A Beginner’s Guide to Smudging Sage

Lindsey Lanquist
A Beginner’s Guide to Smudging Sage
Photo: Allison Kahler.

2018 has brought with it a kind of New Age renaissance. Where our homes were once filled with plants, art and throw pillows, they’re now filled with crystals, tarot cards and sage sticks. (Let’s be real—they’re now filled with plants, art, throw pillows, crystals, sage sticks and tarot cards. Our affinity for acquiring things knows no bounds.)

Those who swear by crystals say the rocks have healing properties: hematite grounds your energy, agate helps you open up, and lepidolite promises to bring some much-needed calm to your life. Tarot cards, on the other hand, offer direction—inviting introspection from those who dare to pose questions to the cards.

The final element of this New Age trifecta, sage sticks, promise to cleanse and purify. Burn your herb of choice and smudge until your space feels lighter, more welcoming and free of negative energy.

The Lowdown on Sage

At its core, sage is just a plant—specifically, a grayish blue-green bush found in North America and parts of Europe. Sage has clearly taken on additional significance over the years, largely thanks to indigenous peoples who’ve used the plant in spiritual ceremonies.

Though specifics vary from culture to culture, most sage-smudging rituals involve putting the plant in a container—often a shell, ball or some kind of smudge stick. When burned, the plant emits smoke that you can waft over a given person or spread throughout a given space.

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Smudging rituals can involve all kinds of plants and herbs, but sage is specifically associated with cleansing and purity. Sage is said to cleanse negative energy from spaces and people, imbuing them, instead, with positivity.

“We smudge to clear the air around us,” one Manitoba group writes in a smudging protocol memo. “We smudge our eyes so that we will only see the good in others. We smudge our ears so that we will only listen to positive things about others. We smudge our mouths so that we will only speak of well of others. We smudge our whole being so we will portray only the good part of our self through our actions.”

How to Choose Your Bundle

Though sage is a key herb in the smudging sphere, it’s not your only option. Sweetgrass, tobacco and cedar are other common choices. But each plant brings with it unique associations—as well as unique aromas.

  • Sage, as we mentioned earlier, is about cleansing. “Sage is used for releasing what is troubling the mind and removing negative energy,” a native women association’s Daughter Spirit in Action (DSIA) handbook reads. “It is also used for cleansing homes and sacred items.”
  • Sweetgrass emits a sweet aroma, one that’s said to remind people of the “gentleness, love and kindness Mother Nature has for the people,” according to the DSIA. Like sage, sweetgrass possesses cleansing properties, and it’s said to have a calming effect, as well.
  • Tobacco is a go-to for all kinds of ceremonies, largely because it’s considered to be the “main activator of all the plant spirits,” according to the DSIA. “Traditional tobacco was given to us so that we can communicate with the spirit world,” the DSIA handbook reads. “It opens up the door to allow that communication to take place…. We communicate our thoughts and feelings through the tobacco as we pray for ourselves, our family, relatives and others.”
  • Cedar is also used to purify and restore. And when bundled with tobacco, it crackles—”calling the attention of the spirits to the offering that is being made,” according to the DSIA.

Together, these plants make up the four “sacred medicines” recognized by many indigenous tribes. But they’re not always the only ingredients in modern-day smudging bundles.

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Anthropologie offers white sage bundles that include things like safflower, lavender and roses. Amazon lists several smudging kits that come with sage, cedar, lavender and palo santo (wood). And Urban Outfitters doesn’t seem to have bundles made from the sacred medicines, instead offering smudging kits that consist solely of palo santo, lavender and other dried flowers.

You can, of course, shop these products if you wish. But if you’d prefer to give money to the community behind the ritual (rather than those merely appropriating it), you can turn to retailers such as the Wandering Bull Native American Shop, a store run by a man with Wampanoag ancestry, or the Whispering Winds Shop, which exclusively features Native American–made products.

Smudging for the First Time

If you’re worried about smudging the right way, then you probably shouldn’t be the one doing it. “A smudge is led by a person who has an understanding of what a smudge is and why it is done,” according to a First Nations’ group’s smudging guidelines.

After this person lights the smudging bundle, they’ll use a feather or fan to waft the smoke (a small stream of it if just one person is smudging, and a larger cloud if a group is involved.)

“When we smudge, we first cleanse our hands with the smoke as if we were washing our hands,” the First Nations’ group writes. “We then draw the smoke over our heads, eyes, ears, mouths and our bodies. These actions remind us to think good thoughts, see good actions, hear good sounds, speak good words and show the good of who we are.”

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Regardless of who you’re smudging with, there are a few safety tips you should keep in mind. For one thing, light the bundle—then blow it out. The smudge stick shouldn’t remain on fire while you’re wafting smoke around; it should slowly burn down (think incense, not candles).

And when you blow the flame out, do so gently. Some of the herbs may be looser than others, and you’ll want to make sure flaming embers don’t fly out everywhere.

Remember, this is supposed to be a calming, purifying experience—not a high-anxiety one. With a little common sense (and respect) you’ll surely be able to keep it that way.

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