Appreciate, Don't Appropriate: How to Clear Your Space and Aura Without Being A Culturally Insensitive Jerk
You'd be hard-pressed to walk past a yoga studio in Los Angeles without hitting a pleasantly soft wall of Palo Santo-scented smoke. And I don't think I could even enter a meditation event last year without getting my energy cleansed with a burning bush of sage.
No doubt — scent plays a major role in our wellbeing. Historically, it's been a way for humans to deepen their spirituality. Aromas can transport us to a moment in the past (all I need is a whiff of Teen Spirit Orchard Blossom to immediately get plopped back into my freshman year Algebra 1 class), but they have the power to take us to another world entirely.
Most religious and spiritual traditions include scent as part of ritual — even today, the Catholic church uses incense in ceremony. This olfactory sensation usually plays two roles: it elevates the ceremonial space, alchemizing it from a "normal" room to a third space; the scent has spiritual significance, either cleansing bad energy from people and the room, providing a sweet offering to deities above, or working its own kind of plant magic.
Listen, if you've ever lit a scented candle and instantly seen your mood go from I-hate-everyone-I-can't-wait-to-take-off-my-bra-and-watch-Netflix-and-eat-in-bed-forever to "World peace," you know how powerful scent can be.
Cool cool cool. So it makes sense (ha!) that wonderful scents like Palo Santo, sage, copal, and other incense varietals are poppin' off. Like, you can now find Palo Santo at Urban Outfitters ... To which I say: WONDERFUL! Use these magical, historical, and holy smells to elevate your life and your own unique spiritual practices as often as you want — after you've educated yourself on their origins and intended use.
"But whyyyyyyy," says the 17-year old hipster with her arms piled high with bundles of Palo Santo as she stands in line at UO. Listen, I know. It's tough stuff, taking the time to appreciate, rather than appropriate, other cultures. We are all busy. We have things, so many things, to do. But taking important — nay, sacred — objects from other cultures and integrating them into our own lives comes with the responsibility of understanding the "why" behind those objects' value and traditional use.
And once you understand the how and why of things, you can make your own judgment call as to how you choose to use those objects in your life. Perhaps you will use Palo Santo as a very lovely (albeit, very expensive) room diffuser. That's your call. But just like it's our responsibility to educate ourselves about who made our clothes, how our meat is raised, and whether the companies we support treat their workers well, it's our responsibility to know and honor the spiritual traditions of cultures we choose to borrow from.
We've put together a light primer, so take a deep dive into the Googs to learn more about all of these glorious holy smokes. And disclaimer: I am a white, cis woman who is certainly not trained in any indigenous healing or spiritual ceremony. The best way to learn about these traditions is to someone who practices them, and hopefully this article serves to give you enough superficial information to begin your own research!
Literally meaning, "holy wood," Palo Santo comes from fallen trees in the South America. Hot tip: It's said that Palo Santo wood is only holy if it comes from trees that have died of natural causes — so farmed Palo is off-limits. Genetically, it's related to myrrh and frankincense, and indigenous people believed that Palo Santo's sweet scent has magical qualities and that its oil is a manifestation of the spirits within the tree wood. It's been used in religious rites and rituals in South America for millennia, dating back to use in the Incan empire.
Medicine people, healers, and indigenous tribes still use Palo Santo before and during spiritual ceremonies to purify people, places, and objects. Palo Santo is considered extremely holy, and it's also endangered. If you use it, be sure to buy from a source that practices ethical farming.
Ah, white sage. Found along the coastal scrub of California and Baja California (Mexico), it's a silvery white bush that is used by indigenous tribes in these areas for everyday and sacred rituals. The seeds of white sage are used to make a porridge called pinole, the leaves can be roasted and eaten, and in the case of sacred tradition, the plant can be dried and used for smoke smudging specifically by the Kumeyaay and Yuman tribes.
Traditions vary, but typically a person sets fire to the dried sage leaves until they smoke. Then, they fan the sage smoke around their body and space to clear negative energy.
Unfortunately, white sage ritual has been massively appropriated by the New Age generation, typically by those who have no knowledge of white sage's traditional usage or the ceremonies that it should be utilized for. In fact, white sage is actually an endangered plant species, and it's recommended NOT to buy it unless you can find a reputable source.
Honestly, I feel like you kinda should stay away from white sage unless you are of First Nations or Native American descent, or have specifically trained from a healer of that society and have permission to use white sage plant medicine ... but that's just me.
Copal is pine-y, woodsy scent that you can typically find as a resin, and sometimes as incense sticks. It's extremely sacred to the indigenous people of South and Central America, and it's use stretches back to Mayan and Aztec rituals. In fact, copal was discovered amongst the burial grounds of Mayan ruins. The resin was often also burned atop altars as an offering to the gods.
Copal is still really popular in ritual, and is used to — you guessed it! — clear negative energy. It's also considered to bring positive and loving energy into a space. Cute.
Myrrh! You know, the OG baby shower gift. But actually, myrrh shows up a shit ton in Eastern cultures, because apparently it's a real popular shrub. In Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, it's used medicinally. But there's evidence that myrrh was used in Ancient Islamic, Christian, Jewish, and Egyptian rites. Today, it's still used in many Christian rites and rituals to purify and make holy.
Usage varies, but thanks to its sweet fragrance myrrh was used to "fumigate houses." Sense a theme here? Probs used to get rid of bad vibes, also probably used because deities love sweet smelling incense.
"The Sacred herb," was dubbed Yerba Santa by early Spanish settlers in California, but was used long before their arrival by indigenous tribes of California and Oregon as a medicinal treatment, particularly the Chumash and Kumeyaay.
Yes, it was used in conjunction with white sage because of its sweet scent and potent healing properties, but Yerba Santa was also smoked in a pipe for health benefits.
Typically found in India and Australia, sandalwood has been used since ancient times and shows up in TONS of cultures: Hindu, Egyptian, Islamic, Pagan.
"In Hindu rites, sandalwood paste is often used to consecrate ritual tools before ceremonies. Buddhists believe that sandalwood is one of the sacred scents of the lotus, and can be used to keep one connected to the material world while the brain wanders off during meditation. In chakra work, sandalwood is associated with the seventh, or root, chakra at the base of the spine. Burning the incense can help with issues related to self-identity, security and stability, and trust."
OK, great! Obviously, we didn't do a deep dive on any of these incredible and holy scents, but I hope we gave you enough information to go out and do your own research. Best practice: listen up before you light up. Do your reading, and if something feels icky to you … don’t do it. And pass your knowledge along to the people around you! I promise, if they’re really interested in personal growth, they’ll be keen to listen. Keep shining, listening, and learning <3