Discovering essentials oils and their therapeutic uses, or aromatherapy, can be as transformative as the first time you realized the profound depth of yoga. Yoga and meditation teach us about ourselves, but how can aromatherapy enlighten our paths?
“The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.”
Sonnet 54, Shakespeare
Smell affects us. We’re easily attracted or repulsed by smells. Like tentacles, the senses reach outward, find information and bring it back into the brain to be perceived. However, these perceptions can distract yogis.
In Ashtanga, the eight limbs of yoga, pratyahara is the fifth limb. Pratyahara is withdrawal of the five senses whereby yoginis deliberately turn off the sensations that draw us out from our concentration and inner calm. However, choosing essential oils wisely can enhance our yoga practice, rather than distract us.
Essentials oils affect the body, emotions and mind via brain and blood. Some oils wake up the mind too much for the subtleties of meditation. The wrong oil or oil combination can ruin yoga class for sensitive people, or draw out negative emotions. In a group, ask first if someone prefers that no scent be used.
Aromatherapy stimulates and influences wellness in many ways. We can uplift moods, enhance breathing exercises or pranayama, invigorate the body and activate asana practice. It can ground us, bring clarity and deepen meditation.
Many yoga studios clean mats with essential oils. Mixed with water, folks spray them from misters to cool down. Oils are used to anoint chakras or added to an unscented base oils for massage. Ayurveda suggests that abhyanga, massaging the skin with oil, cultivates contentment. It literally changes how we feel within our own skin. Abhyanga can be done before class to enhance elasticity of limbs or afterwards to sooth muscles and joints.
Here are a few oils to complement yoga, pranayama and meditation:
Rosemary, Rosmarinus Officinalis is well known for its upward-moving, cognitive-enhancing qualities. Try adding two drops into one ounce of jojoba oil and massage into the scalp. This moisturizes dry hair and treats dandruff as it stimulates scalp and brain. (Rosemary can irritate the skin if applied neat, i.e., without jojoba oil or other base oil.) Shampoo out.
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”
Ophelia in Hamlet, Shakespeare
Blue chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla, stimulates immune function, is anti-inflammatory and calms nervous headaches and stomachaches. Mild enough to apply directly to skin, rub a drop onto belly, temples or skin irritations.
Himalayan cedarwood, Cedrus deodora is a balanced, sweeter version than other cedar oils, such as C. atlantica. Excellent for congestion, it’s associated with the heart and lungs. Use this oil to enhance pranayama, perseverance and endurance. Dab your throat.
Clary sage, Salvia sclarea, balances the female system at all stages from acne to cramps, from labor to depression and hot flashes. Add several drops to a spritzer bottle of water and spray lightly toward face or on neck.
Birch, betula album, with its sweet-smelling analgesic properties, relieves achy muscles and joints, increasing circulation. Vetiver, Vetiveria zizanioides, calms nerves, muscles strains and sprains. Try mixing a few drops of each essential oil into 4 ounces of almond oil for massage after a strong yoga workout. Keep away from eyes.
Immortelle, Helichrysum angustifolium, is great for the complexion, lungs and headaches. Spritz the face as a toner after washing, before moisturizing. Use it again before pranayama practice.
When it comes to Jasmine, I prefer Jasminum sambuc with its higher, sweeter note over J. officinale. J. sambuc is excellent for mantra meditation and to strengthen love. Anoint your temples.
Tulsi or Holy Basil, Ocimum sanctum, is a sacred plant known to strengthen compassion. Tulsi loosens and clears congestion, purifying the respiratory system. It also has anti-inflammatory qualities and is said to bring physical endurance. Dab a drop onto your wrists.
Mints, Mentha spp., clears the mind quickly and relieves nausea and headaches. Lavenders, Lavandula spp., releases tension, promotes rest, soothes burns and repels insects. Neroli, blossom of Citrus aurantium; Petitgrain, leaves and twigs of Citrus aurantium; and other citruses such as lemon, bergamot, grapefruit and orange cultivate happiness. Use in spritzers, massage oils or sniff from the bottle. Combine one, two or three to your liking.
Try a drop of Cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum, in your latte to digest milk and balance caffeine. At our home we love chai! A quick version is to mix three drops each of the essential oils cinnamon, ginger and cardamom with one drop clove into 12 ounces of honey. Add a spoonful to hot, black tea.
Spikenard, Nardostachys jatamansi, used by Mary Magdalene to anoint Jesus’ feet. She is featured in the Titian painting above with her jar of oil next to her. Spikenard/Jatamansi is critically in danger of becoming extinct. Please be mindful and don’t buy it.
Rosewood, Aniba rosaeaodora, another endangered species, is completely wiped out in parts of Africa. Over-harvesting continues in Brazil. Don’t buy natural rosewood either. Find more important information about endangered plants at iucnredlist.org.
Sandalwood grows primarily in Asia and Australia. Santalum album, from India, is one of the world’s oldest perfumes. It’s also threatened with extinction, but the Australian isn’t. Please only use very small quantities and mix into jojoba to extend use. Don’t purchase sandalwood carvings. Prized for a calming base note and cooling properties, sandalwood promotes peace. Traditionally used for mental clarity and meditation, anoint your third eye and pray for peace.
A dozen species of Rose, Rosa spp., are used medicinally across the globe. They cool anger and fever; calm and release tension; sooth grief and inspire love. It’s the quintessential scent for opening heart and mind. Anoint your heart.
This summer, do stop and smell the roses! With long inhalations, bring the scent deeply into your awareness. Rest, and experience its essence reflected in your own inner beauty.
Cynthia cultivates her garden during the summer, often until her knees and back hurt. Then she looks around the yard, smells the roses, practices some yoga and feels fabulous. email@example.com