Incense as medicine has been utilized for ages in cultures around the world, but has unfortunately been forgotten by most modern herbalists. We often hear from our students that they want to include incense in their healing protocols but aren’t quite sure how to do that. In this article we’ll explore my favorite ways to include aromatic smoke in herbal practice and how incense can become an integral part of your herbal toolkit.
The Tale of our Times - Emotional Upheaval & Respiratory Illness
First, and most importantly, we must remember that incense isn’t always going to be the right medicine and that’s okay! Every herbal preparation has its own area to shine and a multifaceted approach is usually the most successful.
In my own herbal practice, I’ve found that periods of grief, depression, stress and anxiety are the most common opportunities to incorporate incense for healing. These troubles of the heart and mind are something each of us experience at one point or another, and incense can be an incredible support during times of emotional need.
Aromatic Plants for Emotional Support:
Jasmine - The great soother, Jasmine is used to address nervous disorders such as anxiety, nervous tension, restlessness, depression, and stress. A favorite among Tibetan physicians, this floral and slightly fruity aromatic is a calming herb that helps quiet the mind and nervous system allowing for deep rest when it's most needed.
Myrrh - One traditional use of Myrrh is to aid in working through grief and reducing sorrow. Myrrh has a strong effect on the nervous system, imparting a feeling of inner peace and calm when included in an incense blend. This earthy, balsamic resin is commonly used for anxiety, overthinking, worry, and is considered a very grounding remedy.
Copal Oro - The lemony aroma of Copal Oro incense has long been sought to relieve emotional distress. Its uplifting fragrance soothes troubled thoughts and quiets an overactive mind, resulting in feelings of rejuvenation and invigoration of the spirit.
Aromatic Plants for Respiratory Support:
Another common area we can turn to incense for healing is in the case of respiratory illness. When I think of respiratory complaints, my herbalist mind often wanders to plants like Mullein, Elecampane, and Horehound – all of which are beautiful medicines in other forms like tea and tinctures, but they’re not often used in incense. A natural treatment protocol which includes multiple modalities, like ingesting herbs and using topical herbal preparations in addition to incense, can be a powerful combination.
Poplar - In the Western Herbal tradition, Poplar bud smoke is commonly used to clear inflammation and increase circulation to the respiratory system. The warming, vanilla-like scent of resinous Poplar buds can soothe, disinfect, and astringe the mucous membranes of the throat and lungs and is considered specifically for laryngitis that is accompanied by loss of voice.
Benzoin Gum - In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Benzoin has been used for different respiratory ailments that result from cold and damp states in the lungs due to its warming and drying effects. The sweet, balsamic aroma of Benzoin is an excellent addition to any respiratory incense blend.
Eucalyptus - The fresh, camphoraceous medicine of Eucalyptus has been used medicinally for millennia. It’s strongly antiseptic and astringent, making it an ideal incense plant for many respiratory ailments. Eucalyptus acts as a decongestant and expectorant that can help relax mucous membranes, “open the chest”, clear the sinuses, and curb various infections in the lungs.
All of this information and more can be found in our ebook, the Materia Aromatica: An In Depth Guide to the Traditional Ritual, Aesthetic, and Medicinal Uses of the 20 Most Common Incense Plants.
Why Aromatics Matter
When first learning about aromatic medicine, especially coming from a background in herbalism, it’s easy to get hung up on wanting to use the same plants we’d use in other common herbal preparations as smoke medicine. Many herbs that are commonly used in the Western herbal tradition but not as incense might negatively alter the aesthetics of your incense blend. This is where we have to remind ourselves of the importance of a pleasant aromatic experience.
As an example, Motherwort is one of my very favorite plants to work with in times of grief, but I’d never suggest it on its own as a tea – it’s horribly bitter and the taste would likely ruin the experience. If an herbal remedy doesn’t taste or smell pleasant, it could result in it never even being utilized. Patient compliance is key in all herbal protocols and the same concept applies when working with incense as medicine.
A good approach to avoid this pitfall is to consider the energetics of the plant you’d like to include, and determine an aromatic plant with similar effects. In this case, I might create an incense with Rose and Myrrh - a much more enjoyable aromatic combination that can facilitate the same energetic release and feeling of being held that we experience when working with Motherwort.
You can certainly use non-aromatic plants in your incense blends in small amounts for their energetic properties, however the primary components of your blend should always be pleasantly aromatic. It is important to consider the medicinal benefits of a blend, as well as the aesthetics and experience it creates, to ensure it is consistently used by the patient.
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The Medicine is in the Making
When utilizing incense for any reason, it helps to remember that the magic of herbal medicine isn’t just the plant you’re working with, but how you’re working with it. The physical act of sitting with incense can be prescribed in the same way that you might instruct a client to create a ritual around drinking tea for the purpose of quieting the mind and settling the nervous system. As herbalists, we know that sitting in reflection, listening to what comes up in the mind, and feeling where the medicine goes in the body are all critical elements of healing – incense is beautifully suited to this experience.
Next time you’re considering including the medicine of incense in your herbal recommendations, we hope you’ll remember these tips and share your aromatic herbal successes with us here!
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*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.