If you spend much time in the “wellness” circles of TikTok, it may seem like, out of nowhere, sage is all the rage. However, sage burning – also called smudging or saging – is far from a new fad. In fact, the practice is ancient – its roots can be traced back to Native American peoples who traditionally used it to clear negative energy.
Today, its popularity among non-Indigenous groups has raised eyebrows and sparked criticism of cultural appropriation. In light of all the attention it seems to be getting at the moment, we wanted to find answers to some of the burning questions surrounding saging. What is this “trend”, where does it come from, is there really any benefit to it, and should we even be doing it in the first place?
What is sage smudging?
Sage is an aromatic herb that you probably recognize from stuffing recipes, but it actually has a long history of use in medicine as well as food. The plant was used by ancient Egyptians to treat a variety of ailments, and its healing properties have been purported for more than 4,000 years.
“In some way, it’s not just a plant; it’s a medicine,” Oglala Lakota spiritual leader and wisdom keeper Warfield Moose Jr. told Women’s Health, explaining that sage burning has been used by Indigenous peoples for centuries to cleanse, purify, and heal.
The process itself involves people burning dried plants (often sage) “and then using the smoke to cleanse themselves, objects, or even places,” Dr Rosalyn LaPier, an award-winning Indigenous writer and ethnobotanist, told Greatist.
“Usually the dried plants are burned over a hot coal placed in a large shell or on the ground. The person places both hands over the smoke, takes the smoke within her hands, and beginning with her head and continuing downward, ‘washes’ her entire body with the smoke.”
The practice is still in use today, with groups including the Lakota, Chumash, and Cahuilla. Each tribe has its own rituals involving sage and uses different varieties depending on what is native to the area, Shilo Clifford, a traditional Oglala Lakota herbalist, added to Women’s Health.
Why do people burn sage?
“We burn sage to welcome the good back into our lives,” Moose explained of the practice’s traditional usage. “We use it when we feel down, fearful, or even when we’re happy. It’s a way to connect to our spirit, to feel fulfilled, or whole.”
Alongside its supposed spiritual benefits, sage burning is lauded for a range of other things, including air purification, and improving sleep, mood, stress, and cognition.
It has also been linked to mindfulness and can supposedly repel insects and ease menstrual cramps to boot.
It all sounds very impressive, but is it really true?
The science of smudging
Unfortunately, research into the benefits of sage burning is still in its early stages, so drawing concrete conclusions about its medicinal properties is impossible. However, some studies have hinted at possible benefits, which at the very least warrant further research.
One 2017 review, for example, suggested that Salvia (the genus to which sage belongs) may influence several biological mechanisms associated with cognition, inflammation, and antidepressant behaviors. While they’re quick to add that any possible cognitive-enhancing effects need to be investigated much more thoroughly in the long term, the authors conclude that the evidence so far is “promising”.
Similarly, a 2005 study demonstrated that sage is able to inhibit an enzyme called cholinesterase and, consequently, seems to improve mood and cognitive performance after just one dose.
However, none of these studies looked directly at the effects of burning sage, largely focusing on dried sage instead.
Reports of sage’s antibacterial properties may not be what they seem either. Off the back of a 2007 paper, it was alleged that sage "kills 94 percent of bacteria". However, sage was not included in the mixture of herbs used in the study, leading Snopes to conclude the claims to be false – although they do mention other properties of sage that may be beneficial to human health, including antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects.
In all, the science behind sage burning may be lacking, but that doesn’t mean its cultural and spiritual significance should be overlooked. In helping people to connect and to feel better it has value beyond this.
Appropriation or appreciation?
However, non-Native Americans should be wary of crossing the line of cultural appropriation and be mindful of Indigenous cultures and traditions.
“When sage is misused and commercialized like that, it takes the spirit and medicine out of the plant and turns it into a thing,” Moose explained.
If you are going to burn sage it's important to understand where the tradition comes from and how it's intended to be used.
“I don’t think there’s one simple answer to the debate [of appropriation versus appreciation] and the commodification of spiritual practices,” Shilo added. “But I guess I would say that we always welcome people as long as they have respect and reverence, and as long as they’re willing to put in the work.”
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