we see a decrease in disease symptoms and or inhibition of the progression of disease. 

It is hypothesized that anxiety disorders, as well as many of the most common chronic diseases are related to insufficient levels of endocannabinoids in the eCS. Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome (CEDS), in which the body is not producing sufficient endocannabinoids to maintain homeostatic regulation, is a newly recognized condition, associated with inflammatory diseases such as fibromyalgia, IBS, migraines, etc. Thus, it is apparent cannabinoids whether endogenous or phyto-cannabinoids are a vital ingredient in the process of homeostatic regulation. (DeFalco, 2015 b, Mc Partland, 2015, Bluett et.al. 2014). 

The Bliss Molecule

THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, and the body’s own natural endocannabinoid, anandamide (AEA) and 2-AG, induce their effects by binding to and activating the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptors. CB1 are some of the most numerous receptors on cells throughout the body and are particularly concentrated in the brain, where they have the ability to upregulate (excite) or downregulate (inhibit) neural activity related to appetite, memory, and pain control. CB2 are most abundant in the immune system and are directly related to pain reduction and inflammation regulation. 

Both anandamide and 2-AG are natural products of dietary fatty acids. Anandamide, otherwise known as ‘the bliss molecule’ takes its name from the sanskrit ‘ananda’ meaning joy, bliss, or happiness. It is appropriately named, for anandamide is involved in the regulation of pain, appetite, fertility, memory, motivation, movement control, and the formation of new nerve cells (DeFalco, 2015 c). Increasing the amount of AEA which is naturally produced in the body thus serves to aid all of these health-enhancing and balance-sustaining qualities of holistic wellbeing. 

Fountain of Youth

If you thought endocannabinoids sounded incredible already, you will be amazed to learn that they also exert anti-aging affect and may actually slow brain aging. Endocannabinoids stabilize free radicals, act as an antioxidant cleanse as they remove damaged cells and improve the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Additionally, CB2 cells are thought to be involved in the inhibition of T-cell proliferation, modulation of pro-inflammatory cytokine secretion, and B cell responses, all of which are important measures of health and disease progression (DeFalco, 2015 b). 

Yoga for Ananda

Research over the last decade is beginning to reveal that yoga, particularly pranayama stimulates the endocannabinoid system, particularly the production endocannabinoid receptors and of anandamide, given sufficient dietary fatty acids. You may have experienced a runner’s high or that well known state of post-yoga Zen that is commonly attributed to endorphins. Researchers have recently begun to think this is actually a result of increases in anandamide produced during those activities (DeFalco, 2015 a). It would seem given the literature on yoga and the endocannabinoid system, that the more regularly you practice yoga, the more anandamide your body will naturally produce, bringing balance to both mind and body (Dulak, 2018). 

Proper activation of the eCS is vital to supporting and sustaining optimum health. Adding  a yoga class to your schedule several times a week can help to maintain a healthy eCS and to support a holistic sense of wellbeing.


McPartland, J. M., Guy, G. W., & Di Marzo, V. (2014). Care and feeding of the endocannabinoid system: a systematic review of potential clinical interventions that upregulate the endocannabinoid system. PloS one, 9(3), e89566. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089566


DeFalco, L. (2015 a). How Yoga Impacts the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The Endocannabinoid Solution. https://www.the-ecs.com/single-post/2015/12/21/How-Yoga-Impacts-the-Endocannabinoid-System-ECS


DeFalco, L. (2015 b). The endocannabinoid system is a homeostatic regulator of inflammation. Ehe Endocannabinoid Solution. https://www.the-ecs.com/blank-kbdf1


DeFalco, L. (2015 c). Components of the ECS and their role in health. The Endocannabinoid Solution. https://www.the-ecs.com/ecs-components


Hempure. What yoga and CDB have in common. https://www.hempurecbd.com/what-yoga-and-cbd/

Dulak, D. (2018). How to Stimulate the Endocannabinoid System without Cannabis. Leafly. https://www.leafly.com/news/health/how-to-stimulate-the-endocannabinoid-system-without-cannabis


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