Since time immemorial, people have burned aromatic plants in the form of incense for aesthetic, medicinal, spiritual, and practical purposes in nearly every culture on Earth. To put it simply, incense is a tool for helping people find healing, greater balance, peace, and joy in life. Whether used to enhance a spiritual ritual, prayer, or meditation, to heal the mind, emotions, body, and spirit, or celebrate the sense of smell with intoxicating aromas, incense is the most universal and ancient modality that uses aromatic plants.
The best thing about incense is that it can in fact be very easy to learn how to make yourself. All you need is a bit of guidance, some foundational elements in place, along with understanding the core aspects of the craft. From there, a beautiful fragrant journey unfolds for you, you gain a crucial aromatic skill, and you get to experience the aromatic wonders, medicine and wisdom that comes with the lifelong path of incense crafting. So let’s uncover some of the core aspects of incense.
In the old days, there were very high standards for quality incense materials. Sadly, the same can’t be said for todays incense and aromatics markets. Centuries ago merchants and farmers took pride in their aromatic botanicals that were of the highest purity and superiority. Most incense crafters of old were responsible for creating sacred or medicinal mixtures of plants for others, so any lower grade ingredient simply wasn’t acceptable.
Today’s mainstream incense market has changed drastically from what was once a rich array of exotic tree resins, loose herbal mixtures, raw, high-end aromatic woods, and artisan blends of quality organic ingredients. These things are out there, but today it can prove a challenge to find an incense made strictly with natural and organic ingredients, let alone ethically sourced materials. Most imported commercial incenses from India, China, and other Asian countries are a mixture of questionable materials, synthetic chemical fragrances, and over-harvested herbs, woods, and resins.
In the shadow of these large market-dominating incense producers who are widely sold throughout the US, there are still many smaller companies and artisan incense crafters around the world doing their part to keep traditional incense crafting traditions alive, while ethically sourcing natural and organic materials and supporting sustainable harvesting of aromatic plants. It’s up to the consumer to search out and support the artisan companies and vote with their dollar to help keep the rich natural traditions of incense crafting in-tact and thriving.
In addition to supporting artisans, I also believe that incense enthusiasts should learn the ways of incense crafting themselves to deepen their understanding of this ancient art, to incorporate their local plants into their own incense, to ensure the incenses they make and burn are made with only natural ingredients, and to share their aromatic gifts with the world. The more artisans out there, the better our chances are of turning this ancient ship around back towards purity and tradition.
Incense In Its Many Forms
The many varieties of incense are nearly as diverse as the cultures who make and utilize them. They range from single dried herbs burned on hot charcoal, to the most complex herbal mixtures of Tibet (sometimes traditionally comprised of over 100 ingredients). Incense can take the form of smudge sticks, raw tree resins, hand-formed pellets, cones, sticks, coils, single herbs, loose incense, and more. Let’s take a look at some of the basics and their unique purposes and qualities.
Stick incense is perhaps the most common forms of incense seen today, of which there are two major types. Agarbatti sticks, as they’re referred to in India, contain a bamboo skewer at their center that makes them a bit easier to form and keeps them from breaking. The only downside to agarbatti is that the burning of the bamboo skewer slightly affects the overall aroma of the incense, giving off a very subtle burning wood scent. Agarbatti is most common in Indian and Chinese incense crafting. Dhoop incense sticks are made with solid incense ingredients and don’t contain a bamboo center. Japanese and Tibetan incenses are most commonly found in the dhoop style. Both types are traditionally made from a mixture of aromatic herbs, resins, and water; usually containing some type of botanical-derived binder to hold the shape.
Stick incense is widely used for many spiritual purposes and can be found burning at temples of every faith around the world. The main reason for this is they burn for a longer period of time than other varieties (though they aren’t as potent as others). Depending on their size, stick incenses can burn for 30 minutes to up to a few hours. Sticks are ideal for someone who is wanting to meditate or pray and have incense burning in the background for long periods of time. Some people also use stick incense medicinally, though there are other varieties that may be better suited depending on the intentions behind healing.
Sadly, in today’s mainstream market, a majority of agarbatti sticks, and even some dhoop varieties, are made using harmful chemical fragrances and synthetic materials. Especially mass imported products. Many agarbatti sticks don’t even contain any plant-based aromas. To make matters worse for the incense lover, the larger companies making these incenses aren’t required to list the ingredients they use, making it nearly impossible to know whether an incense is derived from Mother Nature or a chemist. Researching your incense before you buy it, sourcing from smaller artisan companies, or learning to make your own incense sticks is the best way to ensure purity.
Incense cones are actually not as old as most people think. They were first presented by the Japanese at the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800’s. Today, their use is widespread and continues to be a popular choice for incense enthusiasts and crafters as they’re one of the easier varieties to make yourself. Cones tend to provide a more noticeable or intense fragrance as they burn faster than sticks, releasing more natural aromatic constituents into the atmosphere in a shorter timespan (between 20 and 40 minutes), whereas the sticks give off a more subtle aroma for a longer period of time. These, along with sticks will burn on their own once ignited.
Traditionally, cones are a mixture of aromatic woods, resins, and other aromatic botanicals. Like sticks, they also call for some type of natural binder or plant gum to hold their form. Unfortunately, the same story goes with incense cones as with the commercial production of stick incense. A majority of mass produced and imported incense cones are made using chemical fragrances and synthetic materials, mimicking natural fragrances. The reasoning behind this is simple, it’s cheap for the manufacturer and allows for much higher profits. Again, a little research can help you find natural artisan producers of incense cones, our company Higher Mind Incense being one of them.
When making your own incense cones you can create some really amazing creations with a bit of creativity. For instance, you can soak different herbs in fragrant liquids like perfumes or hydrosols and mix them into your recipes. Or you can add floral waters to your mix instead of plain water for an added burst of fragrance. With thousands of aromatic ingredients to choose from, the possibilities are literally endless. Just beware, there are special calculations of these types of ingredients that will give you the best results, leaving you with a well-burning and well balanced incense blend.
Single Herbs and Resins
The most simple way to burn aromatic plants is by placing a single dried herb or incense resin onto hot charcoal. This is the oldest form of incense, before the creation of sticks, cones, or other complex formulation processes. This basic method is still very common and allows for you to experience the many levels of aroma of a single aromatic plant in a more intimate way. Having a more meaningful, solitary experience with a plant like this can also bring about many therapeutic benefits. This can also make for a more interactive ritualistic practice that can reveal insights into the many virtues and properties of a plant, while developing and expanding your fragrant palette.
Loose Incense Mixtures
Loose incense is another ancient form that was widespread prior to the convenient invention of the stick, cone, and other formed incense types. As with single herbs and resins, a hot charcoal is needed with this type. When burning loose incense, we’re required to be more present in a sort of meditation, while sprinkling it onto smoldering coals. Loose incense is one of the easiest forms to make for beginning incense crafters, and there are also many styles of this type to choose from.
Burning loose incense can prove to be more of a ritual than using other varieties, and many people welcome this form into such practices as yoga, meditation, sacred rituals, ceremonies, artistic endeavors, and so on. Loose incense is often a balanced combination of aromatic herbal ingredients, tropical hardwoods, and sticky incense resins. In addition to their sweet, uplifting aromas, the resins also act as adhering agents, helping to create a consistency like that of granola; creating small chunks throughout a mixture. In this way, the aromas emanating from each pinch of loose incense differ slightly, allowing us to fully appreciate and perceive each scented material in varying combinations.
Knowing how to match the qualities of different types of incense with the intentions you have for creating your own is a great first step. Of course there are many more aspects to this craft to learn, but this will give you a lot to think about.
Often times, the best way to ensure purity in your incense is to learn how to make your own with plants you harvest yourself from nature or your garden, or resins and botanicals you buy from trusted natural sources. If you enjoy burning incense in any way and you’d like to learn how to make your own and add an incredibly powerful skill to your herbal or aromatic toolkit I have something amazing to share with you…
If you’re ready to take your work with aromatics and plants to the next level, I invite you to join me for the one-of-a-kind Traditional Incense Crafting Course, where you’ll learn how to make many forms of incense, like cones, sticks, and loose incense, for fragrant enjoyment, therapeutics, healing, and ritual.
You’ll get the ultimate framework that covers how to blend for balanced aromas and how to formulate incense as medicine. You’ll also get unique ingredient charts, sourcing lists, a ton of tips and tricks from the founder of America’s most loved incense company and only incense school, and a lot more.
Article by Evan Sylliaasen
Evan Sylliaasen is the founder of the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine and Higher Mind Incense. For the past decade his incense company has been a leader in sustainability and conscious sourcing of aromatic plants. As the head instructor of his online school, he teaches aromatherapists, incense lovers, herbalists, and spiritually-minded folks the traditional art of incense crafting, incense as medicine, and the art of wild-harvesting aromatic plants responsibly.
Evan lives with his family in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains of Washington state. He channels his creative passions through writing, photography, wood working, craftsman building, and music. When he’s not working, he’s out in the garden, forest and fields, walking along rivers, beaches, or in the mountains breathing deeply.
© 2019-2021 Evan Sylliaasen, The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All Rights Reserved.