Ritual: Palo Santo


I cannot recall when I first heard about Palo Santo. But I remember the first time I held it. It smelled of sweet woods, sunshine and a hint of something citrus, something anise and perhaps vanilla. And when it burned, oh my! A delicate delightful smell! What surprised and pleased me the most was its sillage. Its woody sweetness lingered on and on. Sometimes I can still detect just a hint of it a day later. And there is magic to it. I could stand there transfixed looking at the smoke drawing its smooth, ephemeral silhouettes, thinking of the transmutation of earth to air, its oils into ether, leaving in their wake a calm, tranquil, rejuvenating feeling. 

Palo Santo literary means ‘Holy Wood’ in Spanish. The indigenous people of South America have used it in rituals since the Incan times. In these regions it is afforded special spiritual powers of healing, good fortune, used in cleansing sacred spaces or negative energies and ritual ceremonies. The Palo Santo tree, Bursera graveolens, belongs to the same genus as Frankincense. So the spiritual association of Palo Santo doesn’t surprise me considering the use of Frankincense in religious practices across Europe and Asia. Some studies have shown that Frankincense has a positive effect for respiratory conditions like asthma and also affects pathways in the brain that regulate emotions. It deepens the breath, calms nerves and has been traditionally used for improving memory. So one can imagine why these effects made it important for use in churches and temples. Palo Santo has a similarly calming effect on the immune and nervous system and is said to have anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory properties. Its also burned to keep mosquitoes and flying insects at bay. Analysis of Palo Santo oil reveals that it contains high levels of limonene, a monoterpene compound that has been found to have chemo-preventive and chemo- therapeutic effects against several types of cancer. Physically it’s beneficial too and said to relieve symptoms of cold, flu, stress, allergies, headaches and calm the nervous system to speed recovery.

Palo Santo is a wild tree native to central and South America. Because it is considered sacred and precious governments like Peru and Ecuador regulate the harvesting of Palo Santo. Cutting a tree is against the law. Only the fallen twigs, branches or dead trees are harvested, making this a sustainable practice. The wood needs age in order for the natural aromatic oils to develop and mature. The ideal process involves a naturally fallen tree aged for three to five years, and often up to 10 years before being distilled for oil. This is indeed some precious stuff!

Some people burn Palo Santo just before meditation to create a calm, tranquil atmosphere or to cleanse negative energies from themselves. I also burn it simply as incense or as smudging to cleanse the space. You can also use it for intention setting. Or create your own ritual around it. Whatever your reason, burning Palo Santo will leave your space feeling relaxed and smelling divine.

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How to use:

Burn one end of the stick with a lighter or a match or over a candle. Let it catch flame and hold it for 10-30 seconds.

Then blow out the flame. The sweet smelling smoke will rise.

Unlike incense sticks, Palo Santo will not burn all the way through. The ember end will cool down and stop producing smoke. It can be re-lit several times. 

While it’s burning, you can leave the stick leaning in a fireproof bowl or fill a small bowl with sand or rice and stand the stick upright.

For smudging, I like to walk around each room with my Palo Santo and guide the smoke in all corners, wardrobes, under the table, the bed etc. for a proper cleanse once in a while. (Carry and hold the bowl underneath to catch any ash falling if you intend to do this.)

But most often I light it and let it snuff out naturally in the evenings after I finish work as a transition ritual to leave thoughts of work and stress behind and be present in my home and enjoy the space. It helps me put a mental barrier and separate my time for work and rest. Or on lazy Sundays after a long week I’d make coffee light the Palo Santo and then sit with a blanket and a book.

mugdha sapte