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Taking a Deep Breath In: On Incense and Yoga
By Sandi Boerum
April 27, 2012
Readers' Comments

I’m one of thousands. A devoted NYC yoga practitioner. We frequent the city’s ever-growing number of yoga studios with passion. Yet, in a way, I feel alone, because as I practice yoga around town, I seem to be the rare one who is bothered by the fact that some yoga studios burn incense despite the research finding that "burning incense on a regular basis doubles your risk of upper respiratory cancer, including throat, mouth and squamous cell lung cancer."

How did this warning about something that's been called “more deadly than cigarette smoke” get past so many health nuts?

I wasn’t sure, but a while back, I set out to inform. Whenever I came upon an instructor (even a few famous ones) waving a stick of incense during savasana or a studio burning several sticks brightly, rather than simply no longer patronizing the studio or instructor’s classes, I sent them a polite email with the research.

The outcome? Oddly, not only did I never once receive a “thank you,” but some studios continued to burn away, regardless of the news.

Okay, so my approach wasn’t working. But if burning a stick of incense has similar effects to smoking a cigarette, the public should know. So, I stepped it up a notch and contacted yoga publications. I figured mass media was a more intelligent approach anyway, right? It certainly beats my attempt at going door to door.

Breathe in, breathe out....
   
Again, no interest. One after another.

So now I’m baffled and disturbed. Are yoga publications too afraid that reporting about the dangers of incense will offend or damage the studios with which they’re aligned? Are they letting this fear stand in the way of informing the public? Or are they too preoccupied with John Friend? Or Elena Brower?

I don’t know. What I do know is that incense is classified as a harmful form of secondhand smoke, increasing one’s cancer risk. And perhaps more matter-of-factly, it bothers me to breathe it in while I’m practicing yoga. So, I am hereby informing the world.

Dear yoga studios: If scents are your thing, keep in mind that there are many wonderful forms of aromatherapy.... that don’t cause cancer. Or at the very least, that don't cause respiratory disturbance. Why not give them a try? Or how about fresh air? It’s free.

I realize – not so naively – that being informed isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are many toxins we willingly imbibe, despite the well-documented research. Cigarettes and meat come to mind. It's one thing, however, to smoke a cigarette or burn a stick of incense in the privacy of one’s own home, and quite another to knowingly impose it upon your customers. Even if you choose to believe that incense use is fine for the general public, consider that yoga spaces tend to be small unventilated rooms in which people are exercising and therefore breathing deeply. Also consider that, commonly, a practitioner can walk in with a compromised respiratory system (i.e., asthma, allergies, a cold, a smoking habit) or with a child in her womb.

Since we seem to be turning toward Eastern customs for solace and (ironically, in this case) wellness, it’s worth noticing that our reverence for these ancient practices can sometimes get in the way of the health of our decisions.

Perhaps one ancient practice should stay at the top of the list: Remain open to questioning the practice, and oneself. Enough said, I'm heading out for a breath of fresh air.


For some valuable thoughts from yoga studio owners, instructors,
and others around the globe, please see "readers' comments" below.



   

The 2008 Research Study on Incense:

Cancer Journal

Reporting on the 2008 Study:

Science Daily

WebMD


More Recent Studies and Reporting on Incense:

The Telegraph (March 2010):
Incense Burnt in British Church Services Causing Illness in Congregation

Huffington Post (April 2010):
Taiwan: Stop Burning Incense To Honor Dead, Worship Online To Protect Environment

The Telegraph (March 2011):
Incense Burned in Thai Temples Poses Cancer Risk







Readers' Comments:

Jacob - Tel Aviv
"Not long ago I had a little argument with people at the office – I told them that indoor smoke inhalation is one of the major causes of death in Africa and India and they thought I was making it up.
Incense being bad is counterintuitive given the PR it was given by Buddhism, Hinduism, and New Ageism. It serves as part of an awe-inspiring ceremony, even though spreading the smell can be achieved by safer methods. If I were an editor this would be a very interesting issue to illuminate, but probably it’s too emotional for people who think of it as spiritual to make the switch."

Gail - Texas, yoga instructor
"Secondhand smoke can cause pulmonary hypertension. Which is high blood pressure in the lungs. Enlarged right side of heart. Nothing you can do for pulmonary hypertension.
I give them the option of lavender applied onto the forehead, if they choose."

Steven - Los Angeles, yoga studio owner
"Also, a lot of incense uses cow dung as a main ingredient... Kind of crazy, but true."

Verity - London
"I've always hated incense in yoga studios, but loved them in India. Now I realise it's probably because most studios there are outdoors and don't leave me coughing or stinking! I think yoga students and teachers often don't want to question their gurus."

Mat - Paris, France
"I've been practicing Ashtanga Yoga in three different places in Mysore; none was actually burning incense during asana practice.
In Paris, France, it definitely keeps me away from shalas where they burn incense, windows closed, before practice, early morning. Yuk."

Rusty - San Francisco, yoga studio owner
"Our studio has recently begun the transition to nebulizers that disperse pure essential oils.
We do not use flame-burning candles. They are either electric or rechargeable. But since we opened 2.5 years ago, we've been using a little incense at the beginning and end of each class, and sometimes a quick waft during the class should the need arise.
But that has even gnawed at me a bit. While I was in Belgium recently leading a training, one of the students, who happens to be a fireman, asked me straight up why yoga studios use candles and incense (that particular studio kept both going all the time) and he wondered how that could possibly be healthy. And that fully woke me up and I realized that however ambient and ritualistic it may be, it certainly isn't in the best interest of the healthful experience we profess to be offering.
We are experimenting with these essential oils now and seeing how it works at the beginning and end of class. This will help keep us fully smoke-free.
Just wanted to share with you that I am very happy you are getting the word out. It matters."

Alix - NYC
"You don't have to tell me! I don't like candles either."

Kristin - Sweden, yoga studio owner
"I'm quite sensitive to it myself and it gives me a migraine, so I've always been adverse to studios who use it, and never use it myself in the studio I run. I appreciate the insight, as well as the research. I'm going to post it to my studio's Facebook, perhaps as a little clarification of WHY I choose not to use it, even though I wasn't aware of the potential health risks, outside of my own discomfort, as I have had a few questions about it in the past."

Alyssa - NYC, writer
"Yoga comes from India where it originated in Hinduism. Incense is a part of the ritual of this ancient religion. I respect the origin and roots of what I call 'real' yoga so I use incense."

Lisa - Cranston, Rhode Island, yoga studio owner
"Recently I have considered (now will likely enforce) a studio policy of not burning incense during or immediately prior to yoga practice. I feel it is best to burn a stick after the last class of the day has ended, in effect burning off the negativity and toxins released by everyone. It allows the overnight hours for the smoke to dissipate and the pleasant smell remains. That pleasant smell has a great positive effect on mood. I would love to see some research on the positive effects....
So I am not going to discontinue the use of incense, but rather like everything else in my life, use if mindfully and in moderation."

Lisa - London, yoga studio owner
"I have to say I agree with you here! I teach mostly pregnancy, mum and baby, OAPs, restorative etc... and do not use incense! I do provide it due to demand from teachers, but try and offer the option of oil burners, which I find much less offensive! So, thank you for this as I will be distributing it to all my teachers in the hope that we can wean them all off...."

Malcolm - Melbourne, Australia, yoga studio director
"All quite valid, and in fact over many years I have chosen to try, and also not try, everything about scent/smoke and what it does/doesn't do.
From experience, there is a lot going on other than the mere physical aspect of the imposition. It is this 'other' that is interesting. And it is from the 'other' that traditions over centuries have chosen to use it. Of course the purity or otherwise of the scent/smoke can always be challenged, and I suggest this is where an effort can justifiably be made. People inhale all sorts of substances, from dust in the air which can be seen across a film of soft light in a partially lit room all the way to toxic chemicals and psychotropic substances (illicit or otherwise).
In my studio I choose not to use anything during a practice, but sometimes before and after a light high quality scent is employed, although rarely.
Good luck with your quest to wake the sleeping."

Deborah - NYC
"i've been telling people this for years. so glad you wrote something about it and put it out there. i'll share."

Tom - Providence, RI, yoga studio owner
"I truly appreciate and thank you for this mission that you have taken on, informing yoga studios and teachers of the dangers of incense. It is a beautiful thing that you do. Indeed you are correct and right.
We burn no incense during class. We do traditional poojas 2 - 3 times a year and burn a little stick then. We do periodically "smudge" with sage when no students are in the room every now and then and it seems to have a beneficial clearing effect. I have a special incense from one particular temple in India that I use sparingly a couple times a year.
Yes we use aromatherapy as well once in while.
Why do I do these things? Even though I know that secondhand smoke from incense is dangerous? Why are my actions not totally consistent with the scientific proven dangers of incense? It is a totally legitimate question.
I guess my answer today is that it has to do with the mysterious and the sublime. Here I am vegan, squeaky clean in every respect and yet I do like how the right kind of incense transports my spirit. The smell brings me back to the temple in India where I had profound transformations of love and transcendence. I get a whiff of that, and I am right back there. In this small measure, I allow incense in my life. As a sparing sacrament.
(Incense is not created equal. The perfumy ones seem especially toxic. I would never use them.)
But I congratulate and laud the work that you are doing. And thank you for helping me question my sparse habit."

Bobbi - Miami, yoga studio director
"we never ever burn it in class.... for several reasons, and you have added another, the most important.... many many thanks."

Dylan - Japan
"Great article. Will share it on Twitter and Facebook."

Mike - Austin, TX, yoga studio owner
"Thank you for writing this. We do not burn incense for the same reasons. Never have and never will and are glad to see someone writing about it."

Persephone - Gouda, The Netherlands, music teacher, singer, writer
"For years I’ve been asking people to extinguish the incense at yoga lessons. Doubtless making a pest of myself, but I don’t get a good 'high' from it and moreover I feel ill in a confined space with incense burning. I also keep asking people to turn off the music. I’m a classical musician and trained to listen to music. It annoys me to have to try to follow a yoga class and turn off my ears and nose to benefit my health. Aren’t these distractions from concentrating on understanding what your body is telling you through the marvelous conversation between mind and body in movement during yoga?"

Antonia - London, yoga instructor
"I love a good oil burner with natural essential oils. Very clean and refreshing."

Kandy - Fort Myers, FL, yoga studio owner
"As we are located in a beautiful but old building in Florida erected in 1924, odor has been a problem, beyond that of humans. Burning incense was never received well by the majority of students, so we started misting with a sage and lavender spray. It has been perfect for 22 years."

Sally - Cambridge, UK, yoga instructor
"I’ve never been a user, but now feel well informed."

Sasha - Australia, yoga instructor
"I didn’t know... I think I will use scented candles from now on."

Eadie - NYC
"Very helpful...really worth thinking about. thanks, Sandi."

Karen - Pawtucket, RI, yoga studio director
"Right there with you, Sandi!"

Jane - NYC
"Quite compelling and very well stated. I will definitely pass it on."

Allison - San Francisco, CA
"RIGHT ON! Thank you, thank you."


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