Ceremony & Tradition

Why Incense Elevates Your Mood and Calms Your Spirit

Published on July 18, 2018

Article by Victoria Lewis for Bodhi Tree

Thousands of years ago, fragrant resins of frankincense and myrrh (yes, what the wise men famously gifted to the newborn baby Jesus) were traded as currency, often valued far higher than even silver or gold. In ancient Egypt, frankincense was sought out as insect repellent, perfume, wound salve and aromatic incense that was burned in offering to the gods. The ancient Greeks and Romans imported these resins as incense via the Silk Road for use in cremation rituals and other ceremonial worship.

Around the same time, Native Americans also adopted a custom of burning herbs, primarily sage, to cleanse and purify their homes and ritual spaces. And though Christianity initially rejected incense due to its associations with pagan worship, churches eventually adopted it as an integral part of worship. Although incense no longer trades at the same value as gold today (wouldn’t that be nice?), there’s still a case to be made for its emotional, spiritual and physical benefits. The proof is in the several millennia of civilizations that couldn’t get enough of the stuff. It just took modern scientists some time to catch up.

The Science Behind the Scents

As it turns out, there’s a very real reason humans are drawn to the scent of incense. In a 2008 study, published in The FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), researchers reported findings that burning boswellia resin (aka frankincense, one of the more popular ingredients for incense) activates channels in the brain that reduce anxiety and elevate mood. In other words, the wise men really were on to something; frankincense is a gentle, natural antidepressant.

Of course, fragrance has always shared a powerful connection to memory and emotions, which is why the smell of incense can have such a strong effect on the psyche. We process incoming scents via the olfactory bulb inside the nose, which has direct connections with the amygdala and hippocampus, two parts of the brain that are strongly associated with memory. Because we file away impressions with their olfactory data, all it takes to trigger recall is a single sniff. This association can happen with perfume, incense or any other form of fragrance.

How to Burn Incense for the Ritual of Self-Care

Incense’s sensory and therapeutic effects make it a powerful tool for self-care, even though its scent is less potent than essential oils in terms of aromatherapy. “I burn incense every morning to wake up. I burn it to settle in at work and to help move energy throughout the day,” says Persephenie Schnyder, who formulates and produces her own line of face care, perfume, therapeutics and incense. Feeling down? Jasmine has been known to ease depression. Need a midday pick-me-up? Cinnamon boosts energy. In search of a little grounding? Frankincense and musk restore a sense of calm and peace. “Different plants evoke different emotions and sensations depending on the chemicals and scents they release,” Schnyder explains.

To use incense as part of a daily practice, just carve out a few quiet moments, perhaps for meditation or just a mental break in a hectic workday. And before long, you’ll find yourself craving the calm, peaceful moment that your brain associates with that incense.

“I discovered Aomori Hiba incense 14 years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since,” says Studio Cue LA’s Keiko Matsuo about her unique product, formulated from 300-year-old trees found in the Tsugaru region of Japan. “The scent brings me to the deep woods instantly, wherever I am. It is uplifting, purifying and stimulating, perfect for my daily morning meditation.”

Quality Over Quantity

When burning incense, it’s important to be mindful of safety. If you’re using high-quality, natural incense in a well-ventilated room, you shouldn’t suffer any problems from the amount of smoke that’s produced. Look for brands produced in small batches by reputable sources. And don’t feel a need to burn it all day long. Even half a stick as part of a daily ritual is plenty to brighten or center your mood.

“Incense will connect you to the energy around you,” Matsuo describes. “It will connect you with the universe.” After all, you’re joining a tradition of incense-users thousands of years strong, which carries an undeniable power in itself.

Burn, Baby, Burn

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Published on: July 18, 2018

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