The co-founders of the cannabis brand Swami Select, Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya, have spent many years on a spiritual path that includes residing in India, frequently visiting temples, and conversing with holy men. When their journey brought them back to California, they created a sanctuary with a unique, spiritual approach to growing cannabis. With Swami Select, they pride themselves in embracing regenerative farming and praise cannabis as a way to heighten the senses and connect with others, as well as the world around them. Lastreto and Chaitanya took time to chat with High Times about the events that led to the origin of their brand, their unique approach to cannabis cultivation, and how the herb brings people together.
The Many Lifetimes Of Nikki And Swami
Lastreto and Chaitanya are world travelers whose spiritual experiences have shaped their cannabis venture. Lastreto describes herself as a flower child who grew up in San Francisco. She first met Chaitanya, a “27-year-old hippie artist,” when she was 14. They connected again later at a party in San Francisco and married in 1985. Lastreto worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years in the 1980s and Chaitanya was an artist and photographer. Together they traveled to various countries, including China and Thailand, and for a time, they lived in South India in a house overlooking the Arabian Sea.
Eventually, Lastreto, and Chaitanya would divorce. Citing a desire to embark on a new purpose and path, Lastreto moved back to the United States and embraced her love for hosting parties and creating giant altars that featured statues from different religious traditions. At the time, she worked with Tim Blake, founder of the Emerald Cup, to develop and coordinate various events. During this time, Lastreto explains, “Swami became Swami,” while he remained in India and took a religious initiation at the Kumbh Mela, a major pilgrimage and festival in Hinduism, in 1998. Chaitanya lived in the Himalayas for a few years and continued to travel around the region to visit temples. During this time, he and Lastreto remained good friends and Lastreto would travel back to India to meet with him and visit one of their spiritual teachers. When Lastreto expressed a desire to build a temple to the Hindu goddess Sri Mookambika in the U.S., their spiritual teacher suggested Chaitanya should help, leading them on a journey to Mendocino County.
Honoring The Land
The idea behind Swami Select’s location came from a vision Chaitanya had at a Rainbow Gathering in the 1970s.
“I had a vision of a beautiful piece of property with a mountain in the distance and some trees in the middle and an open field and some trees behind me, and the message that I would spend the end of my life there,” he said.
Thirty years later, he and Lastreto purchased a property in Mendocino County that resembled Chaitanya’s vision. When they bought the land, they decided to get married again—this time, intending to save money in taxes. In 2017, with the arrival of the 50th anniversary of 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco, Lastreto and Chaitanya married for a third time in a more private, spiritual celebration on their land.
In the beginning, the homestead had no electricity or running water—it was just an old two-room cabin. It has taken many years to develop the property into the thriving, spiritual landscape that it is today. In addition to cannabis, the farm features a thoughtful layout and many religious statues. For example, upon entering their property, there’s a sizable 1,500-pound stone statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, to greet visitors.
Even before Lastreto and Chaitanya chose to grow cannabis, they wanted to ensure that they treated the property with respect.
“We’ve tried to [develop] in a really conscious way that, you know, honors the land because we really see ourselves as the stewards of this amazing piece of land,” Lastreto said. “We don’t own it, just like the natives didn’t own it, but it’s our duty in this lifetime to take care of it.”
This mindset has led to embracing regenerative agriculture on their farm to maintain harmony with nature. Regenerative agriculture describes farming practices that reduce the effects of climate change by using techniques that revitalize the soil and the environment. Swami Select believes the regenerative approach to cannabis cultivation produces some of the best quality flower.
“Folks, if you want to smoke something that is going to feed your body, feed your mind, feed your spirit, [regeneratively grown cannabis] is where you want to go,” Lastreto said. “I know that sounds like a marketing kind of ploy, but it’s true. It’s coming from my heart.”
Growing With Spiritual Intention
With Swami Select, Lastreto takes care of the business side of things, while Chaitanya focuses on growing and farming. Together, they frequently visit dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area that carry their product to train budtenders and meet customers face-to-face.
Their approach to how their cannabis is grown is unique. The garden at Swami Select is designed in the shape of a sacred geometry pattern called Sri Yantra. The idea is that having the garden created in this shape supercharges the cannabis plants that grow within it. The grow also incorporates other rituals.
“When we decide what seeds we’re gonna grow each year, we have a statue of the goddess Ganja Ma, who’s the goddess of cannabis, who was revealed to us from our spiritual teachers,” Chaitanya said. “In her lap, we put these seeds, and then we say a special mantra for the seed.”
Beyond conjuring the goodwill of Ganja Ma, Chaitanya also adds a few drops of water from India’s sacred Ganges River to each seedling.
“The seeds sit in front of the goddess of cannabis for about a month before we plant them,” Chaitanya said. “That charges them up in a very special way. After they’ve cracked and start to sprout, we put them in a little plant container with some soil and then we put another drop of the sacred Ganges water on them. All of this is to create a spiritual basis for the healing and inspiration that the cannabis plant provides for the people who use it, or celebrate its use.”
They have a few statues of Ganja Ma on the property. One in the house (where the seeds sit), another that is placed outdoors during the growing season, and an additional statue that they take with them when visiting various dispensaries for in-store demonstrations.
“We always set her up and explain to people who she is. So you know, this is really infusing the cannabis with this consciousness,” Lastreto said.
Swami Select believes cannabis can help consumers tap into their spirituality.
“[With cannabis], it’s not just your heart that’s open, it’s your mind that’s open,” Chaitanya said. “One of the things that cannabis does is it takes away a lot of your filters, which block out so much of sensory input… All of your different sense organs are heightened and more refined. So that’s why when you smoke cannabis, your food tastes better, you listen to music better, and your creative talents are more liberated and free.
“Cannabis takes away so much of the restriction and limitation and blinders that society puts upon you. When you open up to that, then all of a sudden, you get not just the five senses, but your sixth sense starts to get opened up and your intuition and those sensory feelings about what the magic in the world is and how you relate to it and how energy flows.”
The Sense Of Community
While Lastreto and Chaitanya have been developing their homestead, they’ve also spent years founding local organizations such as the Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association and connecting with other growers in the industry. Chaitanya is a founder and board member of the Origins Council, a statewide organization for cannabis cultivators that aims to preserve historic cannabis regions in California. Lastreto is working on bringing back cannabis farmer’s markets to the area. Together they contribute to the tight-knit community working to preserve the growing history and dedication to craft cannabis in the Emerald Triangle, the cannabis growing hotspot of Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties.
“This is such a passion for all of us and a lifestyle,” Lastreto said. “We know we’re really helping other people by doing this. And it’s just created, like I keep saying, this amazing community.”
Lastreto and Chaitanya have been judges at the Emerald Cup for 18 years (you might have seen them at the recent Emerald Cup awards in Hollywood, California on May 14). Their work with the Emerald Cup has also been the source of a community-driven passion for cannabis.
“When we come together at the Emerald Cup, there’s this great celebration and respect for everyone’s differences,” Chaitanya said. “That’s one of the great things about cannabis. You appreciate and honor the differences between people because we also honor the differences between the different cultivars of cannabis and the different ways of smoking and the different ways you can use it for tinctures and salves. And it’s all about this diversity. And there’s no one way to do it. No one way, no one group.”
Marijuana is an incredibly diverse plant that can assist people in many ways. Swami Select believes cannabis can be a powerful tool for cultivating wellness.
This article appears in the June 2022 issue of High Times. Subscribe here.
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