My yoga teacher lights a bundle of sage, holds it over an abalone shell, and walks around the studio letting the smoke clear the air before teaching class. This ritual goes beyond aesthetics; smudging in general, and burning sage in particular, has a cleansing effect, not just on the air but on the energetics of the room as well as the people within. Lighting a fire connects us to our very humanity and unites us to our ancestors around the world. Throughout time, different peoples have burned aromatic plants not only for the fragrance but also for the medicinal, energetic, and even spiritual properties. When clearing a space for use by a new group of people, like a yoga class, or moving into a new home or office space, smudging can literally clear the air by removing negativity and restoring balance.
While we may often think of smudging as being a Native American ceremony, burning herbs, plants, and incense has roots in nearly every culture worldwide. From the Asian arts of incense-making to the European and Middle-Eastern burning of frankincense and myrrh, lighting herbs aflame is not only a medicinal and cleansing practice; it is representative of transformation, the transmutation of matter into spirit. The Native American practice of smudging has a rich and varied tradition spanning both American continents, incorporating plants, materials, and traditions connected to local cultures and peoples.
Materials used for smudging were often traded over long distances, like the abalone shells used by many groups. Other vessels, such as clay bowls, are based on the ceremony and place. Smoke is wafted by hand or spread with a bird feather. Hawk, owl, turkey, and even eagle feathers can be ceremoniously decorated, or other feathers can be painted to resemble these birds.
Numerous herbs can be burned, and although the plant’s fragrance, whether sweet or pungent, is a delightful sensory component of the ritual, smudging itself has a deeper meaning, and many of the plants chosen reflect this. Sage (not the turkey stuffing spice but a shrub that comes in multiple varieties), cedar, sweetgrass, and copal resin are a few of the most common Native American herbs.
According to Rob Hawley, herbalist and owner of Taos Herb Company, which supplies smudging herbs, sage is a healing and cleansing spirit and plant. In bundles, or sprinkled on a coal or fire, it is commonly used in personal and public ceremonies including traditional sweat lodges. Cedar, Hawley says, is commonly used along with sage because cedar protects against disease and negative influences. Sweetgrass is described by many people as the very breath of the earth mother; Hawley says it represents love and nurturance. Sweetgrass is often seen braided into dry green plaits. These can be burned bit by bit or the herb can be chopped and scattered over a burning coal or fire.
Even though sage sticks or sweetgrass braids can be burned on their own, after setting a match or lighter to the dried plant, catching the ashes in a shell or other vessel is important not only to the ceremony, but also for safety concerns. Alternatively, coals can be lit in a shell, bowl, incense burner, or other vessel, and copal resin, herb cuttings, or a mixture of aromatic plants can smolder on the heat, sending up smoke. You can collect herbs yourself from a garden or outdoor stroll, buy herbs in bulk at a health-food store, or order from a reputable supplier.
For a simple ritual, gather a sage bundle or sweetgrass braid, and set a match to the dried herb. Let it burn brightly for a few moments, then blow it out and wave the plant around your body, starting at your head and circling your body to your feet. Close your eyes and smell the scent of transformational smoke. This removes negative influences and helps promote personal energetic and spiritual cleansing. After infusing your body with smoke, place the bundle or braid into the shell or bowl and make sure the fire is out. Pause. Breathe. Feel the sense of transformation and the connection to generations of your ancestors who burned the same sacred and symbolic plants.