Aromatherapy: Benefits and traditional use in yoga The ancient Ayurvedic system of India has incorporated essential oils with yoga for thousands of years. “Ayurvedic literature from 2000 BC records Indian doctors administering oils of cinnamon, ginger, myrrh, coriander, spikenard and sandalwood to their patients.” The oils “subtly complement the yoga practice as they affect the mood and emotion on a conscious and subconscious level.” Essential oils support the physical body as well as the subtle, nurturing muscle, bone, and facilitating breath. Essential oils are volatile compounds extracted from plants that have very specific chemical properties. The chemical constituents are affected by where the plant is grown and the growth environment, the part of the plant distilled and distillation process, age of the plant, harvesting time and technique. (Modern Essentials, p. 24). Comparing the quality of an essential oil to the quality of a fine wine might be useful in understanding the difference between essential oil grades. Many companies label their essential oils therapeutic grade, though there is no qualifying control agency in the industry. Essential oils are extracted from plants, retaining their protective and rejuvenating qualities. Often the unique chemical constituents of essential oils are molecularly small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier, unlike pharmaceuticals. Essential oils are also fifty to seventy times more potent than herbs derived from plants. For instance, merely one drop of peppermint oil would equal the potency of twenty-eight cups of peppermint tea. The constituents of an essential oil will move through every cell of the body within twenty minutes of application, often more rapidly.
Planning a yoga class enhanced with aromatherapy Enhancing a yoga practice with essential oils can be as simple as a drop of sandalwood in the hands during meditation, diffusing eucalyptus during vinyasa, or swafting lavender as savasana begins. My experience has taught me that less is best. I recommend introducing a maximum of three to five essential oils in a general class. The sample classes detailed here can easily be modified by choosing the three that resonate best with your class. Use your nose during class and have a variety of back up oils to substitute for any blends you have planned. For instance, if you have planned to use a blend of several oils for seated asana and meditation, you might instead fall back on just sandalwood. If your nose pallette is overwhelmed, it might also be the case for some of your students. There are no rules and administering essential oils during class can be as much a creative and intuitive art as the art of blending itself. Just the same, a general framework would be to have an essential oil being diffused or spritzed as students enter the practice space. Providing an infused cotton ball to each student upon entering is also an excellent option. A grounding oil such as sandalwood, vetiver, cedarwood, or frankincense works well during centering and pranayama. This can be applied by placing one drop in the hand or on the wrist of each student. The instructor can do this, or a bottle can be passed around. I usually have at least one asssistant for every eight students. This could be a regular student volunteer, or another instructor.
As standing practice begins, another oil can be applied, which oil depending on the type of practice and class theme. A respiratory blend with peppermint and eucalyptus is excellent for any heated standing flow. Peppermint is a wonderful standby, however, please be mindful of how peppermint feels to different people. There is a definite tingling sensation that many love, but can be too much for others. Citrus oils and blends are also energizing and joyful for standing flows.
Massage blends that work to relax muscles are good choices to apply several minutes before backbends. These can be applied during child’s pose by the instructor, or while standing by the student. As practice moves to the mat for seated asanas, moving back to more relaxing and meditative oils works well. Lavender, rosemary, melissa, clary sage, myrhh, and spikenard are just few examples. Savasanna and meditation respond well to grounding tree oils, and deeper base oils like sandalwood, frankincense, vetiver, and patchouli. Essential oils that promote emotional release and inner work, such as jasmine, lemongrass, and rose, are also nice choices for the end of practice. It is important to introduce the essential oils at the beginning of class, regardless of how many oils will be used. Some students will have strong reactions to scent, and some may even have allergic reactions to certain oils. Lavender is a common choice that is allergic for some. More guidelines and contraindications are listed in the appendices.
Making students aware beforehand that essential oils will be used, either by marketing the class as an aromatherapy class, or by other marketing means, can make it easier for students to address any health issues they might be experiencing that could be positively affected by essential oils, or contraindicated.
Essential oils, application, and equipment Essential oils are administered aromatically by inhaling, and topically by applying to the skin, usually dilluted with a carrier oil (i.e. coconut, jojoba, sweet almond, olive). Fractionated coconut oil is a favorite since it is light, non-greasy, scentless, and does not stain clothing. I am not including ingesting essential oils in this guide, however, a conservative use of certain oils internally can be recommended. Quality of the essential oil and knowledge of internal usage is paramount if ingesting the oils.
Blending details and equipment resources are available in the Appendices.
A diffuser can be used to cover the entire room during class.In lieu of a diffuser, a spritz bottle can be used at the beginning of class to spritz throughout the room. Spritzing is also nice as savasana begins.