Smudging 101: Burning Sage To Cleanse Your Space & Self Of Negativity

Written by Kristin Hickey

Photo by Shutterstock

With the chaotic nature of today's modern world, the idea of cleansing ourselves of negative energy sounds quite appealing. Cue the ritual of sage burning, also known as smudging.

What's the point of burning sage?

The ancient practice of burning dried sage for cleansing has roots in Native American tradition, where it was thought to promote healing, wisdom, and longevity. "The indigenous practice performed by shamans involved burning sage over fire to cleanse a person of negativity, including illness, conflict, or evil influences," says Gina Smith Pasqualini, founder of Good Living Is Glam, a company that sells sage to the modern-day clientele.

Today, science is catching up to sage's potential as a healing herb. Sage belongs to the Salvia plant family and is derived from the Latin word salvere, which means "to heal." "Aside from the metaphysical uses of smudging, research is showing that sage can also be used to benefit physical, mental, and emotional well-being," says Reshma Patel, PA-C, MMS, CEO and founder of Ananda Integrative Medicine. She points to a number of studies that have shown that sage has powerful antimicrobial and antibacterial qualities, can improve mood and cognition, can serve as an insect repellent, and can even help with sleep quality by easing insomnia. Additionally, one study revealed that the use of medicinal smokes such as sage reduced airborne bacterial counts by over 94%. Simply put, it can help clear the air on a physical as well as energetic level.

What you need to burn sage.

If you're new to the practice of smudging, there are a few items you'll need to get started. "Traditionally, people use an abalone shell to hold the sage and then use a feather to fan and spread the smoke around the space once the sage is burning," says Colleen McCann, a shamanic energy practitioner. "If you are just getting started, you can find a sage kit online or in your local metaphysical shop." (If you're a bit sensitive to smoke or can't have smoke in a specific space like your office, there are plenty of cleansing smudge mist options available these days too.)

To recap, here's what you'll need to get started:

  1. A vessel for burning sage
  2. Sage
  3. A fire source (such as a long match or candle)
  4. A fanning tool (not completely necessary but could be helpful if you need to cover a large area such as a home or office)
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How to sage your house to clear negative energy.

1. Gather your tools and have an exit strategy.

First and foremost, ensure you have all the above-mentioned tools handy and that you've opened a door or window before lighting up. After all, that negativity (not to mention smoke) needs to have a pathway to get out.

2. Set your intention and say a mantra.

Intentions are central to the practice of smudging. Pasqualini recommends taking a moment before you light the sage to determine what exactly it is that you're trying to purify or release from your space. Hold it firmly in your mind. "While smudging purifies and cleanses the air, it's important to focus on one's intention and desire for the energy-clearing ritual. The grounding and healing smoke from the sage can be spiritually transformative in carrying away negative energy," she explains.

Now's the time to also think about a mantra you might wish to repeat while saging. It can be something you come up with on your own, or for a little guidance, Giselle Wasfie, doctor of Chinese medicine and founder of REMIX Acupuncture & Integrative Health, suggests, "I let go and release what no longer serves me."

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3. Light up.

Once you're ready, hold the sage at a 45-degree angle, light it using your match or candle, and let it burn for about 20 seconds. After that, gently blow out the flame so you see orange embers on one end. The smoke should now billow up.

4. Slowly walk around your space.

Slowly walk around your space and allow the smoke to waft around. Guide the smoke—and the bad energy—toward the open windows or a door, so it can escape. "Give special attention to areas in front of mirrors, in corners, and in spaces like foyers, hallways, and doorways," Wasfie recommends. "I'm also a big fan of saging technology like our phones or laptops. I usually hold the sage wand underneath them and then wave it around them."

5. Be safe!

Sage burning 101: Always stay present! If you see little embers fall on the ground, tamp them out immediately. Never let the burning sage stay unattended for any reason. Also, take care not to inhale too much of the smoke. "Although saging is a great way to clear your apartment or office of stagnant and possibly negative energy, it is best not to inhale it directly," says licensed acupuncturist and certified herbalist Irina Logman, L.Ac., MSTOM. "Lungs are a delicate organ, and any type of smoke can be drying and irritating to the mucosa."

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6. Extinguish your sage.

Once you're ready to extinguish a sage smudge stick, press the burning tip firmly into your fireproof vessel, dirt, or sand until the smoke no longer rises. Pro tip: Don't get it wet! "Don't use water to extinguish the hot embers—it will ruin the tip of the stick and make it harder to light next time. When you are done using the smudge stick, you can keep it in a vessel until you are ready to use it again," says McCann.

How to sage yourself.

If you're interested in saging yourself, you can essentially follow the same steps as above, but the focus will be on your body instead of your space.

Stand in the shape of a T with legs slightly spread like you're in the TSA line at the airport. "Keeping the sage a safe distance from your body, start at your feet and guide the smoke around your body as you work your way up to your head. You can repeat your intention or visualize the smoke carrying away the negative energy from your being at the same time," says Pasqualini.

McCann recommends doing a little self-diagnosis ahead of smudging yourself to determine which areas might need it the most. For example, if you shake hands often, then smudge your hands frequently, or if you speak all day at work, then be sure to sage around your throat.

Again, don't directly inhale large amounts of smoke, and ensure the sage remains a safe distance from your body. If you have long hair, pull it back in a bun. Don't forget to extinguish the sage once you've finished smudging.

How often should you smudge?

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to how often you should sage yourself or your space. Pasqualini believes we are our best guides when it comes to identifying negative energy. She also makes the point that if you ever have a nagging feeling that "something doesn't feel right, but you can't put your finger on why," it's usually a good indication that a cleansing is in order. 

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Where to buy sage.

As smudging becomes more popular, there has been a huge uptick in sage providers who are overharvesting the plant, so it's important to use sage that's been collected sustainably. Pasqualini recommends researching how your sage is being handled and prepared. "If it will be used for your energy clearing ritual, it's important for your smudge stick to be deliberately prepared and handled with care and thoughtfulness," she says. Logman purchases hers from small shops owned by Native Americans or places known to have high spiritual standards, and Wasfie suggests a company called Mountain Rose Herbs, which carries an ethically harvested white sage smudge stick.

A note on saging respectfully.

Last but not least, as Wasfie notes, the practice of burning sage is sacred in many communities and deserves our respect. It's something we should always be doing with intention, reverence, and deep gratitude to those who did it before us.

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