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Incense: Insensitive and Potentially Bad for You?

in Science, Thanks for the tip, YD News

Ah, the sweet smell of burning herbs and sandalwood. It’s how you know the yoga’s nigh. But what if we told you that smoky aroma isn’t helping your pranayama, it may actually be causing respiratory issues and maybe even cancer? Yikes! We recently spotted this blog post where blogger and yoga teacher Sandi Boerum describes her personal mission to inform and warn yoga studios and even major yoga publications (Yoga Journal, we assume?) of the hazards of inhaling the holy smokes that are prominent not just in yoga studios, but in other sacred or religious institutions.

But to no avail. No one seems to care! She has a message, though, and perhaps a very solid point:

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. However, it’s one thing 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.

We did a bit of our own digging about the dangers of incense and came across a few troubling sources to support Sandy’s claim. The 12-year study she links to examined longterm use of incense in Chinese people living in Singapore and found that “long-term use of incense is associated with an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the respiratory tract,” almost doubling it.

An LA Times article from 2008, when the study was released, points to the risks and to a review published in Clinical and Molecular Allergy dissecting the major types of air pollutants that exist in incense smoke and their toxicological effects. Stuff like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, aldehydes and diethylphthlate. Yum.

Via U.S. News & World Report on the incensicals:

“Anything that affects air quality negatively is not a good thing,” said Dr. Len Horvitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Burning in general and the release of smoke, these things are certainly to be avoided. At the very least, chemical irritants will set off asthma, and that’s reversible. Cancer is not reversible.”

“This is not unlike the type of risk that one experiences from secondhand tobacco smoke,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.

It is smoke afterall. But don’t hold your breath just yet. Though the American Lung Association has added it as a risk factor for all respiratory disorders, we suspect you’re not locking yourself in an unventilated room and burning incense for hours on end.

Dr. Lichtenfeld continues:

“At the end of the day, people who use incense casually, I don’t think that’s a cause for major concern, but those cultures which embrace incense as part of their daily lifestyles have to consider this has a real potential risk for cancer.”

Still even casual users *cough*yogis*cough* might want to return to Sandi’s valid concerns and consider the possible risks and sensitivities before lighting up. And for the love of lungs at least open a window. You too, stoners.



15 comments… add one
  • Ha ha, I spoofed this back in 2007. I got an email shortly thereafter that showed that incense really is a danger. Who knew?


    • YD

      haha. nice one dawg. all too close to true.

  • Vision_Quest2

    One after the other, my wishes are fulfilled … unsafe classes, glut of workshops and yoga festivals, rampant spiritual materialism …
    Thank you for taking on the use of incense …

    Only the Master Swami ever, ever cared that incense bothered my lungs. All the other yoga teachers doubled up on it–how DARE the old lady in the back complain!

    Viva la backlash!

  • Greg

    Life itself leads to old age disease and death.

  • Ha – that’s perfect Yogadawg!

  • Chris

    In India, incense sticks are burnt in order to help set the mood for any Hindu Puja (worship) or Hindu ceremony.

    The location of the Puja is usually a very clean space, bright space in one’s house, and this space is made all the more pleasant by the fragrant smell of the incense-smoke. The incense-smoke is always very subtle and mild, never overpowering. Thus, the fragrance of the incense-stick helps set up a calm and happy mood.

    I never did come across anybody in India lighting-up incense-sticks in their Yoga studio !

    So, if your Yoga studio in the US is lighting-up, then this appears to be yet another example of Yoga, Inc. taking liberties with and employing Poetic-Licence in their interpretation of all things Hindu.

  • incense is not best in

  • Katie


    As an asthmatic yogi, incense ruins my practice. On occasion I’ve actually put it out myself before class. With studios and teachers I frequent, I’ve requested that they not use it and have always been accommodated without question. However, I have been to an occasional class where I couldn’t avoid it and I’m sure no one appreciated me hacking and wheezing during opening meditation or savasana.

    I see no reason for it’s use. But if a teacher or studio is really attached to incense, they should at least ask their students before lighting up.

    • Chris


      Read my comment above.

      Nobody in India lights up incense sticks in their Yoga Studio.

      So, lighting-up incense-sticks in the Yoga Studio is just another misguided effort by Yoga, Inc. to be Hinduer-than-thou !

  • yogasanas

    Get informed and listen to this podcast.http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/200712144

    These two academic toxicology experts shine a lot of light on what really happens chemically, especially in the “near head chemistry” area, as discussed later in the talk. Dr. Corsi states “avoid incense and scented candles”.

    The problem is we have reactive ozone in the environment that will react those chemicals that “smell really good”. This will create NEW chemicals that can be toxic even though the original nice smelling chemical may be deemed safe.

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