What Is Smudging? Can It Purify a Space of Negative Energy?

By: Katie Carman  | 

smudging
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 when you buy a new home or after you've been around a real negative Nancy is sometimes seen as a woo-woo practice or just 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. The ancient tradition is heavily ingrained in some Native American societies but was also used by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and other early civilizations as well.

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.

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History of Smudging

Burning 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 Native American practice, as white sage is endemic to North America. The word sage comes from the Latin salvia, which means, "to feel healthy." Smudging with other types of sacred and medicinal herbs, or wood such as palo santo (Bursera graveolens), is practiced by various cultures around the world.

Now that smudging is rising in popularity with non-Native peoples, 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.

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What Are the Benefits of Smudging?

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, lower anxiety and stress, enhanced cognition and improved sleep and mood.

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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, is produced from lighting the sacred plants.
  • The smoke from the fire represents the fourth element, air.

It's also important to give thought to where you source your herbs. "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," says Larkin. Sage is the best known, but different herbs can be used for different reasons and are 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. One can also smudge with other medicinal herbs, such as lavender, rosemary, juniper and others.

"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."

smudging
Palo santo ("holy wood") sticks, seen at left here, and white sage are both often used in smudging rituals.
Anna Efetova/Getty Images

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How to Smudge

Before you choose any of your supplies, 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 herb (smudge stick) and then blow out the flame as it begins to smoke. 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 burn.

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're finished. 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.

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