what is aromatic healing?

The green earth sends her incense up. From many a mountain shrine; From folded leaf and dewey cup She pours her sacred wine.
John Greenleaf Whittier

I love burning incense. I feel that it enhances my mood, lightens my spirit and provides for me a grounding atmosphere. Past that, I’ve never given it much thought.

As an herbalist, I’ve made smoking blends and aromatic herb smudges as well as essential oil inhalations. What is the difference between these herbal medicinal preparations and the incense sticks and cones we buy to make our house smell good?

At first, I began to think about the ingredients in the incense sticks and cones that you can find in local shops. Imagine the aforementioned herbal preparations, intended for inhalation, carefully chosen for their medicinal actions and benefits as compared to shop-bought incense cones marked “Strawberry”. From where did they get that strawberry fragrance? What hidden chemicals are lurking within? What exactly are we inhaling and why?

Furthermore, I asked myself what benefits can we get from burning incense; if it can be recognised and used more with the intention as an herbal healing preparation.

And then to explore that intention. What is our intention behind burning incense? Is it for creating a fragrant atmosphere? Is it a spiritual or sacred ritual to bring a sense of connectedness? Is it to change a mindset, to allow for an uplifting of mood? Can it serve a medicinal purpose alongside these other valid, yet more mainstream, ideas of the purpose of incense?

My hope is to bring another layer to herbal healing through the more purposeful and curated use of incense. I strive to connect the use of incense for fragrance with the healing constituents within the incense in order to meet my clients’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs with these precious plants.

Let’s begin:

An unexpected find: an incense recipe among medical remedies

Written in an insular script in c.800, Codex Sangallensis (csg.) 761 contains a variety of medical texts, including a collection of nearly fifty recipes and remedies covering pages 51–66 unattributed to a specific classical or late antique author. The final entry of this recipe collection is entitled Thimiama (see Fig 1). The recipe lists a handful of ingredients and quantities, but provides neither further instructions for its preparation nor information on its use:

Incense in medicine: an early medieval perspective
Claire Burridge
Thimiama: cozumber – 3, aloeswood, ambergris – 3 denarii, confita, camphor – 1 denarius, musk – 1 denarius. 

The word thymiama is defined by Isidore of Seville as ‘incense’, a Greek‐derived synonym for incensum, thereby suggesting that this entry is a recipe for incense. 3 Since incense is intended to release fragrant smoke when burned, the recipe’s aromatic ingredients fit with this identification…As noted above, the incense recipe forms the end of the recipe collection and is then followed by an excerpt of Oribasius’ Synopsis; the manuscript also contains extensive selections of Oribasius’ Euporista as well as excerpts from the Hippocratic and Galenic corpora.

Incense in medicine: an early medieval perspective
Claire Burridge

We have seen enough documentaries to know that throughout history, smudging, smoke inhalation and incense in some form has been used as ancient medicine. If I asked you to picture a shaman, I’m almost positive that you would picture someone who is burning something and waving a feather over it for his patient to inhale.There may be bones also somewhere in there, too. At least, this is a stereotype many have that is not easily altered.

On every continent, ancient peoples used the smoke of burning plants to treat patients for countless ailments and illnesses. The original application of plant smoke therapy was to burn aromatic herbs or medicinal tree resins on hot charcoal from a fire, and “bathe” the patient in smoke by fanning it towards them and around their bodies, or allow the patient to take deep inhales of the fragrant fumes for a certain period of time…In these holistic treatments, practitioners cater to internal healing through ingested herbs, teas, topical treatments, medicinal foods, or other applications, while also prescribing medicine through the airways (also internal medicine) in the form of incense. This approach adds another layer of depth, treating the root cause and symptoms together from every possible angle.

Incense As Medicine- Evan Sylliaasen

When I was in Japan a few years ago, I fell in love with so many aspects of the culture as have many other Westerners like me. I long to go back there and study Kampo (Traditional Japanese Medicine) as I love their approach to learning and sacredness that elevates the seemingly mundane. With this in mind, I hoped to find some thoughts from the Japanese culture of elevating the mundane regarding the burning of incense.

A short lesson on the virtues of Kodo courtesy of Wikipedia:

Kōdō (香道, “Way of Fragrance”) is the art of appreciating Japanese incense, and involves using incense within a structure of codified conduct. Kōdō includes all aspects of the incense process, from the tools (香道具, kōdōgu), to activities such the incense-comparing games kumikō (組香) and genjikō (源氏香). Kōdō is counted as one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with kadō for flower arrangement, and chadō for tea and the tea ceremony. The “Ten Virtues of Kō” (香の十徳, kōnojūtoku) were formulated, which is a traditional listing of the benefits derived from the proper and correct use of quality incense:

The Ten Virtues of Kō

1. 感格鬼神 : Sharpens the senses

2. 清浄心身 : Purifies the body and the spirit

3. 能払汚穢 : Eliminates pollutants

4. 能覚睡眠 : Awakens the spirit

5. 静中成友 : Heals loneliness

6. 裏愉閑 : Calms in turbulent times

7. 多而不厭 : Is not unpleasant, even in abundance

8. 募而知足 : Even in small amounts is sufficient

9. 久蔵不朽 : Does not break down after a very long time

10. 常用無障 : A common use is not harmful

Join me on this path of uncovering the medicinal benefits of incense. I am currently compiling recipes and remedies for specific issues and ailments and experimenting with creating these beautiful natural herbal incese cones. It is both science and art. And, I can’t express in words how gloriously fragrant both my workshop and house currently are thanks to these experiments.

And now for some bad news:

The commercial production of incense has created a problem for the healing and medicinal intentions of incense burning. I intend to make my incense cones and sticks by hand from materials I have grown or curated and processed myself. I have spent many hours in the past month grinding resins, barks and woods by hand in my marble mortar and pestle.

But what of these ones marked “Strawberry”?

What are the downsides to incense?

Incense burning emits smoke containing particulate matter, gas products and other organic compounds and causes air pollution, airway disease and health problems. When incense smoke pollutants are inhaled, they cause airway dysfunction.  Incense smoke is a risk factor for elevated cord blood IgE levels and has been indicated to cause allergic contact dermatitis. Incense smoke also has been associated with neoplasm. However, several conflicting reports have also been documented. The effect of incense smoke on health and the mechanism behind it needs to be further studied in an animal model. To obtain further conclusive results, more epidemiological studies with better controls and a longer time period are needed. Meanwhile, it is a good practice to keep the room well ventilated when burning incense. It will effectively dilute the indoor air pollutants and hence reduce the risk of exposure.

Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease
Ta-Chang LinGuha Krishnaswamy, and David S Chi

Please stay tuned for the next installment: Incense 101

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