Listen Up Yogis: Incense Is Not Yogic.

Via Michelle Marchildon
on Feb 13, 2014
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Editor’s Note: I’m incensed. That said, check out Shoyeido Japanese Incense and other natural incense companies, or make your own!

Everyone knows that I am only an average yogi and not uber-yogic.

I do all sorts of unyogic things, such as wear matchy outfits, shave (almost everywhere) and bathe regularly. And I don’t smoke, anything.


So it will come as no surprise to you that I cannot stand incense.

I thought that we would already be past the incense craze of the 1960s. I am probably one of the few people on this site who can remember the smoke-filled rooms with whatever was burning in the 60s and 70s.

But apparently, no. I have entered at least a dozen yoga rooms this year where the incense was so thick I could not breathe. And by thick, I mean present.

Furthermore, I happen to be in the one percent of the population who is actually allergic to most variations of the stuff. My lungs shut down upon contact. I have fainted from the reaction. I have had to crawl out of rooms with my mouth on the floor trying to gasp fresh air.

You don’t have to be allergic, however, to have an adverse reaction.

Here is a study by the University of North Carolina that states that being around incense is actually as bad as, wait for it, smoking cigarettes!

Are you shocked? Surprised? Why? I am an English major and so, as my engineer husband reminds me on a regular basis, not that smart about physics. But even I know that when you inhale smoke your lungs probably don’t care which kind it is.

Smoke by any other name, is smoke. According to the World Health Organization, there are even lingering chemicals left in the air after the incense has finished burning, notably, benzene, which are really effing bad for you.

Here is a story about monks, sweet, gentle, meditating monks, who are getting cancer by the dozens because, wait for it, they have been breathing in incense.

 “New research suggests that long-term exposure to burning incense presents a danger to the respiratory tract, including increased risks of nasal/sinus cancers and malignancies of the tongue, mouth and throat.”

Delightful (waving arms to indicate sarcasm here). I did very un-scientific research on Google where I searched, “Is incense bad for you,” and 11 million stories came up. I’m guessing, other people are concerned as well.

As one who practices yoga for good health, and not to get cancer, or inflammation of the lungs, I beg you yogis: Please stop burning the incense! Yoga is about the breath, so let us breathe.

If you want to clear a room, try a bracing mixture of vinegar and water. If that does not sit well with you, try opening a window to flush with air. I use fragrant oils that sit in a pot, and an infuser allows the scent to disperse slowly.

There are lots of options that don’t include smoke and benzene!

Thank you—rant is over.

You can go back to your meditation now, but please, do it with oil, not incense.

Relephant reads:

A Ritual to Release the B.S. ~ Sarah Alvarez-Tostado

5 Peculiar Things that Could Change Your Life.

Just Breathe: 6 Quotes to Reconnect Us to Breath. ~ Kerrie Shebiel


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant archives



About Michelle Marchildon

Michelle Berman Marchildon is the Yogi Muse. She’s an award-winning journalist, and the author of Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga. Her second book, Theme Weaver: Connect the Power of Inspiration to Teaching Yoga, is for yoga teachers who want to inspire their students. Michelle is a columnist for elephant journal and Origin Magazine and a contributor to Teachasana, My Yoga Online and Yoga Journal. She is an E-RYT 500 with Yoga Alliance and teaches in Denver, Co where she is busy raising two boys, two dogs and one husband. You can follow her on Facebook at Michelle Marchildon, The Yogi Muse. You can find her blog and website at And you can take her classes on


45 Responses to “Listen Up Yogis: Incense Is Not Yogic.”

  1. Claudia says:

    I have to say, as much as I love my Nag, that this is true. We burned incense all the time, as an alternative to candles, for meditation, for circle, and never thought twice about it until my daughter kept getting reoccurring ear infections. They kept asking the standard questions, and we kept answering no, 'we don't smoke', and then one day, it dawned on me, as I watched her chubby little three year old swat at the tendril of smoke rising up from a freshly lit stick, that yeah, yeah, technically…we DID. From that day on we never lit a stick again, and guess what? Yup. No more ear infections.

  2. rumna says:

    Why is bathing regularly non-yogic? Perhaps you can do some research before you write, because cleanliness is one of the highest values of a sattvic lifestyle.

  3. yoli says:

    Wow. This makes me a bit sad, as my hub and I really enjoy burning incense… But chemicals being emitted and lingering in the air never occurred to me. I'm very surprised to hear that burning incense is on par with smoking! I feel badly now for burning in the house with my son :/ Really glad I saw this article, and thank you for including the links on the various studies to back you up.

  4. Anne says:

    Thanks for writing about this. I prefer breathing fresh air in yoga classes!

  5. paul says:

    if used regularly as part of regular meditation regime, incense is helpful to bring back that meditative state, so it is not non-yogic to use incense. obviously if it is irritating don't use it.

    what is not clear to me is if the risk is from modern production methods, or from burning sandalwood or the resins. i suspect the former in the uae and benzene/toluene issues (the popular sai baba nag champa was rejected from import in italy due to these… ), but with the taiwan and singapore studies it seems the continual, habitual exposure over a long time is what is contributing to cancer risk, where occasional exposure use would be of negligible risk.

  6. Michelle Marchildon says:

    Wow! That is interesting about your daughter. Smoke is smoke. In my case, I am one of these people allergic to every flower, weed and seed known to man. The only safe place for me is Bloomingdales. So I react to many things in it. Take care.

  7. Michelle Marchildon says:

    It was a joke. Some people mistakenly feel that if you don’t bathe you are like Shiva, deep in higher thought. I am with you, and feel that being clean is Shri, respectful and sattvic.

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    Once again we feel the need to go to the extreme. Incense is an offering. I’m not who you are addressing as “Yogi”. But…incense is a lovely offering no matter what you say. Why do we always need to condemn everything. If you eat socks I am sure that will kill you too. Maybe you should stop driving your car while you are at it.

  9. Michelle Marchildon says:

    I will meet you halfway. I promise not to drive my car while burning incense in it.

  10. kristinalicia72 says:

    Yes, I would agree that sucking in any kind of smoke while trying to take deep, cleansing breaths, or being out of breath during a yoga session would be irritating to the lungs. But, I would be careful about suggesting that it is bad for your health. As a practicing Buddhist, incense is an integral part of my daily practices. There is a prayer around making such an offering. I think the kind of incense you burn makes a huge difference. I could not use the stuff you buy in grocery stores. I'd say with all things, moderation and quality ingredients are the keys to having a healthy relationship with incense.

  11. LivingArtisan says:

    Many brands of incense are rolled with dung … ick. Not something I want to breathe. I also use oils ; yet never in a yoga class. So many people are allergic to different kinds of scents, best to avoid everything … including body odor. 🙂 A nice piece of writing, thank you

  12. RRR says:

    Using incense is beyond just a pleasant offering or aroma, it is part of Yogic Science. Fumagating certain symbols, statues, etc helps to bring their energy in. However they didn't use the chemical variety of incense commonly used today. Here is some you can burn safely.….

  13. Hush Truman says:

    It is sad that people cannot even smell incense properly anymore. Truly sad.

  14. Hush Truman says:

    It is so sad that people cannot even smell incense properly anymore. Truly sad.

  15. iamyou says:

    try burning them outdoors insted of indoors…also you might aswell try to meditate outdoors..forests are awesome for this kind of activity.try to do it in different weather conditions aswell..sun,rain,winter,summer..try all that,it will make you acomplish different kinds of useful virtues,recharges you with the purest energy..and you will get a whole new perspective on incense smoke,smell and for the indoor part i would recomend essential oils.they come in different fregrances made especially to boost up your frequencie.namaste!

  16. Michelle Marchildon says:

    I am so grateful for the comments here. I didn't realize there were different kinds of incense, and some without the chemicals or dung used to bind it together. It's always better to be aware of the risks, than to be unaware and sorry later.

  17. Eva says:

    Thank you for writing this. It gives us a lot to think about also when doing smudging with sage and sweetgrass as well.

  18. I have had compromised breathing for the past few years. It was the precursor to various actual medical ailments to follow .. However, I do use aromatherapeutic candles–particularly the ones whose scents will open up my breathing passages–and never for longer than the recommended burning time on the candles. I also use flameless candles that hardly have a scent at all …

    I have maintained that too much incense will not endear me to a yoga studio. To these studios, I say– Instead of investing in incense, invest in your students.

  19. sabine says:

    Good article – I use incense sparingly – more symbolic than anything. I use it "clear" the space after class when everyone has left. it leaves the room with renewed energy and a lovely smell, without offending anyone (or harming any delicate lung tissue). Moderation is key – like Yoga, the middle way.

  20. Susan says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve almost had to leave classes/studios that I otherwise love. Can’t breath with the smoke in hot, airtight yoga rooms. Can’t understand why anyone thinks that’s a good idea during yoga classes!

  21. tess says:

    According to Deepak Chopra we have receptor sites in the brain for incense and it can be a valuable tool in meditation. The truth is anything we are exposed to can be harmful due to the chemicals that are unavoidable in our world today, many of which we are still unaware. Living cleanly and doing the best we can to live more like we lived a thousand years ago is advisable, but (especially in the west ) the pendulum swings to far. Sun is good, sun is bad, fat is bad, fat is good, drugs are good, drugs are bad…….etc etc.
    As Sabine said, a little moderation, including moderation is wise.
    We too burn the nag early in the morning and then open the space to air it out. I have decided not to live my life in fear of all possible dangers lurking out there. It is tricky business tho…some beg for the incense and others freak out if it is even mentioned. Can't please everyone but we err on the side of compassion to those with compromised health.

  22. saltydogyoga says:

    THANK YOU!!! And also: duh. (But I'm so glad someone finally came out and said it!)

  23. laportama says:

    I hope that EJ remembers this when some of us point out what is or is not "yogic," especially when relating it to Patanjali's codification. I didn't see him mention incense at all.

  24. vikers says:

    Stopped using all aromatic oils or incense … in a group class there could be any one person who is agitated with a specific note in a smell of an oil or incense … that makes for disturbance in a class … being neutral is good for everybody.

    Aromas in oils do induce certain mental and physical changes … which could be negative if there are chemicals in it or if a person gets agitated with certain smells.

    As an example, whereas lemongrass removes anxiety and is a muscular relaxant, it may be strong for some people who prefer lavender instead.

    Chemicals adulterated into any oils will almost immediately agitate sensitive noses … As a yoga teacher in india and farmer who grows aromatic plants, I have seen that I can now discern oils with adulteration through smell – like the wine taster who can smell/taste elements in wine.

    Clearly, any incense with chemical is bound to agitate the mind … which means that meditation is not possible – and the use of such incense carcinogenic.

    I would not even use this for prayer rituals … and instead use plain wax candles … why use poison for the Gods if its not good for us ?

  25. pratibha75 says:

    Michelle, Namaste! You know there are a lot of non toxic alternatives available in the market. Non toxic incense sticks actually helps because it evokes calm and peace, affects the mood and is actually nice to breathe without making the atmosphere stuffy. I have been using non toxic options along with EO's in my diffusers for a really long time now. Maybe you should try some organic incense sticks as an option! 🙂

  26. Michelle Marchildon says:

    Come on. Really?

  27. Michelle Marchildon says:

    You are welcome! I am good at stating the obvious.

  28. Michelle Marchildon says:

    Good to know. Thank you.

  29. Shaz says:

    Most ancient societies used to offer human sacrifices as offerings to the Gods, I'm pretty sure that's off the popularity list these days.

  30. István Betyár says:

    I use a vaporizer with a pot pouris attachment to heat dried herbs and some essential oils. For those unfamiliar with vaporizers; they heat to the point that the volitile oils are released, without burning – no carbonization, no smoke – only clean, healthy vapor.

    An excellent device can be found at


  31. Myriam says:

    I love my incense burning rituals. I do that instead of drinking alcohol or using drugs and I have never become ill from it. From what I've read it is absolutely yogic. It helps you breathe more deeply and get into a meditative mode.

  32. markd says:

    I like a wiff of dooby with the nag champa.

  33. Einar Olsen says:

    Good Incense is Good Part I

    Incense is not necessarily unhealthy. It is not stated what type of incense was burned. There's a big difference between very high quality incense and low quality; did the studies control for this?. American punk- dipped incense is generally low quality, and smokier. Much of it, especially the more widely distributed brands, are thick in synthetic ingredients that many people find unpleasant and even noxious. This dipped incense, which is often called 'hand-dipped' or 'hand-made' (in contrast to 'hand-ROLLED, or made in Japan') is what is usually mass-marketed through large department stores and other conventional markets.

    Indian hand-rolled incense and Japanese mold-made incense, on the other hand, is of generally much higher quality. However, there is a wide variety of quality in these also, and one needs to know what one is buying. In general, Japanese incense has fewer synthetic ingredients than Indian, but high quality Indian incense will have much fewer synthetics than low quality Japanese. In the face of inflation and desire for higher profits, Indian incense makers tend to lower quality to maintain price, while Japanese tend to increase price to maintain quality. One of several reasons is that the Japanese tradition of incense-making is much older than the tradition of Indian stick incense, although the tradition of incense in general may be about the same age in India and the Orient.


    1. Buy high quality, low smoke incense (cf. below)
    2. Keep the windows open, at least a little
    3. Don't burn too much
    4. Especially in a small room
    5. Just burn part of a stick (can put a paper clip on the stick part way down to stop the burn)

  34. Einar Olsen says:

    Good Incense is Good Part II

    Cleaner Incense Lines

    Indian Incense: Mere Cie (Mother's)

    There is one company and one other branded line of Indian incense that have claimed to be entirely free of synthetic ingredients: Mere Cie (Mothers) (company) and Auromere Ayurvedic (line).

    Mere Cie (Mothers) (

    Mere Cie offers three lines of incense: Mother's Fragrances (their original line); Mother's Golden Line; and Mother's Nag Champa Line. There are about 51 fragrances in all. Mother's incense is very different, and has far less smoke than almost all other incense lines. No scientific study on incense smoke should be done that does not include Mother's incense. The smoke is often so light that it is not even possible to see it unless one looks at the stick while it is burning in just the right angle of light. It is more just a glowing ember on the stick tip, with no smoke even visible. Or the smoke is very faint. The quality of Mother's is overall extremely refined, delicate, and subtle. Quality varies from medium to the finest incense available anywhere in the world at this time, with most of Mother's fragrance tending to very very high quality – wonderful. Mother's hand-crafted packaging is also exquisite and unmatched. Mother's sells beautiful gift packs of mini-sticks that retail for only $5-6. Mother's incense is made in Auroville, outside Pondicherry on the Coromandel (east) coast of India. Mother's USA has been around for a relatively long time and is based in California. Mother's has offered a simple but sophisticated listing of which spiritual qualities are associated with each aroma, which I feel are the most accurate I have ever come across.

  35. Einar Olsen says:

    Good Incense is Good Part III

    Auromere Ayurvedic and Japanese Incense

    Auromere Ayurvedic Incense Auromere Ayurvedic (

    Auromere, well known for its natural soaps and toothpastes, and other natural (Ayurvedic) personal health care products, has three lines of incense. One of those three lines is or has been claimed to be entirely natural – their original Ayurvedic line. This line is developed more for health reasons than burning just for enjoyment or for spiritual reasons (of course health, pleasure and enjoyment converge). Most of its incense are resin incenses from different trees, and the health qualities supposed to be associated with each are listed. The line is relatively small, only eight scents, some of which are obviously burned more for health than pleasure and might be acquired tastes. However this line has some very interesting, unique, and wonderful fragrances. Their sandalwood is one of the VERY few authentic sandalwoods left on the Indian incense market (with the sandal coming from a Govt.-approved source). Their Resin incense is unique and can be considered 'Ayurveda on a stick' – this incense is the closest I have ever experienced to smelling like the eternal natural Vedic and Ayurvedic tradition of India. Auromere's hand-crafted packaging is also very modest and charming.

    Japanese Incense

    In general, Japanese incense is more consistently delicate and light than Indian incense. In Japan, Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo are quite high quality and match Mother's in refinement, delicacy, and subtlety. Both Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo specialize in natural ingredients and have fewer synthetics than most incense from India. Both are very widely distributed throughout N. America in natural food stores. In Japan, Nippon Kodo is the incense industry giant, while Shoyeido has done much more in the U.S.


    Nippon Kodo

  36. Einar Olsen says:

    Good Incense is Good Part IV

    Online Retailers and Tips

    In addition to these branded lines from India and Japan, there are hundreds of individual incenses, usually in the original Indian or Japanese packaging, that are very pure and high quality. A search for 'incense' will give several online companies that sell incense. You can ask them which incense is most pure and high quality and they may be able to help you. Here are some: Probably the largest online seller of incense

    The Wikipedia article on incense is OK.
    Their article on Indian incense however is outstanding:

    By the way, please do not buy on the basis of sales and marketing claims on packaging, websites, and other literature. In India, just about anything can be on an incense package or website. Avoid any incense made outside India and Japan, especially any incense made in the U.S. (Ask). Make sure it is hand-ROLLED IN INDIA or made in Japan. This alone is not a guarantee of quality and lightness but a requirement to start with.

    If an incense pack says 'Sandal,' it almost certainly will have little or no sandal, as sandal is mostly off the market due to being endangered.

    Try the new resin incenses: Mountain Naturals from, and Auroshikha Natural Resin. They are almost free of synthetics and very true and authentic fragrances.

    Good Wishes

  37. Mukunda says:

    While I agree that burning incense is not the best thing to do while practicing asanas or during meditation, I wholeheartedly disagree with your statement regarding smoke in the lungs. I use marijuana for my lungs (it is a scientifically proven bronchiodilator!) and it does in fact help me with my asthma, whereas, if I even take a drag of a tobacco cigarette, my lungs have an adverse reaction and start to bother me. Additionally, I am a former wildland firefighter in the US and breathing in all of the various types of smoke was very much noticeable. Burning Incense cedar trees never bothered me, but burn some hardwoods like oak, alder, or cottonwood and it is a very different story. Additionally, the headline is not really accurate. I am Hindu by religion, and yoga is more than bodily postures. It correlates to the English words "yolk" or "union", and it inevitably leads to union with God, Allah, Brahman, or whatever you wish to call it (even if you don't believe it!). It seems your article deals more with what is sattvic or what correlates to prana. Incense is perfectly well yogic, just perhaps not sattvic. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras were meant as a guideline and not as axiomatic. To understand them, one contemplates their inner meaning. Patanjali, or you for that matter, does not dictate what is conducive to a "union" that I have – my union is my union, yours is yours. If we rigidly define what is yogically acceptable, we would chase our own tail into eternity. It is through using and trying different approaches that we are able to find what works for us and what does not. I myself use marijuana and drink beer. But I abstain from eating meat and try to use minimal petroleum products. I have no qualms with considering beer drinking yogic. I propose that you are actually speaking about yama and niyama. Discipline and abstention is where most things become discordant with a real "union". In short, incense smoke can hurt you, but so can cosmic dust particles. Maybe use an air purifier, as the air in buildings is generally far more polluted than most dirty factories anyway!

  38. Einar Olsen says:

    Although Michelle's post has value in alerting us to lower quality, smokier, less pure incense, and to the need to use common sense in not burning too much incense in small rooms with the windows closed, I've offered a post in response that describes how to burn incense and avoid or greatly reduce the challenges she mentions. Included in my post are links to the purest stick incenses in N. America – which are also very wonderful !

  39. Kirst says:

    This article misrepresents the research.

    It also fails to correctly attribute. Since when is it ok to cite academic research and not directly link to it?

    The paper is linked below for anyone that would like to see the full study (and the very particular circumstances those results were derived from).

  40. Mel says:

    I happen to love incense, don't use it that often, although I like to (I tend to run out and forget to get more…) but I really appreciate this article! It is probably true, that we don't have to condemn it, and it would probably be something I will still occasionally do (even less occasionally than now though..) but I am very happy to have this knowledge under my belt and most most especially since I have a baby that sleeps in the same room as me – I definitely will not want this on when he is around,…I just don't see this as condemning but as informative and helpful for many (some people would use it every day and not know – like me, if I had enough of them!)

  41. Mel says:

    This is exactly what I was thinking ~ doing more of this outdoors!

  42. Valerie says:

    I'd say that even if there aren't the chemicals present, it's still smoke and should be kept to a minimum. I've been shamed by a yoga teacher when I asked her to put out the incense, so thank you for spreading the word. 🙂

  43. Laura says:

    We used some nag champa in the attic to repel vermin and it worked! I think that must be one of the original uses of incense-as a repellant.

  44. TahitiNut says:

    I expect better from Elephant Journal than a rant by a tobacco Nazi. Fact: there are no allergens in tobacco smoke (or incense smoke) Thus, it is impossible to have an "allergic" reaction to tobacco smoke. Any reaction is most likely part asthma and part psychosomatic. Since the author indicates no diagnosis of asthma, her MIND is where her 'reaction' originates. It seems to me that's hardly "yogi-like" … and might be worth attending to rather than worshipping

  45. Sean Maac says:

    I loved this article and it rings so very true, as a yoga instructor I would never influence my incense in class. That said, there is incense as pure as gold out there. What we buy "in store" is not always quality incense (just my opinion). Incense is a personal connection one has with the sense of smell…it's personal. Yeup, I get the smoke factor but the emissions are quaint even in my small space. Just get to know what's out there and know what your buying for sure. <3 …Anyway! Brilliant and Thank You! lol'd!