What's the Deal with Palo Santo?
THERE’S MORE TO THE CENTRAL AMERICAN TREE THAN TRENDY, LUXE HIPPIE AIR FRESHENER
Many spiritual tools and concepts can enrich and even transform your life when you truly understand their potency and how to apply them in your daily ritual. I’ve spent more than a decade studying yoga, meditation, reiki, plant medicine, holistic healing modalities, Eastern religions, and psychology...all the while being a busy working mom, wife, and friend. I'm often asked, “What’s the deal with this?" or "Does [blank] really work? This column will delve into the story behind the esoterica and guide you into incorporating it into your life in an approachable, beneficial way. Below, we look at Palo Santo, known as “holy wood” that has been burned for centuries as natural medicine.
You know its scent—sweet and woodsy, a bit more layered than incense but less fragrant than a scented candle. Its aroma wafts through the air at yoga studios, acupuncturists’ offices, and at many a chic boutique. You may even have some in your home—but what do you really know about Palo Santo? While its fragrant scent has become widely popular of late, there’s more to the Central American tree than trendy, luxe hippie air freshener.
The Properties of Palo Santo
On a practical, medicinal level, the pungent smell released when you burn palo santo is actually the wood’s essential oil. It contains antioxidant-rich phytochemicals called terpenes which you can think of as the “lifeblood” of the plant. Like all essential oils, palo santo contains dozens if not hundreds of chemical constituents that are each studied for their unique healing properties. When you inhale these constituents, your olfactory system takes them in and—to simplify a very complex process of intra-cellular communication—your nervous system takes action, sending signals to the places in your body that are in need of healing.
You can find palo santo essential oil distilled and bottled with reported benefits ranging from relief from allergy symptoms, warding off mosquitoes, fighting free radicals, easing stress and anxiety, promoting restful sleep, alleviating nausea and even reducing pain and inflammation. As essential oil therapy continues to gain mainstream momentum, it might not be too long before we are dabbing palo santo on our temples instead of swallowing a Xanax. And perhaps the wonderful way you feel while using palo santo isn’t all placebo-effect, after all.
Indigenous to Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru, Palo Santo has been burned by medicine men/women and Shamans for centuries. While they had an intuitive understanding of the powerful effects of the Palo Santo oil, the primary use was spiritual rather than clinical. According to Mr. Luis Pagan, a New York-based spiritual practitioner who is initiated in both Latin American and African shamanic traditions, “palo santo is traditionally used as an offering to the good indigenous spirit beings, particularly in a sacred space. It’s believed that, as we in the earthly plain enjoy sweet smells, the spirit beings will also be attracted to pleasant smells and vibration.”
“Palo santo is one of our favorite tools to shift our energy in just a few moments. We light it when we get home from work to make the shift from the busyness of the day to a more calm, mindful state before sitting down to eat” —Whitney Tingle
A Mindful Offering
Pagan uses palo santo as an offering to his ancestors, who handed down shamanic healing rituals to him, while in session with clients and to turn a mundane space into a sacred one. “I would like to dispel the idea that Palo Santo and sage are strictly plants to clear out “bad vibes.” Palo santo was and is used to bring in positive vibrational force as opposed to clearing negative vibrational force.” He recommends using Palo Santo around your body before you meditate as a way to feel “spiritually lighter” and also to have reverence for this sacred gift from Mother Earth by using it on an as-needed basis—with intention—rather than as your go-to air freshener. “Traditionally these plants were asked permission before being used or picked and given an energy exchange of some sort. This would ensure an essential principle in Shamanic practice, which is as we take, we give so the symbiotic respectful relationship may continue to nurture and grow with nature.”
Jill Lindsey, proprietor of the popular eponymous boutique in Brooklyn, New York has been selling Palo Santo for many years and says that it’s consistently grown in popularity. Clients are drawn to the smell—the shop unsurprisingly burns Palo Santo throughout the day—but are far more curious about the why behind it. “Our customers really want to know what it is used for. We share with them the message that I received from people in Peru, which is that each plant has a spirit, and the spirit of palo santo is used for healing and that it is a medicine plant. It can be used to bring positive energy to things, people, and spaces. It is best used for rituals or with an intention.”
At Sakara, we include Palo Santo in every Welcome Kit as a way to encourage our clients to approach mealtime with the same reverence and intentionality. “Food is one piece of the puzzle for achieving health—but your energy, how you feel—is almost equally as powerful. Palo santo is one of our favorite tools to shift our energy in just a few moments. We light it when we get home from work to make the shift from the busyness of the day to a more calm, mindful state before sitting down to eat,” says co-founder Whitney Tingle.
Start a Ritual
Next time before you sit down to a meal, take your palo santo in your hand and give thanks to Mama Earth and the tree who provided you this stick as an offering. Strike a match and light one end, mindfully, allowing the scent to be released. As you move through your space, hold it low to the ground, so that the smoke can gently waft up. Focus on doors and windows, as well as the corners of each room: Ensuring that as the smoke rises, the vibrations rise right along with it. Then finally, let the smoke gently encircle your body as well as that of anyone you will be dining with. Take a deep breath and as you inhale set an intention for your meal and for your day. You’ve now turned your mundane dining table into your very own sacred space. Imagine the centuries of indigenous wise men and women who have enacted these rituals before you and then sit down to eat, grateful for the healing power of your holy stick or at least, for the way its gorgeous scent pulls you squarely into the present moment.