Shanti Mayers picked up a burning bundle of sage from her altar — a dresser with photos of her loved ones, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and orange petals — held it above her head, and let the musky plumes waft down to her feet.
Smoldering herbs in hand, Mayers walked to each of the four corners of her Germantown bedroom and stood in each one for a few seconds. She did the same thing under the doorway to her room, while holding on to positive thoughts and affirmations: My business will take off. I will find the love of my life.
“I grew up with my mom smudging,” said Mayers, 31. Her mother, Jeannie Keilt, smudges her Germantown Airbnb after guests leave. “But when I got into my own space, I became aware of the importance of energy and making sure that energy is comfortable, safe, and provides you with a sense of security.”
Saging or smudging — the practice of burning plants and wood to spiritually cleanse one’s living quarters, or one’s body — dates to a time when Native American shamans threw dried sage into fires as a way to ask the ancestors for intervention in everyday life. Burning sage, they believed, absorbed illness and evil, cleansing the energy field around them.
Perhaps you have fond olfactory memories of your grandmother’s sage.
Until recent decades, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for our sacrosanct elders to smudge doorways — high-traffic areas — or corners of rooms, where it is believed bad energy or spirits can settle. But you would be hard-pressed to find a Gen Xer or millennial who smudged on the regular.
That is until recently.
“I always seem to need more,” said Ajua Hawkins, owner of Heirloom Boutique, a West Philly retailer who sells herbs for teas and spiritual practices. “It’s come to the point where I am thinking about starting to grow it myself … People are curious. And they are thirsty for a knowledge that up until this point had been lost on a generation.”
By no means am I saying Americans are buying sage at the same rate as we buy Lysol.
But there’s actual science behind this: In 2006, a study in the Journal of Enthnopharmacology called “Medicinal Smokes” concluded that smoke from healing herbs, like sage, really does remove airborne bacteria. Basically, herbaceous plants literally smoke the bad stuff out.
In the last decade, ancient items like crystals, Palo Santo (a wood that indigenous South Americans use much like sage), and Florida water — water infused with essential oil for spiritual cleansing, not H2O from the Sunshine State — that many believe can give us an energetic boost are starting to trend. Sage is available at farmers’ markets (Hawkins’ Heirloom Boutique mostly sells online, but she’s at the Clark Park farmers’ market once a month), Whole Foods, and holistic retailers. Local yoga studios are seeing renewed interest, too. A small bundle sells for about $5; a bigger one will set you back $10 to $12. White sage is the most popular because it burns the easiest, and it has what most people would consider the most pleasant scent.
Hawkins said she noticed her customers were all collectively in a place of growth and renewal. For example, she says, many people have taken a leap of faith and started their own businesses. These new ventures often lead them to new homes or work spaces.
Burning sage, she says, helps people clear the mental debris from their minds, bringing calm and clarity. As the bad energy dissipates, there’s more room for new energy to ease its way in. Some see it. Others can really feel it.
“When I sage, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of contentment and peace. There is room for change, and I can hear what I’m supposed to do,” Mayers said. “This is the alchemy, this is where the change and the shift happens.”
I can attest to that.
My family didn’t smudge. We were Catholic, so we were more about dousing holy water. I do remember priests blessing the altar with incense on high holy days, and, like most kids, I complained about the intense smell, feigning fainting.
The first time I heard of sage used to clear energy was early last year, when Vashti Dubois, owner and founder of the Colored Girls Museum, told me she burned sage and frankincense before and after visitors came to her museum/home to “keep out the crazy.” But I didn’t consider doing it myself until my hairstylist, Syreeta Scott of North Philadelphia’s Duafe, insisted I try it.
“Girl,” she said in her best “you really need to get with this black girl magic” voice.
So I bought a bundle of sage for $7 from Sable, the boutique adjacent to the salon that Scott owns with Mayers, and I started to burn it for a few minutes every other week or so. I’d light some sage after strangers, like the cable guy, were in my house. Eventually, I started to burn the herb after a long trip out of town. I don’t know why, it just made me feel better, lighter.
In November, I moved into a new apartment in my building and I smudged the doorways and corners. And I’ve been smudging every week since, sometimes twice a week. Each time I light a candle, close my eyes, and ask the universe for her blessings and help — especially when it comes to writing and dating.
What I like about smudging is that I feel like I am actively working to shift my energy, my mood, and my juju. It’s one thing to ask the higher power for help. It’s another thing to know in my core that I have the power to change the course of the things I can’t see. So burning sage, I guess, is like any other spiritual practice: The more I believe, the more likely my hopes, dreams, and intentions will come true.
And, for what it’s worth, I feel something is happening. I just can’t put my finger on it … yet.