What Is Smudging? Can Burning Sage Purify a Space of Negative Energy?

By: Katie Carman  | 
The burning of bundles of sage or other aromatic herbs is known as smudging and is traditionally a ceremony for cleansing or purifying the negative energy of a person or place. boogich/Getty Images

Burning sage (Salvia officinalis) when you first move into a new living space or after an interaction with a real negative Nancy might seem like a New Age fad. But smoke smudging — the spiritual ritual of creating sacred smoke using herbs or medicinal plants to cleanse a person or space and to promote healing and wisdom — has deep roots in Indigenous cultures. While heavily ingrained in some Native American societies, ancient Egyptians, Romans and other early civilizations also used to burn sage.

Today, it's becoming increasingly popular in non-Native populations, and while incorporating smudging into your life can be a grounding and cleansing experience, it's crucial to understand its history, to honor its cultural significance and to smudge with thoughtful intention.


History of Smudging

Burning herbs and other plant material for cleansing purposes goes back many centuries and spans many cultures; a common example is burning incense during religious ceremonies. Ancient Egyptians and Romans burned herbs to treat digestive issues, sore throats and even memory problems.

Smudging with sage — or saging — is historically a practice among Native Americans, as white sage is endemic to North America. The word "sage" comes from the Latin salvia, which means, "to feel healthy." While some people burn sage, others choose different types of sacred and medicinal herbs or wood, such as palo santo (Bursera graveolens).


Now that smudging is rising in popularity outside of non-Native American cultures, how do we incorporate the practice while honoring and respecting its sacred history? Molly Larkin — a writer, teacher and healing practitioner who's spent over 30 years studying with Indigenous elders around the world — shares in an email interview, "Prayer is the ideal way to work with any herb."

Your prayer, or intention, is an integral part of smudging and isn't just about pushing out the negative. It can be about bringing the positive energy you desire into your life.


What Are the Health Benefits of Burning Sage?

Those who burn sage often use it as a way to banish negativity. However, Smudging may offer more benefits than you think.

Science is slowly catching up to the spiritual, and studies show benefits ranging from reduced airborne bacteria, enhanced cognition and improved sleep and mood. It is also possible that burning a sage bundle can lead to lower anxiety and stress, which can boost one's mental health.


Considerations When Sage Burning

While many cultures partake in burning dry sage, it is mostly connected to traditional medicine and Indigenous people. The increase in non-Native people saging is posing a threat to white sage.

For example, there are groups dedicated to protecting California white sage. This means it's important to purchase sage responsibly (meaning not from mass market retailers) or find other alternatives that are more abundant.


Additionally, the common sage is deeply tied to spiritual practices, with many Indigenous groups considering it a sacred medicine. Therefore, when burning sage bundles is more of a trend than a spiritual practice, some see it as cultural appropriation.

Matching Herbs and Intentions

"There are a number of herbs one can use for smudging but use only one herb at a time. Otherwise, you are sending out mixed messages," Larkin says. Sage is one of the best known, but you can use different herbs for different reasons. They are each thought to produce different results.

"Smudging with sage or cedar is known to dispel negative energy and bring about feelings of peace; sweetgrass brings in positive energy," Larkin adds. "One can also smudge with other medicinal herbs, such as lavender, rosemary, juniper and others."

A good way to be more responsible when you want to avoid buying dried sage from mass retailers is to grow your own. "Growing your own sage or other herbs is ideal," Larkin explains. "Buying it is the second choice, but make sure you buy from a reputable dealer who harvested the herbs with prayer. If you grow or pick your own, always make an offering and ask permission first. Tobacco or corn meal is a traditional offering."


What Supplies Do You Need to Smudge?

There are four elements involved in a smudge:

  • The first is the container in which you'll catch the ash produced from the smudging. A traditional choice is to use a shell, representing the element of water. You can also use a fireproof bowl.
  • The second element involves the herbs themselves, which are bundled into what's known as a smudge stick.
  • The third element, fire, comes about by lighting the sacred plants.
  • The sage smoke from the fire represents the fourth element, air.
Palo santo ("holy wood") sticks, seen at left here, and white sage are both often used in smudging rituals.
Anna Efetova/Getty Images


How to Smudge

Before you choose any of your supplies for your smudging ritual, set an intention. Try thinking about what you want to remove from your life as well as what you want to bring in.

Once you've opened your intention, light the sage stick and then blow out the flame after a few seconds to avoid too much smoke filling your space. Trail the smoke down around your body and/or move it around the space you want to cleanse. Some people also choose to leave the smudge stick in the bowl to let the sage burn.


Smudging Tips

  • There are no set time limits on how long to smudge; it's up to your judgment and the size of your space.
  • Use your container to catch ashes and extinguish the herbs once you finish.
  • Some believe that the ashes hold the negative feelings and thoughts that the smudging removed, so you'll want to dispose of the ashes outdoors on bare dirt.

For many people, smudging brings peace and calm into their lives when it's done with intention and in a respectful practice. If you're feeling stuck, down, sluggish or just want to cleanse a space, smudging can be a way to alleviate those negative vibes while learning about and connecting with the ancient practices of Indigenous peoples around the globe.