by Nick Polizzi
February 19, 2016
If you grew up religious, you probably witnessed the ritualistic use
of smoke in ceremony.
For me it was frankincense and myrhh
being burned during Sunday mass. For others it might be smoldering
incense at their Buddhist Temple, or the spiraling tendrils of
bukhoor in a mosque.
There is something primordial within us that connects smoke with
In Native American tradition, it's seen as a bridge to the higher
realms, a way to bring in good spirits and dispel the negative or
stagnant ones. The most common smoke-purification ritual used by the
northern tribes is a technique called
This practice (or some variation of it) is embraced by almost every
one of the native cultures we've worked with in the western
When we see a unique method used by different tribes across multiple
continents or land masses, it's a strong indication that it yields
very real physical and/or spiritual benefits.
Below, I want to show you how to try smudging yourself and also
explore some of the wisdom behind this ancestral art.
Smudging is the ritualistic burning of
herbs and plant resins in a shell or clay bowl while prayers of
gratitude and wellbeing are said aloud.
The smoke is traditionally fanned using
the hand or a feather (eagle feathers are treasured for this) and
directed over a person or throughout a living space. The purpose is
to wash away impurities, sadness, anxieties, dark thoughts and any
unwanted energies or emotions that may be clinging to a space or
This is often done before a ceremony or special gathering, after an
argument (to literally "clear the air"), when moving into a new
home, at the end of the cold season to re-invigorate one's living
space, and on a variety of other occasions.
There is much subtlety to this practice, and its potency reveals
itself in the experience as you work with it.
Before we get started, it's important to understand the deep
symbolism that underlies each of the objects used in a typical
smudge. There are centuries of wisdom woven into this process.
First and foremost, the materials involved each symbolize and honor
one of the four elements, a central theme in many Native American
the shell or clay bowl
the herbs and resins represent
the feather and wind it creates
the flame used to ignite the
herbs represents fire
Sometimes only one specific herb is burned, but often a carefully
prepared mixture is created.
Cree people of Montana and
Saskatchewan call this botanical blend a
kinnikinnick, and it can
contain up to 30 different plants, chosen for certain outcomes or to
treat a specific illness.
The most common herbs used for smudging in North American traditions
these are also four of the most sacred plants in this part of the
"Sweet grass grows high in the Rocky
Mountains. A gift from the creator, it is said
this grass never dies. It is one of the great smells reminding
us of the mountains and open air. Sage is the cleanest smell of
the desert. It is also a present from the Creator.
another gift. Our thoughts and prayers are carried on its smoke. It carries the two great smells of
the mountain and desert. It is a visual representation of our
thoughts and prayers being transported."
A Smudging Practice
to Try (with a Native Prayer)
A word to the wise:
it's important to hold pure and
focused intention while you perform a smudging.
Before you begin any purification ritual
like this, make sure you're fully present.
You'll need: a clay bowl or
abalone shell, a few leaves of your dried herb of choice (or
a blend), a flame, and an open hand or feather.
Gently separate any stems or
buds from the leaves of your dried herbs (only the leaves or
blades are used in this process). Then place the leaves into
your smudging vessel - clay bowl or sea shell.
If you are inside, open the
windows in the space you are in, creating a flow of air from
Using a match or lighter, ignite
the herbs and let them flame for 20 to 30 seconds before
sweeping your hand above them to extinguish any fire. (I've
been taught that using the breath to blow out the fire is
not the proper way.) Tendrils of smoke should be steadily
rising from the smoldering herbs now.
It is customary to smudge
oneself first before moving on to others and the surrounding
space.Using a cupped hand, draw the smoke around you.
Starting from the top, bring the smoke over and around your
head, down your torso, all the way to your feet. Make sure
to pay attention to your breathing while doing this. Slow
Once you are finished with
yourself, use your feather or hand to waft the smoke gently
into the corners of the room and over any plants or pieces
of furniture. My friend Santiago once advised that we need
to be present with the smoke and watch carefully how it
behaves and flows around specific people and objects. When
we are fully aware, we'll notice that it moves differently
as it touches certain things. There is information there.
Once you have finished smudging,
tradition tells us that the ashes of the spent herb should
be brought outside and returned to the soil. Call it
superstition if you'd like, but many tribes believe that the
charred residue carries its own energy and must be given
back to the earth.
A Native Prayer you
may want to use while smudging
Creator, Great Mystery
Source of all knowing and comfort,
Cleanse this space of all negativity.
Open our pathways to peace and understanding.
Love and light fills each of us and our sacred space.
Our work here shall be beautiful and meaningful.
Banish all energies that would mean us harm.
Our eternal gratitude.
The Medicine Wheel
E. Barrie Kavasch
I find smudging to be a powerful way to
clear stagnant energies and bring a renewed sense of wellness into
my living and work space. Next week, my wife, son, and I will be
creating a special smudge stick from some local sweet grass and sage
that grows in our backyard.
Another wonderful way to connect with
the earth magic that surrounds us...!