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When most people walk into a yoga class and smell incense, they feel a sense of relaxation. For me, it’s sheer anxiety.
While I look able-bodied, I’m a 32-year-old living with the terminal lung disease known as cystic fibrosis. Even the smallest amount of smoke of any sort triggers painful inflammation in my lungs. And that is the exact opposite of what I want to feel during my yoga practice.
During one of the first yoga classes I attended, the teacher began by lighting incense while talking about feeling grounded. I was locked in a room with one of my biggest health triggers for the next 60 minutes, so I was feeling anything but settled. Since I was new to yoga, though, I didn’t realize that I could simply ask her to put the incense out. As the class continued, it seemed that most of the class was enjoying the practice, but I was getting very little out of it because I was fixated on the tingling sensation in my fingers, an indication that my blood-oxygen level was plummeting to an unsafe level.
I made it about halfway through class, constantly distracted and worried for my well-being, when I experienced the most hell-no sensation: I felt hot in my face, like a lifetime’s worth of being ignored, healthwise, was bubbling to the surface. I stood up, walked to the front of the room, and put out the incense. I had not paid $15 to be subjected to an asthma attack.
The look of utter shock from every other student in the class was terrifying to witness. It felt as though I had just performed the greatest faux pas in the history of yoga studentship. The teacher smiled and frankly, looked impressed and somewhat entertained.
Here’s the thing: Isn’t the entire practice of yoga about non-harming? If I had struggled through that entire class without advocating for myself, wouldn’t that have been the greater offense? Unfortunately, I still left feeling worse than I did when I arrived. In that moment, though, I learned that it’s OK to ask a teacher to stop doing anything that is unhealthy—or, in fact, severely detrimental—for me.
Yes, incense in yoga classes is an issue for a lot of us
I know I’m not alone in my anxiety each time I walk into a yoga studio. According to the American Lung Association, there are nearly 37 million people in the United States living with lung disease, including asthma. That doesn’t include anyone with allergies and other sensitivities, so the actual number of people who suffer from smoke is much higher. Not to mention we are currently experiencing a global pandemic and many are recovering from COVID-related issues.
The potential for health concerns related to burning incense is even broader. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to particulate matter (that’s a fancy way to say “small particles”) from burning incense has been linked to asthma, lung inflammation, and some types of cancer. Additionally, some incense has been found to contain toxic ingredients, and when it is lit on fire, the toxicity increases. And that’s not to mention the cultural and environmental insensitivities of burning palo santo and sage.
But in a way, this additional support is beside the point. If any student in a class is endangered by burning incense, then it’s a very real issue.
How to advocate for your needs
More often than not, I have found that I need to ask teachers to not burn incense, sage, or palo santo when I attend yoga class. I make sure to tell the teacher that I have a lung disease and I can’t be around smoke. It literally always feels messy, and I typically fumble my words, but at least I get the point across. I cannot practice yoga with something on fire. End of discussion.
I’ve had teachers literally roll their eyes at me. Or, like the teacher I mentioned earlier, blatantly ignore my request and keep burning things, which sucks. (She never stopped lighting things on fire, even after I explained my situation, so eventually we had to break up.)
You’re allowed to ask your teacher to put out anything that could trigger your health condition. It’s unfortunate that many studios don’t have the necessary awareness to be more inclusive and accessible, but it starts with education. You can step off your mat at any time and request a safe space. And there are studios and teachers who will appreciate and respect you stating your needs.
I recently took over ownership of a yoga studio, and one of the first things I implemented was a smoke- and fragrance-free policy. I didn’t know what the response would be, and frankly, I didn’t care. Not only did the community support the lack of smoke, but we drew a surprising number of new members who also struggle every day with compromised health. The backbone of my studio’s ethos is inclusivity, and I cannot create a safe and diverse place without considering the well-being of the entire community, including the disabilities I cannot see.
See also: When to Ignore Your Yoga Teacher
About our contributor
Ashlee McDougall is a self-proclaimed yoga nerd. She’s completed more than 1,500 hours of yoga teacher training with expert teachers including Janet Stone and Jason Crandell. She enjoys creating sequences that help you build strength and mobility and is passionate about offering trauma-aware and inclusive classes. You can follow her on Instagram at @Ashlee.McDougall and take class with her at Yoga Loft in Tucson, Arizona.