Sanctuary in Smoke

By Belinda Recio / September 10, 2011

In an Anglican church, a priest swings a censer back and forth, releasing wisps of aromatic smoke that linger in the air like spirits. On the 27th night of Ramadan, the Islamic holy fast, a Muslim burns incense to dispel negative energy. Every morning and night, during the Hindu ceremony called Agni Hota, or Holy Fire, the devout light a ritual fire on which they burn incense. Participants in the Japanese Kohdo ritual, or “the way of incense,” concentrate intensely in order to “listen” to the fragrances being burned. And prior to a sweat lodge ceremony, a Lakota smudges, or burns sage, to purify the participants and ceremonial space.

As part of their faiths, people from all over the world engage in the burning of aromatics, or incense, a practice that probably dates back to the discovery of fire. Plant resins (frankincense, myrrh, and copal), aromatic woods (sandalwood, agar wood, and cinnamon), and herbs (lavender, rosemary, and sage) were intentionally burned for the effects of their aromatic smoke. When our ancestors first observed that smoke rises, it came to symbolize the union of heaven and earth, and spirit and matter. As a result, smoke became a vehicle for communication with the spirit world, capable of carrying our prayers to heaven. For Buddhists, who use incense as an integral part of meditation, the rising smoke and fragrance of incense symbolizes unity with the higher realms of consciousness. Similarly, in the Christian tradition, incense smoke represents prayers ascending to heaven to honor God and the saints. Because Hindus view rising smoke as a way to carry the soul to the beyond, they use incense ceremonially during cremation to support the journey of the deceased to the afterlife.

Burning aromatics is also an ancient way of gaining access to the spirit of plants. Through thousands of years of exploring the mysteries of the botanical world, people came to know the characteristics of many plants, including those qualities released during burning. The word, “perfume,” which comes from the Latin, par fumare, means “through smoke,” and many cultures have long believed that the wisdom and energy in a plant can be released by burning it. The spirit, or power, of a plant might heal the body, soothe the soul, facilitate communication with the gods, or impart wisdom to us about ourselves and the world.

One of the rituals involving the ceremonial burning of dried plants, called “smudging,” comes from Native-American traditions. These traditions teach that the smoke of burning plants, such as wild sage, sweetgrass, pine, and juniper, strengthens us, gives us courage, helps us on our spiritual journeys, and connects us to the sacred. During the ritual of smudging, a space, individual, or group is bathed in aromatic smoke, clearing the air, as well as the hearts and minds of those present.

In recent times, the practice of smudging has been widely adopted by people of diverse cultural and spiritual backgrounds. Healers, in particular, are drawn to the power of smudging. Massage therapists, acupuncturists, and others use it to clear the energy in their offices between clients, and it is used in the reception areas of spas to prepare clients for the relaxing treatments that await them.


Making a Smudge Stick

You can smudge by using a smudge stick—a bundle of dried herbs bound together with string—or by burning loose, dried leaves in a shell or other fireproof container.

Generally, sage is used for purifying, because Native Americans believe that it banishes negative energy, whereas sweetgrass, in contrast, calls forth good energy. You can make a smudge stick by using just one type of plant, such as sage, or, you can make a smudge stick by combining any of the following plants: sage, cedar, juniper, pinon pine, and rosemary. Use herbs you grow yourself or visit a pick-your-own herb farm. When cutting from trees, such as cedar, be sure to select only very small sprigs.

What You Need

Fresh plant sprigs (dried sprigs crumble), cotton string or thread.

Arranging the Sprigs

Cut fresh sprigs about 4 to 6 inches in length. Select a sturdy and lengthy sprig as a base, and arrange other sprigs around it until you have a diameter of about an inch or so.

Wrapping the Bundle

Once you have the sprigs arranged, wrap the string around the bundle, starting at the bottom. Use only cotton string or thread because synthetic fibers can produce noxious fumes. You need to wind the string around the base several times to secure it tightly. After the base is secure, wrap the string up and around the rest of the bundle several times. The string should be fairly tight because the plants will shrink as they dehydrate.

Drying the Smudge Stick

When you are finished wrapping your smudge stick, hang it in a cool dry place, out of direct sunlight, until the sprigs no longer feel moist. To accelerate the drying process, you can wrap your smudge stick tightly in old newspapers or sheets of newsprint, changing the paper every few days until the smudge stick dries (usually within a week, depending upon humidity).


To smudge, light the end of the smudge stick (or loose leaves in a bowl or shell), let the sprigs burn for a few seconds, and then gently blow on it to extinguish the flame. Fan the embers to keep them smoldering and producing smoke. When smudging a space, carry the smudge stick or pot of smoking leaves around the space. When smudging yourself or another individual, the intent is not to inhale the smoke, but to allow it to wash over the person. Use a fan, feather, or your hands to circulate the smoke evenly around the person you are smudging, but try to keep a healthy “breathing space” at all times.

• Keep burning smudge stick within sight.

• Keep out of the reach of children and pets.

• Never burn on or near anything that can catch fire.

Properties and Uses of Resins and Herbs

A variety of resins, woods, barks, and other plant material are used in incense and smudging. Below is a list of some of the more popular plants used in aromatic burning and some of the healing properties and symbolism with which they are associated.


Frankincense: Communicating with a higher plane, healing, stress reduction

Myrrh: Calming, wellbeing, grounding

Benzoin: Imagination, creativity, inner peace

Copal: Spiritual cleansing, grounding, inspiration, healing


Sandalwood: Vitality, stress-relief, harmony

Agars wood/Aloes wood: Centering, healing

Cinnamon: Calming, sensuous, relaxing, opens the heart


Sage: Cleansing, healing, memory, wisdom, harmony

Cedar: Energy, protection, luck, strength, decision making

Sweetgrass: Cleansing, calls forth positive energy, healing

Balsam: Happiness, luck, wealth, imagination

Juniper: Cleansing, mental alertness, energy recharge

Lavender: Clearing, cleansing, healing

Rosemary: Mental strength, clarity, cleansing

Pine: Protection, courage, emotional strength

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio is a writer and curator working at the intersections of nature, art, and soul. She has authored books and iOS apps on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from animals to sacred arts. She is the founder of True North Gallery, where she exhibits art that connects people with the natural world. She is also a past recipient of the United States Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals and Society.
Belinda Recio

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