Girl holding palo santo wood with crystals

Photo courtesy of @elinadjan/Twenty20

If you’ve picked up a sweet, woodsy scent wafting in the air at your yoga studio, local clothing boutique, massage spot, or your friend’s kitchen, chances are it’s Palo Santo that you’re smelling. Less smoky and not as overpowering as a stick of Nag Champa incense, Palo Santo is gaining popularity as an alternative (or accompaniment) to incense and sage. You can find it all over the place; from the grocery store, to anywhere you might purchase crystals, natural deodorant, and essential oils. 

I encountered it during savasana at the end of a vinyasa yoga class with Beau Dobrikov, and was instantly hooked on the sense of calm it promoted. Meaning holy wood” in Spanish, the small sticks of wood that you burn (much like incense) to release smoke and scent, come from the Palo Santo tree, which grows along the South American coast, and is related to other mystical woods, Frankincense, Myrrh, and Copal. It is part of the citrus family and has sweet notes of pine, mint and lemon. 

It was first suggested to me by a mentor to clear space’ or smudge’,” says Dobrikov, when I ask her about it. I love the smell of the wood, so I often use it to clear the space in my home or during meditation practice.” What’s smudging? A spiritual practice where you clear your energy fields using a piece of burning Palo Santo or a herb bundle, such as sage. It can be done at home, starting at the front door, and moving around the house from there. With a specific intention in mind (often to remove negative energy), focus on corners where energy tends to be stagnant. This can be done as often as you wish.” 

As well as being used for centuries in spiritual practices and sacred rituals by the Incas, shamans, healers, and indigenous communities of South America, in Equador and Peru, Palo Santo is primarily used as a mosquito repellent. As an essential oil in natural therapies, Palo Santo has been used in the treatment of cold and flu symptoms, stress, asthma, headaches, anxiety, depression, and inflammation, as it contains high levels of D‑Limonene (usually found in citrus peel) and monotropenes, two naturally derived terpenes (protective, organic compounds found in plants and animals) used in medicine. Due to its history as a sacred plant, Palo Santo wood can only be harvested from deceased trees — a procedure that requires a special government permit, rarely given out, in order to protect the species. Folklore says that the wood of the Palo Santo tree is of no use unless it died of natural causes.

As demand for Palo Santo grows, so does a bootleg market, so it’s important that you are able to tell the real stuff from the fake. All Palo Santo is not created equal,” says Dobrikov. Unfortunately, some distributors use inauthentic wood, soaking it in Palo Santo oil. This result will often give off a strong smell, and the aroma is usually only released by burning [real sticks should give off a subtle scent even when they have not been lit]. Indicators that it is not natural can be if it makes a popping sound while burning or leaves char residue, which is often messy.” She advises sourcing Palo Santo from spiritual shops or your local yoga studio for the authentic article. I think Palo Santo has gained popularity because it is less abrasive than other smudging sticks, such as Sage. In addition, I think the current state of affairs has left many of us feeling powerless, and self-care is a way to combat that feeling. The smell of the wood has many healing properties to keep one grounded and clear.” 

Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.