Written by Dr. Marc Halpern
Aromatherapy is the use of the sense of smell for healing. Understanding the nature of the patient and of the disease (imbalance), the appropriate aromatherapy can be prescribed.
Aromatherapy, like each of the five sense therapies, is an effort to expose a person to the ideal environment. Through the nose, the human being inhales their environment and takes it into their body, mind and consciousness. If what is taken in is harmonious with one’s nature, the natural result is health and well-being. If what is taken in is disharmonious, the natural result is disease. We are as much what we smell as what we eat.
Unlike foods and herbs, aromas work more directly on the mind and subtle body. They are an important part of treating psychological and psychic disorders. They directly affect the chakras and the nadis. They also affect the physical body, but have a milder action.
While aromatherapy is as old as humanity, Maurice Gattefosse (1920’s) is credited as the modern day father of aromatherapy. Mr. Gattefosse was a chemist who, after healing a severe burn with lavender oil because it was the only cold substance he had available, devoted the rest of his life to researching the medicinal effects of aromatic oils. He is credited with coining the term “aromatherapy”, although the term had probably been used throughout the ages.
Aromas come from aromatic oils. These oils are found in many parts of a plant. Depending upon the plant, they may be found in the flowers, roots, leaves, resin or bark. Rose oil, for instance, comes from a flower, frankincense from a resin and cinnamon from bark.
As a medicinal substance, plants offer many blessings. Not only are the oils beneficial for aromatherapy, but the whole plant and, in some cases, the essential oils can be ingested as a medicine. If this is not enough, their visual beauty increases the sattvic energy of one’s surroundings. Hence, plants are sacred medicine for the body, mind and spirit and it is beneficial to surround oneself with them regularly.
Sources of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy comes from many parts of a plant. A plant resin is a tree secretion used to heal the tree of wounds. It is the dried sap or rasa of the tree. As a medicine, the component of the plant used often gives an indication of the action of the medicine. Hence, many resins heal the body of wounds. Examples of common resins include myrrh, frankincense, pine and guggul. Examples of common aromatic flowers include rose, jasmine and honeysuckle. Common aromatic leaves include sage and mint. Examples of common aromatic stems are lavender and rosemary. Common aromatic roots are ginger and turmeric. Roots are often not as rich in essential oil and their scents are not as strong. Examples of common aromatic barks include cinnamon and sandalwood.
Proper Use of Aromatic Oils
Aromatic oils are often very strong substances. While their effects through aromatherapy are subtle, if ingested internally, their effects are very strong. Most essential oils must be diluted before ingesting them. Failure to properly dilute an oil can result in severe irritation or burning of the mucous membranes of the body. For this reason, it is a general rule that essential oils should not come into direct contact with the nose, lips, mouth, tongue, rectum, vagina or eyes. Patients may be injured by the incorrect use of these oils. Great caution should be used with essential oils. While direct contact with the skin does not usually burn, it can produce irritation. And, some patients may have an allergic reaction, resulting in widespread, generalized rashes (atopic dermatitis). After handling essential oils, a person should wash their hands with soap and water to remove any oils that may have made contact. If a person forgets to do so, they may create a problem if they rub their eyes or touch their nose or mouth.
There are many positive ways to use aromatic oils. The following are some examples.
As essential oils are very strong, they should be diluted in other oils when being applied to the body. A constitutionally correct base oil should be chosen. For aromatic value, one drop of the essential oil can be mixed with one teaspoon to one tablespoon of base oil. The aromatic oil is then spread on the chest, neck and face. Aromatic oils are often added to massage oils for either daily application onto the body or for special massage therapies.
Essential oils can be mixed in a misting bottle. Misting bottles are readily available from drugstores, health food stores and other supply sources. Mix one drop of oil to two ounces of water. As many bottles are eight ounces, mix four drops of oil. More or less oil will need to be added according to the strength of the aroma. Exact proportions need to be determined by experience and preference.
Essential oils are also the key ingredient of incense sticks. These slow burning sticks give off smoke containing the aroma. Incense sticks can provide strong aromatherapy; however, some individuals may be sensitive to the smoke. Smoke inhalation can cause irritation to the bronchial membranes, resulting in coughing and wheezing. In some individuals, the eyes may turn red and burn.
In Chinese medicine, the burning of herbs near acupuncture points, called moxibustion, is a common practice. The heat and the quality of the essential oils penetrate the access point of the body. This practice is also utilized in Ayurvedic medicine near marma points. Mugwort is the most common herb used, tightly wrapped around a ginger stick. Turmeric and calamus are also used.
Aromatic herbs may be added to steam therapies. Steam box or steam tent therapies are very common in Ayurveda. Aromatic herbs add their oils to the steam and the steam carries them to all parts of the body. Common aromatics that are added include eucalyptus, bay leaf and peppermint. Aromatic oils or herbs are chosen based upon their energetics and unique prabhava.
Essential oils can also be added to salves or rubbing alcohol and applied to the skin. This is a common method of applying oils for the management of arthritis or any other pain condition.
Ayurvedic Use of Aromatherapy
For people with a vata prakruti or vikruti, warming oils are recommended that are also calming. Most of the oils have a sweet or sweet/pungent (spicy) rasa, warm virya and sweet vipaka. Sweet aromatics and spicy aromatics are often mixed together. The combination of spicy and sweet is ideal for pacifying vata. The sweet aroma brings calmness and is moist. The spicy aroma warms up the blend. Mixing sandalwood with cinnamon creates a spicy-sweet blend.
For people with a pitta prakruti or vikruti, cooling oils are recommended. These oils include rose, sandalwood and honeysuckle. These aromas generally have a predominantly sweet rasa, cool virya and sweet vipaka.
For people with a kapha prakruti or vikruti, warming and stimulating oils are recommended. Most of these oils are pungent (spicy). They have a pungent rasa, warm virya and pungent vipaka. Examples include cinnamon and patchouli. These oils are generally drying and they stimulate and clear the channels of the mind.
Table 92: Oils and Aromas for Each Dosha
While oils can be utilized for their generalized effects on the energetics of the patient, they can also be selected according to their unique prabhavas. Some oils reduce anger and others reduce congestion. As a general rule, kapha-pacifying oils reduce congestion, pitta-pacifying oils reduce fever and vata-pacifying oils reduce anxiety.
For more information about Ayurvedic aromatherapy, please request more information about Ayurvedic training.