While the tradition of burning sage has been around for over 4,000 years, it’s become highly popularized and commercialized for modern use. You may have smelled it wafting through yoga studios, seen an influencer using it on your favorite #WitchTok account, or experienced a smoke cleansing during an in-person spiritual ceremony. You might be wondering what the big deal is, or even how to sage a house or room yourself.
While there are many different uses for smoke cleansing, or smudging, one of its most important benefits, according to believers, is clearing out “negative energy” and ensuring that you can find peace and relaxation within your space. However, since Millennials and Gen Z have repopularized the frequent burning of sage, white sage — the most ubiquitous type of herb used — is close to becoming an endangered species. White sage is also typically harvested incorrectly and is usually exclusive to the practice of Indigenous communities. Luckily, there are plenty of other herbs like lavender and frankincense you can use to sage your space for positive energy.
Given sage’s historical origins and the fact that it’s been highly popularized in Western culture, it’s important to know how to properly perform the ritual in a respectful way. To learn more, we spoke with experts to understand where the sacred practice comes from, what the proposed benefits of smoke cleansing are, what to say when burning sage, and how beginners can try it at home in a manner that’s respectful and non-appropriating.
What is smudging?
The main purpose of burning sage — also known as smudging in Native American culture — is to cleanse people of negativity and promote a healing and healthy environment. The Latin name for sage, salvia officinalis, stems from the word “salvia,” which means “to feel healthy,” according to Very Well Mind.
Jenna Volpe, a registered herbalist, dietitian, and holistic healing practitioner spoke to Her Campus about the Indigenous histories revolving smudging. “While smudging nowadays is famous for helping to purify the energy of a space (or a person), it was traditionally used by Native Americans to help remind the mind, body and spirit that we are already pure,” Volpe says.
For non-Indigenous people looking to partake in the smudging practice, you can instead try out “smoke cleansing,” which is separate from the history behind smudging. Smoke cleansing is taking a connected bundle of an herb and lighting the top with a match, initiating the soothing smell and starting the healing process. In Native American culture, the art of smudging is much more than lighting a stick of sage on fire because it involves spiritual elements, and because Indigenous people had to fight for the right to participate in this practice, smudging is specifically only for people in the Indigenous community.
Dr. Rita Louise, Ph.D., a certified hypnotherapist and mindfulness practitioner, says that smudging is a revered spiritual practice that has existed for many centuries. “Smudging has been a part of Native American tradition since ancient times,” she says, adding that it was often used for “cleansing” energy before a holy ceremony or before “calling on spirits.” Today, burning sage has become highly popularized and commodified in Western culture, and it’s important to remember its early sacred roots.
In addition to Native American culture, smudging has been adapted in religious and spiritual traditions like Catholicism and Buddhism. In the Catholic tradition, for example, sage is typically replaced by frankincense and is used to purify the space while paying respect to the prayers of practicing Catholics. In the Buddhist tradition, incense is typically seen as a “divine odor,” with the intention to bless the space and call upon the spirits of Buddhist deities. While the plants and herbs used are different, the common intention is to cleanse the worship space of any negative thoughts or experiences. Now, people are adopting the ritual in their own ways by burning sage in their yoga studio before teaching a class, after a long day at work, or even while manifesting evolutions in their life.
How to respectfully smoke cleanse your space
If you’re not a part of the Indigenous community, Volpe recommends that you cleanse your space by burning a different aromatic plant instead of sage, in order to pay respect to the Native American cultures that founded this practice. Some plants you can use instead of white sage include black sage, garden sage, frankincense, cedar, woodwood, rosemary, mints, lavender, juniper and lemon balm. Similar to white sage, palo santo has also been over-harvested and is now at risk for endangerment, according to the New York Times.
Here’s how to smoke cleanse your space while respecting Indigenous cultures and traditions, according to Volpe:
- Light the small end of your plant bundle and let the smoke and scent fill your room.
- Slowly walk around your room clockwise and think of the negative energy you’re looking to be rid of.
- Make sure you have let the smoke reach every corner of your space before you open the window and let the negative correlations leave your mind, your physical being and your emotional mental health.
- Then place the rest of your bundle in a bowl or on the window ledge to remember your practice during your day.
Volpe suggests incorporating the four elements — water, air, earth and fire — into your cleansing practice. She says you can connect to the earth by choosing an aromatic herb, connect to air by using a feather to waft the smoke around your space, connect to water by placing your resting herbs in a shell, and connect to fire by using a match to light the tip of your bundle. “Storing the cleansing materials on an altar, mantle or bookshelf above waist level when not working with them is considered reverent and good practice,” Volpe says.
One of the benefits of smudging is that it purportedly increases positive energy.
One of the most popular reasons to smoke cleanse is to welcome more “positive” energy into your space. To do this, Dr. Louise says you can set a positive intention — AKA something tangible you’d like to manifest in your life — and burn your choice of herb in your space as a way of marking your intention. The key to smoke cleansing for positive energy is to envision your intention as if it’s already a part of your life, and you’re just using the sage to bring it into fruition, similar to practices of manifestation. Whether you’re ready to be at peace with negative situations or you simply want to relieve stress during finals week, make a clear statement that highlights your intention.
If you’re struggling with what to say while smoke cleansing, start with what’s bringing negative energy into your life.
For example, you might say: “I acknowledge that this is no longer my path and I look toward the universe for guidance on finding my new one.” Then, as you burn your plant and watch the smoke disappear, visualize your tension and negativity fading away.
Dr. Louise tells Her Campus, “For smoke cleansing to be utilized correctly, the user must set the intention so that as the smoke rises, any negative energies are being released and lifted into the air on the wings of the smoke.” If you’re working through a demanding friendship or finding it difficult to move on from a difficult moment with a professor, imagine that negative feeling drifting away as the smoke disappears into the air.
Although cleansing can be a powerful tool for cultivating more positive energy, Dr. Louise says to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. She has often witnessed people stop smoke cleansing after a few tries because they don’t see immediate results. However, like most emotional healing practices —therapy, manifestation, journaling — change takes time.
“After people smoke cleanse, they might not immediately discover any changes to their well-being and assume that the use of sage does not work,” Dr. Louise tells Her Campus. “They often do not understand that herbs, like many energy healing elements, only work when our intentions are clearly stated and held deeply in our hearts.” If you’re not noticing an immediate change after smoke cleansing in your space, try to set a clear intention and keep an open mind.
You’ll want to be careful about where you buy sage alternatives.
While you may be able to buy sage in a local Sephora or Urban Outfitters, remember that many spiritual kits are inauthentic, unsustainable, and forms of cultural appropriation. If you’re looking to burn sage in your space respectfully, you’ll want to buy authentic herbs from Indigenous-owned businesses or ethically wild-harvested and certified organic businesses like Mountain Rose Herbs. You can buy sage alternatives like lavender and rosemary bundles from ethically-conscious small businesses like The Perennial Homestead — which harvests its plans straight from a Nebraska field. However, stay away from plants like sage and palo santo to respect their Indigenous roots. Now, if you’re looking for the most respectful way to gather plants for smoke cleansing, grow your own! It’s surprisingly easy to do — all you need is a pot, some dirt, water and some seeds and you’re ready to authentically smoke cleanse.
If you’re a college student living in a dorm or small space that doesn’t allow you to burn anything, consider investing in a sage spray, made entirely of common culinary sage. This will allow you to connect with the positive effects of smoke cleansing without setting off a smoke alarm.
Whether you smoke cleanse or spray throughout your space, be sure to focus on awareness and intention. If you’re going to invest in the act of smoke cleansing, make sure you acknowledge its sacred history as well as how to properly and respectfully partake in this practice. Assess the negativity in your life — whether it’s getting a low grade in an exam or having issues with your roommate — and consider incorporating a mantra or affirmation that can help boost positivity in your space.