Ritual smoke: Keeping it together in altered states

I was on time but without a moment to spare, so I sneaked into the back of the crowded yoga session right before the teacher, who was new to me, locked the door.

I plopped down on a cushion, closed my eyes and began taking long deep breaths like the rest of the class. Long, deep belly breaths.

But not for long. The acrid, irritating smoke of burning incense assaulted my senses and the particulates started to make me choke. I looked over my shoulder and there was the offending smoking stick about 4 feet away from me.

“Incense! (eye roll) …here it goes again,” I said to myself as I got up and quietly moved to the only spot available a few feet further away. But by that time, the smoke and smell had penetrated the back of the room and my lungs were already overwhelmed. 

“Ok, what to do now?” I thought. Rather than walking out, which would disturb the group as I gathered my stuff, put on my shoes and unlocked and opened the door so I could leave, I decided to tip-toe up and let the teacher know I was leaving and why.

Bless her heart, she was flustered by my news and quickly got up, walked to the back of the room and snuffed out the incense. And with a string of whispered apologies motioned for me to move near her as she began creating a space at the head of the class. I was unsure about how this was going to work out but, again trying to limit the noisy upset of rearranging myself, I quickly plopped down where she motioned – thinking that the front of the room would offer some relief.

By now, still in the midst of focused breathing, other students were opening an eye to see what was going on. So much for any effort to keep this low-key. I closed my eyes and started the breathwork once again – involuntarily sucking in the harsh stinging smoke, which in turn led to choking and coughing. Everybody in the room was aware of me now.

I looked apologetically at the teacher and she looked apologetically at me. “I’m so sorry to disturb the class,” I announced to everybody as I gathered myself – because by now all eyes were on me. “I’m really sensitive to incense smoke and I need to leave to get fresh air. Have a great class!”

The teacher followed me to the door visibly shaken that this was happening and said something about not doing it again. I didn’t hear her full remark as I was pursuing a quick exit for big gulps of clean air. 

Just another day surviving ritual smoke in altered states

Throughout my experiences of meditation, breath work, yoga and plant medicine ceremonies over the years, the well meaning ritualistic burning of different substances has posed a significant challenge for me.

Recently, in the middle of preparation for a ceremony, I had to interrupt the proceedings when the facilitators began burning and waving palo santo, a sacred wood from South America, over and around our heads. Its sweet and earthy aroma is believed to purify and elevate the spirit. However, for me, it triggers intense allergic reactions, mostly coughing and an immediate headache.

Earlier during this event I had persevered through a smudging with burning sage, which is an ubiquitous ritual used to cleanse a person’s energy field as well as the energy of a physical space or object. In preparing for a ceremony, there’s a whole lot of burning going on!

But this time the smudging of my body was done outdoors – where I’m able to better manage with fresh air.

Of course, for me the challenge comes during the colder months when gatherings and ceremonies are in confined spaces. In this particular instance, where the journeying was done in a small enclosed area, the facilitators supported me by putting a fan next to my space – and keeping the smoke from the palo santo and mapacho, a strong tobacco, away from me. They were intent on clearing my space so, alternatively, spritzed Florida Water in my direction. 

I know I’m not alone in my challenges with these smoke-filled environments

As a clinical nutritionist and former health editor who specialized in functional medicine – I’m well aware of the issues with chemical smells and smoke. Simply explained, functional medicine is focused on a systems biology-based approach that seeks out the root cause of a disease. There’s a specialty that has emerged called Environmental Medicine, which identifies hazardous chemicals and agents in a person’s environment.

For example, in conventional medicine, when a person has skin eruptions, headaches, and respiratory issues, doctors may bury the patient in prescription after prescription and never connect the health problems with their sensitivities to common detergents, perfumes or hazardous waste incineration. There are countless people with environmental illness who are homebound because their systems can’t process the myriad chemicals and pollutants in the environment. Environmental medicine specialists, who act as detectives for their patients, get to the core of these issues. 

Thankfully, I’m not that sensitive as it’s clear to me that there is a distinct cause and effect from the irritants that I’m exposed to. I know that speaking up to take care of yourself can feel like you’re putting yourself on the spot. But if you count yourself among those who also grapple with respiratory issues or reactions to various smells and smoke, it’s pivotal to your health – and a good journeying experience (or yoga session!) that you communicate with your teachers and facilitators to make alternative arrangements.

What are your thoughts on this? Have you had experiences like I’m talking about? Let me know in the comments section.

With Love,


P.S. By the way, remember the yoga teacher burning the incense? I steered clear of her classes but ran into her when she was substitute teaching. She personally made amends and the studio is not burning incense (at least during class) anymore.

4 thoughts on “Ritual smoke: Keeping it together in altered states”

    • That’s a fair question – honestly, I’ve always enjoyed the smell of cannabis and inhaling it has never been an issue for me – and interestingly, in my years of leading cannabis elevation ceremonies with collectively hundreds of people, I’ve not run into anyone who was sensitive to it. Of course, those who attend my gatherings are a self-selected group so likely people who are sensitive wouldn’t come.

      Anyway, I believe what bothers me personally are particulates in the various burned items and the duration of breathing them in. With cannabis, it’s a couple of hits, that’s it. Whereas there’s extended burning with the other materials I mentioned. And with incense, research shows there’s a variety of noxious materials that are lung irritants.

      • Thank you for sharing your experience with burning incense and smudging, etc. I have the same sensitivities. Thank for sharing excellent ways to take care of yourself when there are irritating particulates in a closed space.

        • It’s a challenge isn’t it! When I used to live in the U.S. I’d often get into an elevator and the lingering smell of someone’s perfume would be hanging in the air of the tight enclosed space. I’ve learned to hold my breath! Assaulting smells can happen at the least unexpected times.


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