Whether in sticks or cones, many people burn incense to create an air of calm, or to signal the beginning of a significant, spiritual ceremony. It’s an aromatic with a legacy of more than 2000 years, and one that finds its roots in many different cultures.
Indian incense sticks known as agarbathi are lit in most Hindu rituals, while incense in Japan has engendered its own art of appreciation, known as kōdō. Incense was used to clear one’s mind for meditation, to call people to prayer or even to heal, forming the basis of Indian Ayurvedic medicine.
Incense sticks in Bangalore. Wikimedia: Meanest Indian
As it turns out it seems rumors that incense could potentially have healing or even psychoactive affects aren’t all smoke. A study reported on by Science News suggests that burning frankincense may help alleviate anxiety and depression by activating ion channels in brain. Researchers at Germany’s Ruhr University have found evidence of olfactory receptors in the skin, which suggests that our skin can “smell” scents like sandalwood—and more importantly, that sandalwood could potentially trigger healing effects in skin.
Despite these benefits, many people recoil at incense burning, thinking back to overwhelming smoke and college dorm rooms. But with as more and more people begin meditative practices, yoga or everyday mindfulness, it’s appealing to have a fragrance-based ritual. Even if you’re not a fan of more smoky scents, we think most people trying to find their inner zen will find a new fragrance from these five natural incense makers.
You’ve tried lighter scents, traditional scents and heavier scents, and you’re looking for something with a modern twist. Enter Blackbird, a design studio that sells an array of (very) different fragrances and incenses. Selling cones in sets of 20, Blackbird adds a little something extra to the incense experience, combining ingredients in a way that has never been done before and are totally unique. Their most popular scent, Blood Countess, mixes dragon’s blood resin and frankincense. A mood lifter with a little edge.
You don’t have to travel to Shoyeido’s Kyoto home base to experience a little of what it’s like to drink green tea on tatami mats in a traditional tea house (though you may have to substitute tatami for a futon). Many worry about the potential affect of a smoky room with heavy, smokier incense sticks or cones. But most Japanese incense manufacturers like Shoyeido offer low-smoke options and gentler blends that don’t overpower in the way that Indian or other incenses might. Our editor recommends the Oboro “Illusions” scent, which is a sandalwood base with added spices.
This company has grown over the last decade, and is now sold in Whole Foods and other natural healthy food stores. Made from wildcrafted ingredients (that means sustainably harvested plants from wild areas—the company is committed and careful not to overharvest) like wild grasses, flowers, barks and tree saps. Our editor loves the Sweetgrass scent.
We crawl around in mountain meadows. We smell the wet earth beneath fir trees, and spend whiskey-fueled hours arguing over the scent of the wind sweeping over a glacier. We make our fragrances throughout the West, on dirt roads and trails, around campfires, and in our Oakland, California workshop. All to capture the beauty of the Mojave Desert at sunrise, or a late-season Sierra with winter right around the corner.
4. Nippon Kodo
This is our editor’s go-to incense. It’s beautiful and mild, and she first found it when she wandered into a Japanese speciality store where it was burning. Sandalwood incense is ideal for meditation or gentle yoga at the start or end of the day. This incense is meant to be burned inside and won’t overwhelm. Made with high quality ingredients, Japanese company Nippon Kodo provides online ordering for the U.S. and Canada.
Aside from the long traditions of incense use in Japan and India, the U.S. has also had a history with incense burning through Native American spiritual tradition. Rather than burning incense sticks (which usually consist of a paste adhered to a bamboo stick), some First Nations and Native American peoples would burn sage, red cedar and herb bundles as part of purification rituals. Incienso de Santa Fe pulls from these ritual traditions, as well as wood common to North America, for many of their scents. The company also sells fragrant firewood.
When it comes to incense, it’s best to follow your nose. But with increasing options, availability and mixes, it can’t hurt to try a few different kinds. Some companies, like Blackbird and Incensio de Santa Fe, offer trial boxes with several scents includes so you can find your favorite one.