I show up to the gym on a Thursday night at quarter to seven. I’ve been alerted that this particular gym is located in the basement of a ranch house on a suburban thoroughfare in Wheat Ridge, Colorado—about a half hour outside of Denver. It’s dark out and I’m worried I won’t be able to see the address from the road, but I’m pleasantly surprised by a plethora of twinkling green and white holiday lights decorating the outside of the house, illuminating a banner hanging over the garage with the words “Break the Stigma Fitness” framing a picture of a massive marijuana leaf.
In Colorado, marijuana is recreationally legal but you can only consume it on private property, hence Break the Stigma’s location in the basement of founder Jennessa Lea’s home. In an interview a few days before I came to class, Lea told me that she envisions brick-and-mortar Break the Stigma gyms in every legal market eventually. But for now, the immediate need for a safe, dedicated place to combine cannabis use and fitness is so strong that she had to make it happen however she could.
I’ve never really exercised stoned before, save a couple rainy winter months several years ago when I lived in Portland, Oregon and took to combatting my seasonal depression by speed-walking on the treadmill at Loprinzi’s Gym after ripping off my roommate’s bong. I remember entering a kind of robotic flow state in which I was able to keep on truckin’ with little concern for how much time elapsed. I’m eager to see if weed will have the same effect on a more intense workout.
I’m greeted at Break the Stigma by Lia Arntsen, who teaches the two-hour High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class I’ve signed up to take. Arnsten has blonde hair pulled into a tight ponytail and tiny, extremely muscular arms poking out of her black tank top. She ushers me over to a canna-bar, where patrons can learn about different ways for combining cannabis with fitness. She shows me two different kinds of tabletop vaporizers, and explains that dabbing is a great option for people who use cannabis to combat chronic pain, because just one hit lasts a really long time.
I’ve never dabbed, so opt instead to stay in my comfort zone by taking a couple hits from a joint. Arntsen asks if I’m “sufficiently elevated” to start the class, and when I confirm, we jump in. It’s a small class tonight, just me and Dani—a New York transplant and regular cannabis user who says he likes coming to Break the Stigma because he was tired of getting judgy looks going to regular gyms smelling like weed. “Oh totally, I always smell like weed,” Arntsen reassures him.
She puts on Lady Gaga’s Artpop and explains that the workout we’re going to do is a warm-up and then a series of six exercises each done three times. She says if we work hard we can knock it out in less than a half hour, but that I shouldn’t push myself harder than is comfortable. Her guiding principle: “Listen to yourself first, then the music, then me.”
The warm-up immediately bursts any notions I might have that a stoner fitness class will be chill and easy. It involves enough running in place that after just a couple minutes I’ve stripped down to my sports bra and spandex pants. I don’t have the most toned midsection and am usually too self-conscious to dress like this in exercise classes, since they tend to be full of people built like Arntsen, but it’s clear there’s no judgment here. We’re at an exercise class, yes, but we’re also stoned in somebody’s basement listening to Lady Gaga. After the 5-minute warm-up I chug my whole bottle of water and then ask if I can take a dab after all. When in Rome, right?
Arntsen is happy to stop class to set one up for me, and I take a clean, earthy pull off a glass vaporizer. “Let’s do this!” I shout, clapping my hands and skipping back to my place. Let the High Intensity workout begin. Arntsen demonstrates each of the six exercises in detail—lots of squatting, shuffling back and forth, and jumping—and then we dive in. In the middle of the first round of deep squats, during which Arntsen instructs us to “really get ass to grass,” I’m feeling the burn pretty hard, but I keep at it. When we switch to a rapid shuffle-step Arntsen calls out a motivational prompt: “What are we running from?!”
I think about letting my darkest inner truth explode all over the bright blue and green walls of the gym by shouting something to the effect of, “Sometimes I feel like I am such a waste of a person that I don’t even have a right to exist at all!” but opt instead for a simple, peppy, “Woo!” She thankfully moves on, but now that the demon has arisen in me I wonder if this is what I am here to work through and if the weed will make time literally stand still until I sufficiently process and release my self-worth issues. I guess we’ll find out!!!
We keep the workout rolling, extending the exercises by 15 seconds each round. Arntsen is perpetually encouraging while simultaneously exuding nonthreatening stoner vibes. Case in point: One of the exercises is a kind of high-knee-march-in-place step. Arntsen pauses before reversing to go the other direction, lamenting, “Man, it’s always so hard for me to remember which leg I started with last time.”
The whole time, in compliance with the “music before instructor” doctrine, I’m encouraged to add dancey alterations to any of the movements whenever I see fit. At first I don’t feel comfortable doing this, but as the class progresses I loosen up and put my own spin on things more and more. By the last round of basketball jumps—our last exercise of the day—I’m simply jumping to the beat and waving my arms over my head. Rockstar by Rihanna is playing, and I’m just dancing. It’s the very end of the most intense half hour of exercise I’ve done in months, and right now, in this moment, time is no longer something that’s passing; I’m inside the moment. I don’t care if it never ends.
Georgia Perry is a freelance writer currently based in Denver, Colorado. She has been published in The Atlantic, CityLab, Vice, and other magazines. Follow her on Twitter @georguhperry.