Do tie-dyed t-shirts and bush tee-pees come to mind when you think of incense? But in reality, there is a long history of incense sticks being used in ancient times, from daily rituals to spiritual acts and sacred ceremonies. Incense sticks has been used to fragrance the home, counteract unpleasant odours and deter evil spirits and is one of the raw ingredients used in perfume. Incense is derived from the Latin word incendere (burning), and entails the burning of resin, wood and plant materials that give a pleasant aroma.
Origin of incense
You can smell the smoky aroma of burning incense in churches or places of worship today. These rituals date back some 6,000 years to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and continued into Greek and Roman times. Frankincense and Myrrh were two precious gifts offered to baby Jesus in the Bible and incense is also mentioned in the Koran. Incense has always been a valuable product and the incense trade continues today, with Oman one of the primary producers of raw incense.
Traditionally, incense has been used for thousands of years in Buddhist, Hindu and Christian rituals. These rituals are a gateway into the spiritual realm and can form part of an offering in a religious ceremony. In India incense is known as agarbathi, in Hindu. While the Japanese art of incense appreciation is known as Kodo.
What are incense sticks made of?
Incense sticks are made of aromatic and flammable plant-based ingredients such as bark, resin, flowers, seeds and roots. A combination of these ingredients binds the incense together in a stick or block shape. The addition of charcoal and wood powders help the incense to stay alight and generate a fragrant smoke.
The combination of aromatic ingredients varies depending of the country of production and origin. At the origin, essential oil is created from the incense resin, which allows producers to create enticing scents and mixtures, altering the aroma of the incense.
Some common ingredients include Sandalwood, Patchouli, Cinnamon, Musk, Myrrh and Frankincense. For example, Frankincense means ‘high quality incense’. It comes from Boswellia trees grown in India, Oman and parts of Africa and is also known as Olibarum. The resin or sap derived from these plants, is then infused to use in perfume.
Benefits of incense sticks
Incense can be used to transport us to a different time and place. Just think how burning incense can connect us with the past and the old world of the perfume trade, and even promote a sense of wellbeing if associated with your own good memories.
When it comes to relaxing and unwinding, why not replace a candle with an incense stick? Frankincense and sandalwood are the best calming fragrances to promote relaxation. So if you’d like to create a new self-care ritual by adding incense to your calming music and herbal tea to escape from everyday busyness, why not try it! If you need to reduce stress and anxiety, Lavender and Rosemary are your go-to fragrances.
If you have a regular meditation practice, you can add incense to increase focus, heighten your senses and uplift your spirit. This can enhance your meditation experience, and help you gain clarity on your thoughts. Sandalwoods and Lotus are regularly used in meditation.
Although there is limited research on the health benefits of incense, it has possible anti-inflammatory and antidepressant effects. Increasing serotonin levels can boost wellbeing and if you’re looking to elevate your mood, try burning Rose incense.
Other uses include being used as a deodorant or insect repellent.
Are incense sticks bad for you?
Following the bushfires of recent years, even non-smokers know that inhaling smoke can be harmful. Lung cancer and increased asthma attacks in children are the most noteworthy. Burning incense sticks releases small particles and gasses into the air, including carbon monoxide. When compared to cigarette smoke, the amount of these toxins is low but we should be mindful of ventilation when burning incense indoors.
How to burn incense sticks
In cities such as Salalah in Oman, you can find incense burning in clay or copper burners. But incense can be burned in any metal or wood container. Take your time to select a stick and prepare your incense bowl and lighting materials. Incense can be lit at any time you need a ‘little something’ to help you through your day. You can light an incense stick as an offering, without expecting anything in return. This could be an act of gratitude or mindfulness, to ‘let go’ of what you no longer need, and practice being in the present moment.
Remember to burn your incense safely using a holder or container to catch the falling ash. As with burning candles at home, we need to be mindful of fire hazards!
The use of incense has a long connection to sacred rituals of the past that continue to the present day. Take care to select incense with purpose, to add an old world feel to an existing daily ritual at home. Could you add burning an incense stick to your morning ritual or enhance a meditation practice? This ritual may inspire your senses and transport you to another place and time.