In our collective quest for calm in an increasingly harried and warp-speed world, one might find themselves looking to contemplative rituals for comfort. A short breathing exercise or guided meditation, or a smudge of palo santo, are most welcome because they can be done, autonomously, in the quiet of one’s home, with relatively little outlay of time, money or expertise.
These rituals, especially when practiced consistently, help to tell our brains to stop whirring and our nervous systems to chill out. They mark a transition in our day, be it from activity to rest, stagnation to creativity, or outside world to inside haven. They are also useful when setting an intention – before we begin a yoga practice or scribble stream-of-conscious thoughts into a journal.
My most cherished and effortless ritual during the colder, darker months is the burning of a palo santo stick, which I light with an old Bic and place in a small ceramic bowl. I become momentarily transfixed by the expressive tendrils of smoke that dance around my small New York apartment, illuminated by the winter sun. I do this to start my day – an offering to the great unknown, a humble plea for peace and prosperity. And again, after dinner, in sync with the shutting of my laptop, to mark the end of work (and, simultaneously, to assuage persistent cooking smells). Its scent – sweet and woody, with notes of lemon, mint, and pine – has a palpable soothing and grounding effect.
Indeed, the olfactory route to calm is perhaps one of the most potent and instantaneous. Ancient cultures and lineages of folk healers are known to have used natural aromas as a tool in healing rituals, and much scientific data exists to support the benefits of essential oils such as lavender and jasmine. Our sense of smell is triggered when fragrance molecules attach to special cilia-covered olfactory receptors in the nose. This sends electrical signals directly to the olfactory cortex of the brain, which in turn talks to the memory and emotion centres in our grey matter, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and frontal cortex. In a Japanese study published in October 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, it was found that some scents can tweak our brain chemistry in ways that reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
Palo santo (Spanish for “holy wood,” from the Latin bursera graveolens) has become an increasingly popular olfactory tool in modern-day rituals. The sacred aromatic wood you may have experienced wafting through a yoga studio, has been used by indigenous Latin American cultures for centuries, dating back to the Inca civilization.
A wild tree native to the dry, tropical climates of Central and South America (most abundantly in Peru and Ecuador) and related to Frankincense and Myrrh, it has long been used in spiritual rituals and as a plant medicine. According to local customs, burning a stick of palo santo is thought to cleanse and purify spaces, people, and objects. However, rather than clearing “bad vibes,” which certain “wellness” influencers may have you believe, shamanic wisdom says that palo santo works to bring in a positive vibrational force and is traditionally used as an offering to the good indigenous spirit beings. Just as we on this earthly plain enjoy sweet smells, it’s believed that those in the spirit realm will also be attracted to them.
The high level of terpenes (phytochemicals found in the essential oils of plants, especially conifers and citrus trees) in palo santo is what makes it particularly precious. These terpenes – and indeed the wood’s heady aroma and purported benefits – only come from trees that have died of natural causes and are allowed to decompose for a minimum of five to eight years. After this, the oils in the heartwood are mature enough to make quality incense sticks.
Although palo santo is not considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is still important to consider the method of harvest and those who harvest it, to best protect surrounding habitat and the wellbeing and livelihood of local farmers. When buying palo santo, look for terms such as “ethically harvested” and purchase from suppliers who have a direct relationship with the farms they source from, who often work to regenerate forests and support local economic development.
As we in the Western world reap the benefits of ancient rituals and wisdom, it would be negligent to forget their origins, and with respect to the indigenous cultures that birthed and cultivated palo santo customs and traditions, each time I light a stick, I do so with gratitude and intention.
Words by Natalie Shukur.
Our Palo Santo Set contains sticks that are made from only naturally dead branches and trunks, which are collected without cutting down any living trees or damaging the surrounding area. The goal of our supplier is to regenerate the wild forest where the trees grow, contributing to the preservation of ethnobotanical knowledge and supporting local economic development. They are accompanied by a glazed Leach Pottery bowl, which is hand-thrown.