Acupuncturist Jill Blakeway, DACM, is down to do just about anything in the name of energy healing: Sit in a hot hut for a Native American purification ceremony? No, er, sweat. Travel to Greece to perform acupuncture on a high-profile (read: royal) client? Not a problem. And here, the Well+Good Council member put the unlikeliest plant to the test to look for possible healing powers: tobacco.
At this point, is there a person on earth who doesn’t know that tobacco is public health enemy number one? As an ex-smoker with a particularly strong aversion to the smell of smoke, I’ll admit I was highly skeptical when I first heard about the potential healing properties of the herb to reorganize your energy field earlier this summer.
But despite my reservations, I eventually found myself in a small treatment room in New York City partaking in a traditional tobacco ceremony—all in the name of research. (I’m in the middle of writing a book about energy medicine.)
In the shamanic tradition, each medicinal plant has a specific energy, and tobacco is considered powerful, protective, and somewhat masculine.
I’d sought out a tobaquero, or tobacco shaman, and found Marcelo Sturgeon, who hails from Argentina. He’s studied Amazonian plant medicine for the last 15 years and has watched as Westerners have flocked to the rainforest in search of potent healing plants, like ayahuasca.
Sturgeon’s specialty is the use of tobacco. In the shamanic tradition, each medicinal plant has a specific energy, and tobacco is considered powerful, protective, and somewhat masculine. However, using it to heal someone requires experience, Sturgeon says. In the wrong hands, it can invoke negative, harmful energies. No wonder so many people struggle with cigarettes!
Here’s why I decided to try a tobacco healing ceremony—plus, what I discovered during the experience.
The healing power of medicinal smoke
As an acupuncturist, I was already familiar with the concept of medicinal smoke before scheduling my shamanic ceremony: In Chinese medicine, we burn dried mugwort—an aromatic plant—on or over acupuncture points. It’s a technique called moxibustion, and it activates the points in a way that can be profoundly healing. I’ve also been known to use the traditional Native American technique of “smudging” in my home. I burn dried sage to clear negative energy.
It’s easy to dismiss the use of healing smoke such as this as folk medicine from a bygone era, but there’s research that shows it has benefits. A 2007 study, for example, found that burning medicinal herbs in a room reduced airborne bacteria by 94 percent, and the space was still found to be disinfected a day later. What’s more, one month after applying the smoke, many of the pathogens that were originally found remained undetectable.
So, how does a tobacco ceremony compare to more common medicinal smoke rituals like those using sage or palo santo?
Tapping into tobacco’s purifying potential
I reclined, fully clothed, on a table while Sturgeon—who is a tall, kind man with a warm smile—lit the mapacho, a type of cigarette containing pure tobacco. I was surprised to find that its smell was comforting. Sturgeon told me that the tobacco in the mapacho is much stronger than in a cigarette, and I was happy to learn that I wouldn’t have to smoke it myself.
He began the ceremony by singing an icaro, which is a traditional medicine song used in ceremonies to induce a state of healing and enlightenment, then he inhaled the mapacho smoke and blew it around my body. The music, the smoke, and his rhythmic movements put me into a bit of a trance.
Shamans say they use tobacco to clear negative energy and to help ground their patients.
Shamans say they use tobacco to clear negative energy and to help ground their patients, and as I lay on Sturgeon’s table, it occurred to me that people tend to misuse it. They smoke to try and push their negative feelings away, but the tobacco ceremony had the opposite effect on me. I felt intense emotions bubble to the surface so that I could process them. At the end, I felt peaceful but tired, as if my body had done more work than I understood. It may be a coincidence, but I also felt clearer and more centered for days.
Tobacco carries with it a lot of negative baggage, and rightly so. But there’s lighting up a cigarette, and then there’s taking part in a traditional ceremony under the guidance of an experienced tobaquero. Under those circumstances, I think it definitely can have a calming, healing effect—and no, I’m not just blowing smoke.
Dr. Jill Blakeway, DACM, is a practitioner and teacher of Chinese Medicine and the founder and clinic director of the YinOva Center in New York City.
Jill is the author of Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility and Sex Again: Recharging Your Libido. She’s currently writing her third book, about energy healing, for Harper Collins.
What should Jill write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to email@example.com.
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