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December 10, 2019

Incense rituals, from ancient times to modern practice


There is something magical and evocative in the fragrant fumes of burning incense. Perhaps it’s the scent of it, evoking long forgotten memories, forgotten sensations.  Perhaps it’s the power of the smoke itself. 


I revel in the ceremonial aspect of lighting incense, watching it sparkle slightly when touched by a match, gently fanning the flame to soften it into a smoulder. I am fascinated to follow the ever-changing trails and wisps of aromatic smoke as it wafts upward. Incense creates a beautifully calming and positive atmosphere, it sets the mood for meditation, yoga and for just feeling good. I often burn some form of incense - such as palo santo wood, sage leaves or natural breu resins sticks - before I begin to work on a creative project. I feel it creates an environment for focus and clarity, it invites inspiration, and has become a personal ritual for me, the signal of moving from a busy, distracted state of mind to one that is quiet and peaceful, open to inspiration. 


In the quest to create a sustainable home yoga and meditation practice, adding rituals is a wonderful way to add depth and distinction, texture and richness, making your practice more personal, meaningful and enjoyable.


Rituals have been used for all of human history to mark passages, to create ceremony, to celebrate and to bring people together. Rituals have power. They remind us that we are part of something larger and greater than ourselves, and they allow us to tap into that universality. 


There are many many different rituals around the world, in all the different traditions, and since the beginning of time. So much diversity, and yet we are all one, we are all part of the human culture.  Perhaps by drawing on the traditions and rituals of our greater human culture we can connect with our ancestral lineage and heritage, long forgotten by our modern brains. And when we take inspiration and borrow respectfully from traditions we were not born into, I think it’s an opportunity to learn about other cultures, and from there to create rituals that are all our own.


One of the most globally used rituals that goes back for millennia, probably to the most ancient people on earth, is the use of sacred smoke, the burning of incense in it's various forms. 


I was in Paris last year and went to an incredibly interesting, interactive exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi, Scents of China: The Culture of Incense in the Time of the Emperors.  It was fascinating to see samples of the aromatic substances they burned as incense so long ago, to actually smell it as the curators had recreated ancient lost recipes for visitors to experience (scents so very different to what we would use today), and to discover the reverence and high value the Chinese emperors and their noble court had for the ritual of incense in their daily lives for millennia.  Inspired by this, and with the deep interest I have of art history after three years of studies at the Louvre Art History School, I wanted to know more about sacred smoke rituals across cultures that formed the base of my own personal incense rituals.


There are many different rituals, ceremonies and beliefs related to the use of smoke.  And yet we find so many similarities, in the materials used for burning and they way they are burned.  Across all ancient cultures, in temples and in homes, beautiful objects called braziers were used to burn incense.  Incense is the general term used for all the aromatic substances - sacred woods, tree resins and medicinal plants - burned over charcoals in a brazier to create beautiful fragrant smoke, wafting up as offerings and messages to the gods or the ancestors, for spiritual journeys, and for healing.


Here is a brief journey back in time, which I hope will give you a whole new perspective on the next stick of incense you light at home.  



The first recorded use of incense was in Ancient Egypt during the Fifth Dynasty, about 4500 years ago. Incense burning was an important ritual in all eras of Ancient Egyptian history; rare and precious woods, resins and spices were imported from faraway lands to be burned in temples all throughout Egypt as offerings to the gods. Paintings in the tombs and temples record the expeditions to faraway lands to acquire these rare and precious things: frankincense from the land of Punt, cedarwood from the Levant, galbanum from Persia.  Recipes for kyphi incense are recorded on the walls of the Edfu and Philae temples. It was made up of 16 natural ingredients such as honey, raisins, sweet rush, wine, myrrh, frankincense, calamus, bitumin, mint, mimosa, cinnamon, cardamom, and orrisroot, and was mixed by a secret ritual to the chants of sacred texts. 


Starting as far back as 1000 BCE, the Ancient Imperial Chinese, had a long and rich incense culture.  Incense was a practical tool, a style of life and a sign of prosperity.  They believed the smoke from burning incense had many uses. The incense burning on their home altars and in their temples allowed them to commune with their ancestors and gods, who were invited back to earth by the scented smoke. Incense was used as a perfect companion for study and meditation, to purify their spaces and protect from harmful influences. Incense was also burned for medicinal purposes and personal hygiene.  Some of the most beautiful incense burning braziers and interesting incense recipes come to us from Ancient China.  The Chinese scoured the world they knew to import exotic substances to burn such as sandalwood and agarwood, frankincense, myrrh, benzoin, copal, and liquidambar resins, spices including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, licorice root, dried plants such as galbanum, angelica, magnolia, patchouli and rhubarb.  They were burned in their raw state or powdered, combined and mixed with honey and oils then molded into sticks.


In Ancient Mesopotamia, cypress and cedarwood were burned in the temples as offerings to the gods.  Sweet sandalwood was mentioned in the Hindu Vedic texts, and is still burned in Hindu and Buddhist temples today, for purification rituals and for connection to the divine. In Buddhist temples incense is burned in honour of the Buddha’s path, as a means to purify and clear away negative qualities within oneself, and the transient nature of the smoke reminds of the ever-changing nature of life.  


Agarwood comes from a tree that grows in South East Asia and has been coveted for ritual purposes for thousands of years.  It was mentioned in all seminal texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  It is still highly prized today across all cultures, and particularly in the Middle East (where it is known as oud), for it’s beautiful scent when burned, for it’s many benefits for the mind and body (promotes calmness, mental clarity and focus, sense of harmony), and for its rarity.  High quality agarwood is extremely rare, and is one of the most expensive raw materials in the world.


Frankincense and myrrh resins, dried and crystalized sap from the boswellia sacra and commiphora trees, have long been considered rare and precious offerings across all ancient cultures. Frankincense was sought for it’s beautiful scent, it’s medicinal properties, as for use in rite of passage ceremonies.  It is still today one of the most sacred of all essences to be burned as incense. 


South American shamans, particularly in Peru and Ecuador, have been burning palo santo for hundreds and hundreds of years as a way of purifying and cleansing negative energies and evil spirits from spaces, groups of people and individuals, and for raising positive vibrations.  Palo santo, which means “holy wood” is also prized and burned for it’s healing properties.  South American resins such as copal and breu are also burned for their spiritual and healing properties. Extracted from the Almacega tree of the Amazon rainforest, breu is used in healing rituals to ward off dark spirits and invite good energy.


Native Americans and First Nations use local herbs such as sage, sweetgrass and cedar. The ceremonies, beliefs, the use and combinations of the herbs can be very different from culture to culture.  The sacred smoke from the burning of these plants can be used for prayers, for purifying, for invoking spirits, or for awaking the soul. These herbs are considered to be medicines by the indigenous people and are used for healing.  The act of burning these sacred plants is called smudging - at least that is the English word for it, the Indigenous people have other terms.  



Burning incense can add depth, meaning and connection to your home practice.  It will add a dimension of sensoriality, awakening your senses.  It will enable you to create a peaceful, inspiring and positively charged atmosphere in your home and in your practice.


What can we burn as incense in our modern practice?  We can take our cue from the Ancients or from Native traditions still used today and choose bundles or loose leaves of plants and herbs, sticks or shavings of aromatic woods, drops of raw tree resins. Plants are powerful. When you burn any part of them, it is as though you are releasing the soul of the plant along with all the benefits and energies of each one.  This is a short list, of the most commonly used today, and you can unleash your creativity by learning more and making your own incense blends and bundles.  When purchasing, be adamant about the sustainability and the ethics involved in the harvest and of these materials and any incense that is manufactured from them.  


Sacred Aromatic Woods (fairly easy to burn if you have a fire-proof container, they come in the form of sticks, shavings, powdered wood): 

  • Palo Santo - ideal for purifying a space and bringing in positive energies
  • Sandalwood - sweet and sacred
  • Agarwood - difficult to find and very expensive
  • Cedarwood - for purifying, it also evokes the protection and wisdom of ancient forests

Resins (the raw, unprocessed tree resin drops are a bit more complicated to use, they need to be burned with great care in special burning containers using specialized charcoal disks): 

  • Frankincense
  • Myrrh
  • Copal
  • Breu

Herbs and plants (the easiest way to burn natural incense): 

  • White sage - This powerful herb is used for cleansing spaces, objects and people of negative energy.
  • Cedar leaves - Also a powerful plant used for purifying spaces, object and people.  
  • Sweetgrass - Native people pick it and braid it in 3 strands representing love, kindness and honesty.  It’s used for spiritual purification, and its sweet smell has a calming effect. 


You can make your own incense bundles by growing or gathering wild aromatic plants and herbs that are local to you: thyme, rosemary, garden sage, lavender, mugwort (artemesia), mint, rose petals to name but a few. Tie them into tight bundles, 4” to 6” long, and dry them for use in your personal incense rituals.


And of course you can just buy some incense, which is most commonly found in the form of sticks and also cones.  There are almost unlimited options to choose from.  If you choose pre-made incense, be wary and careful to choose incense that is made from 100% natural plant ingredients.  Many of the commercial incense sticks available are made from synthetic materials, synthetic fragrances, and use glues to bind them.  Remember, you will be breathing in the smoke, and I’m sure you’d prefer to breath in the soul of plant instead of a whole lot of chemicals!  So choose with care.  Try our Artisanal Breu Resin Incense, all natural, plant-based, and hand-made in Brazil.



Empower your home yoga and meditation practice with a personal sacred smoke ritual.  Here are some tips to get you started with the practice of burning incense. And I encourage you to research, learn and experiment so that you can find your own incense rituals, make them personal.


  1. First, a safety note.  We are literally playing with fire here, so please take care and caution when burning any type of incense.  Never leave burning incense unattended.
  1. Find an appropriate, fire-proof container to contain your burning incense, either a holder for an incense stick with a place to catch the ashes, a ceramic or metal burning bowl.  Some Native cultures choose to use an abalone shell.
  1. Choose your incense.  To get started, choose something easy to work with such as an all-natural pre-made incense stick, a cone of palo santo, a stick of palo santo wood or a white sage smudge stick.
  1. Light your incense with a wooden match - more natural than a lighter.  Once it is well lit, gently blow out the flames, let the material smoulder.  This smoulder is what will create the beautiful, fragrant smoke. 
  1. Gently waft the smoke around the room you are in, making sure to get into all corners to clear out any hidden negative energies.  You can easily do this by hand, or take a cue from our North American indigenous cultures and use a large feather.  Once again, be very careful to use a fire-proof container and not drop ashes on the floor.
  1. You can also waft the smoke over yourself or another person to clear away negative energies. 
  1. Choose a direction. Some people prefer to waft the smoke in a spiral in a counter clockwise direction, some people prefer clockwise.  I’m feeling good these days about a figure 8.  Do whatever feels right for you
  1. Tune into your intention to purify and bring positive vibrations to your space, home or person, visualize pure, positive energy.
  1. Let the smoke go.  The sacred smoke will trap negative energies, so be sure to let them out through an open window or door.
  1. Dispose of the ashes with intention. The ashes of your burnt incense also absorb the negative energies so treat them with intention, dispose of them by putting them back into the earth (ie spread them on your garden).




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