Are you empathic/energetically sensitive, and interested in learning about smudging as a newbie?! If so, you’re in the right place. 😉
With Michael and I both being very energetically sensitive, smudging is a regular practice in our home and in our offices too!
I’m grateful to have learned about smudging back in 2011 and have since been reaping its many benefits for over a decade at this point.
I also have some pretty entertaining stories about various family members, friends and colleagues who have inquired about the cannabis-like aroma and smoke frequently wafting out of my bedroom and office over the years! White sage apparently smells very similar to cannabis…
(For the record, I actually don’t work with cannabis at all, and have been phasing out of white sage for a while now too… details on that below!).
Entertainment aside, smudging is a wonderful, timeless practice that I hope many more people will learn about and get the opportunity to practice in the coming years.
Affiliate disclosure: This post contains affiliate links (*) for some products that I love and use myself. If you make a purchase from one of my affiliate links, it means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my small business!
What exactly is “smudging” and where did it come from?
Although smudging and incense burning have recently evolved into popular New Age trends, these aromatic traditions actually date back thousands of years and are rooted in rich cultural origin worldwide! The term “smudging” specifically originates from the indigenous Native American culture.
Smudging, incense burning and “smoke cleansing” all involve the practice and ritual of burning aromatic plants to create sacred, aromatic, medicinal smoke to help purify energy, usually either in a person’s aura or in a particular space.
There are various herbs that can be used in smudging ritual, but white sage is the most popular and well-known.
- According to one of my teachers, Sajah Popham of the Evolutionary School of Herbalism, indigenous people work with sage to help remind the mind, body and spirit that we are ALREADY pure (1).
White sage: sustainability concerns
Sadly there are now sustainability issues related to the over-harvesting of white sage.
Indigenous tribes in present-day have requested that the general public (especially in the New Age movement) stop using white sage since it’s now walking the line of becoming an endangered plant species.
Fortunately, there are LOTS of wonderful aromatic herbal alternatives to white sage that work just as well (keep reading).
Benefits of smudging
There’s a reason smudging practices have withstood the test of time for thousands of years- they seem to really work on many levels!
Smudging and incense burning have been shown to offer a multitude of benefits physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
From clearing the air of viral/bacterial/fungal pathogens, to cleansing and purifying the energy of a personal, object or space, to invoking profound mental/emotional healing pathways in the brain, to enhancing meditations, and much more…
- A 2007 study from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that “medicinal smoke” (smudging) was able to successfully eliminate 100% of pathogenic (disease-causing) airborne bacteria strains including Corynebacterium urealyticum, Curtobacterium flaccumfaciens, Enterobacter aerogenes (Klebsiella mobilis), Kocuria rosea, Pseudomonas syringae pv. persicae, Staphylococcus lentus, and Xanthomonas campestris pv. tardicrescens within a 30-day period (2)! Kind of a big deal!
Supports mental and cognitive function
- Aromatic constituents of sage (salvia) and other plants have been shown to help with improving memory, focus and more! (3)
Helps with mood
- A study from 2010 found that aromatic sage helped to significantly uplift mood in people! (4)
- In 2016, sage (salvia) was found to enhance meditation (5) and for thousands of years, various types of aromatic herbs and incense have been worked with for this same purpose.
At this point you’re probably wondering: how can I get started smudging?!
Materials and supplies needed for smudging
The 4 elements of nature: earth, water, air, and fire
The four elements (earth, water, air and fire) are traditionally incorporated into smudging rituals.
Sacred plants (aromatic herbs) represent the gifts from Mother Earth, and are often prepared/bundled into smudge sticks or loose blends.
- In other various types of smoke cleansing rituals, the sacred aromatic plants can also be burned as wooden pieces (such as in cedar/palo santo), or via incense cones/sticks/blends.
The “four sacred plants” traditionally used in Native American smudging rituals are:
Tobacco represents the East direction on the Medicine Wheel; it’s traditionally left as an offering or gift back to Mother Earth, in exchange for the aromatic plant being harvested.
Sweetgrass braids represent the North direction on the Medicine Wheel; sweetgrass is worked with for calling in pure, healing, positive, protective energies (used towards the end of a smudging ritual).
(3) White sage
White sage represents the West direction on the Medicine Wheel; this plant is traditionally worked with for the purpose reminding our mind, body and spirit that we are already pure (1).
Cedar represents the Southern direction on the Medicine Wheel; it assists with encouraging unwanted spirits to leave, and for protection of a person/home/space.
In lieu of holding reverence for Native American culture:
- It’s recommended to keep these sacred smudging herbs on an altar, mantle or bookshelf above waist level while you’re not working with them!
- As I mentioned earlier, it’s recommended and encouraged to try using alternatives to white sage for the sake of sustainable and ethical harvesting. Fortunately when it comes to aromatic herbs for smudging, we’ve got LOTS of options to choose from!
Herbs for smudging: alternatives to white sage
- Cedar smudge sticks*
- Juniper smudge sticks
- Pine needle smudge sticks
- Sandalwood smudge sticks
- Rosemary smudge sticks
- Lavender smudge sticks
- Mugwort smudge sticks*
- Copal resin*
- Eucalyptus smudge sticks
- Frankincense* + Myrhh* resins
Traditionally an abalone shell, clam shell, large seashell, or clay pot is used to serve as a heat-safe, fire-proof vessel to hold the smudging herbs. A shell of some kind traditionally represents the water element, since it comes from the sea.
A large feather (such as that of a hawk, turkey tail, swan, or local bird) is traditionally incorporated in the smudging ritual to help waft and disperse the aromatic smoke into the air.
The smoke itself is also representative of the air element.
The aromatic herbs (smudge sticks) are lit on fire (hence the fire element), to disperse/dispense the aromas into the air. Wooden matches are traditionally used in indigenous culture, but a lighter will work too if you don’t have any matches on-hand.
Birch basket for your smudging materials: Indigenous Native American tribes often traditionally store the smudging materials in a birch basket when they’re not smudging.
Wooden tripod for the Abalone shell: I was gifted a few of these to go with my Abalone shells, so we use these in our home. A tripod isn’t necessary or required, but it can be helpful as a stand for your Abalone shell if you don’t want to leave it directly on your furniture – especially while the herbs are burning!
Smudging for beginners: the step-by-step process
1. Preparing your space
Clean and clear your space of unwanted clutter, for reverence and also for extra impact. You may also want to wipe down countertops, vacuum, dust etc.
This step is important because clutter, dirt, dust and grime are said to negatively impact the energy of a space!
Pro-tip: I also highly recommend making sure the windows are open if you’re smudging indoors! Not only does this allow the old stagnant energies to “escape” or be released out of the room, but it also reduces the likelihood of your smoke alarms going off. (May have learned that last part the hard way!) 😉
2. Setting up your materials
You’ll need each of the following:
- Smudging herbs/smudge stick of choice
- Clay pot, abalone shell, seashell or clam shell for holding the smudging herbs
- A feather of choice (I try to use one I found locally but these are also available for purchase online or in some local stores)
- Wooden matches (or a lighter will work, too!)
3. Smudging rituals
How do you smudge?
In your room, office or home, place your smudge stick or loose dried aromatic herbs of choice in the shell/pot.
Light the smudging herbs at the end of the smudge stick bundle (or loose herbs in the shell) for about 15-20 seconds, enough to create a steady waft of smoke with some embers but no big flames remaining when you start to smudge. (If you notice lots of flames, I recommend blowing those out!)
While holding your shell with the smudge herbs which have now been lit and wafting smoke, move slowly around each room or around the person, clockwise. Continue wafting the smoke intentionally, using the feather or a smudge wand as needed. (You may want to keep a few matches or the lighter on-hand, in case you need to re-light your dried aromatic smudging herbs.)
Gently use the feather/smudge wand to move the smoke around the specific areas where you intend to purify the energy or air. (Remember, this can be done in a room, office, home, or even for people/crystals/objects!)
If you’re smudging a room, make sure the sacred aromatic smoke reaches the nooks, crannies and corners where energy can tend to collect and become more stagnant.
If you’re smudging yourself or another person, you’ll want to make sure the wafts of smoke reach every area around their physical body within 3 to 5 feet (the aura)!
Let the ashes collect in the fire-proof shell, clay pot or bowl as you go.
Smudging: does direction matter?
In Native American culture, indigenous people honor and take into account the 4 directions of the Medicine Wheel (North, South, East and West). The Medicine Wheel moves in the clockwise (sun-wise) direction which is said to be in alignment with the forces of nature such as gravity, the sun patterns and the moon (6).
The indigenous tribes traditionally begin smudging while facing the East (which corresponds with the morning, springtime, and new beginnings), then to South (representing the summertime, creativity, and the afternoon), followed by the West (fall/autumn season, introspection, and the evening time), and finally North (corresponding with the winter season, sleep/hibernation/restoration, and nighttime) (1).
- You may need a compass for this, or you can use the “Compass” app on your phone! You may also reference the sun as a guide, remembering the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. 😉
In mystery school teachings, I was advised by various mentors over the years to move in the clockwise direction when smudging, as this direction of movement helps to open the space up to more light and disperse energies up and out.
What to say while smudging?
You don’t need to say anything during your smudging ritual, and there’s no specific “right” or “wrong” thing to say while smudging!
But whatever you decide to say while smudging, make sure it aligns with your intention, and of course hold reverence.
A few examples of what you can say while smudging:
- I have been taught to say the “Our Father” prayer while smudging a room to clear out negative energy.
- I often include a Prayer of Protection that I learned during my “Empower Thyself” initiation via the Modern Mystery School (I’m not authorized to disclose this, but I highly recommend learning it yourself through the program at some point!)
- You can also say something pretty straight-forward and to-the-point, such as: “I release and let go of anything not in alignment with my highest good!”
Bottom line: while smudging, just make sure to say or think something that aligns with YOUR intentions!
How often should you smudge?
The answer to this is totally up to you! Give it a try and see what feels best. Pay attention to how you feel, and remember to check in with yourself and tune into the energy of your space.
- If you feel weighed down or struggle as an empath with taking on the feelings/energies of others, or if you’ve been around others who are depressed/anxious/angry, etc., smudging should definitely become a regular practice!
You may also want to take into account sustainability – not just in terms of the plant materials, but also your time and resources!
- What’s a realistic way to incorporate this into your routine regularly without “burning out”? (Yes, pun intended!) I say this because spiritual practices can start to become somewhat addicting the more you learn – it’s easy to get caught up in this stuff and procrastinate if you’re not careful. Just something to be mindful of. 😉
Personally, once a month is the max amount of time I’ll go without smudging, but I’ve typically tried to smudge at least once a week and before/after all healing sessions I do in-person.
Are there any negative effects of smudging?
From an energetic standpoint, the smudging practice is 100% safe!
The biggest safety precaution that comes to mind is to make sure you’re being safe and responsible in terms of fire safety. (It goes without saying, but please don’t leave your smudge stick/incense still burning after you leave a room! And as soon as you see an ember hit the ground, make sure to stomp it out ASAP.)
It’s also been recommended not to inhale too much smoke directly, as this can dry out the lungs.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, indigenous tribes have asked us to please stop harvesting white sage. This overharvesting practice is driving the plant to extinction in the wild which is very upsetting and not sustainable.
All in all, ethical and sustainable smudging can be an amazing practice to add into your regular routine, or just to try out in general!
Have you smudged before? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!!
- Popham, Sajah. “Elemental Herbalism” Online Program. Evolutionary School of Herbalism, https://www.evolutionaryherbalism.com/elemental-herbalism-program/
- Nautiyal CS, Chauhan PS, Nene YL. Medicinal smoke reduces airborne bacteria. J Ethnopharmacol. 2007 Dec 3;114(3):446-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2007.08.038. Epub 2007 Aug 28. PMID: 17913417.
- Lopresti, Adrian L. “Salvia (Sage): A Review of its Potential Cognitive-Enhancing and Protective Effects.” Drugs in R&D vol. 17,1 (2017): 53-64. doi:10.1007/s40268-016-0157-5
- Moss, L., Rouse, M., Wesnes, K.A. and Moss, M. (2010), Differential effects of the aromas of Salvia species on memory and mood. Hum. Psychopharmacol. Clin. Exp., 25: 388-396. https://doi.org/10.1002/hup.1129
- Umit Sayin, H. (2016), Psychoactive Plants Used during Religious Rituals. Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse. Volume 3, 17-28. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-800634-4.00002-0
- Native Voices. “Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing.” National Institutes of Health, Health & Human Services, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/medicine-wheel.html. Accessed September 19, 2021