The word Aromatherapy conjures up a variety of impressions, be it enticingly exotic perfumes and lingering fragrances, perhaps a deliciously scented massage or possibly a decadent bathing experience… An alluring world of imagination, magic and fantasy with the capacity to overwhelm the senses in the most seductive ways imaginable.
But what is aromatherapy?
Simply, aromatherapy consists of using essential plant oils for the health, healing and well-being of the whole person. This incorporates complementary therapy treatments, preventative health care, relaxation and stress relief, as well as the endless list of uses that essential oils have in the home and work place, (which will be discussed later.)
What are essential oils?
Quite literally, the life-force of plants. Many plants produce essential oils; volatile substances that are not only responsible for the individual scents unique to each plant, but also contain hundreds of different natural chemicals, including hormones, vitamins, antibiotics and antiseptics. For example, over 160 different chemical components have been found in Lavender oil - so far!
To quote Marcel Lavabre, a highly qualified and respected expert in the field of aromatherapy research: "Essential oils are the ‘quintessences’ of the alchemists. In this sense, they condense the spiritual and vital forces of the plant in a material form. Therefore, they act on a biological level to strengthen the natural defenses of the body, and are the media of a direct man-plant communication and spiritual plane."
The Origins of Modern Aromatherapy
Modern aromatherapy was re-born largely due to the work of Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist at the turn of the century. However we can trace the origins back to the earliest ages of humanity when fragrance was considered a manifestation of divinity on earth, a connection between man and the Gods. Since early times, aromatic fumigations have been used in daily rituals and religious ceremonies as a reminder of sacredness.
More than 6,000 years ago aromatic medicine emerged from temples in Egypt, the birthplace of medicine, perfumery and pharmacy. The precious oils came from as far afield as Syria, Babylon, Ethiopia, Somalia, Persia, Lebanon and India. The Egyptians were specialists in the art of cosmetology and skin care, practicing the art of massage, as well as embalming. As can be seen thousands of years later, the excellent preservation and antiseptic powers of those resins and fragrances is amazingly strong. The different processing methods of pulverization, maceration etc… could last for months until exactly the right subtle fragrance was obtained for ceremonial use. Many preparations were used for both their healing power as well as their fragrance, for example ‘Kephi’, a perfume of universal fame, was also balsamic, antiseptic, and a tranquilizer which could be taken internally.
Every culture and every civilization, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, has developed and used its own unique methods of medicine, cosmetics and perfumery. Unfortunately a general decline of this knowledge occurred in all forms of herbal therapy for a considerable time during history, and largely due to the advent of modern science and narrow-minded views taken by early scientists, we are still paying the price today. Fortunately a renewed interest has been emerging in the last century, and the ‘Old Knowledge’ is being investigated. Aromatherapy is finally making a long-awaited and much-needed comeback.
Even though they were born centuries apart, both Hippocrates and Rudolf Steiner founded their practices on the same principles concerning plant remedies, and their findings have been confirmed as amazingly accurate by scientific research. Human beings have a complementary relationship with plants, depending on them for food, oxygen and energy, being part of the same whole - life itself. This explains why they are non-aggressive to our physiology, unlike many allopathic preparations. Synthetic reproductions interact awkwardly with the body, hence problems such as allergic reactions and addiction. Therefore it is essential to use only pure, natural, unadulterated essential oils.
The range of uses for essential oils is vast, being used extensively in the cosmetics, perfumery and pharmaceutical industries, drawing from their intense therapeutic actions to the extreme subtlety of genuine perfumes. Their effects can be strictly allopathic, and having the same benefits as modern medicines, essential oils are an excellent alternative to more aggressive therapies. Yet they also act on a more subtle level, similar to Bach flower or homeopathic remedies, plus they have very potent and effective spiritual and psychological effects, which in the past has been their most traditional use.
In response to a frequently asked question about the safety of essential oils, it seems appropriate to mention a few facts about allopathic, or modern medicine. While I have been unable to find any reliable statistics concerning fatalities from plant remedies, this is most definitely not the case with allopathic medicine. "Medical error is the third most frequent cause of death in Britain, after cancer and heart disease, killing up to 40,000 people a year. A further 280,000 people suffer from non-fatal drug-prescribing errors, overdoses and infections. This translates as 1 in 14 patients suffering from some kind of adverse event." (Lois Rogers, Sunday Times 1999.) Time to look at alternatives more seriously, perhaps?
Nowadays anyone genuinely interested in working with essential oils at a professional level is required to complete a training course, in order to be qualified to work safely and effectively with the general public. Courses vary in length and content and some research is required to determine which course is suitable for you. Generally it is advisable to choose a reputable school which is a member of a recognized association, and preferably a governing body for complementary therapies.
Some Ideas for how to use Essential Oils and Aromatherapy
However, if you want to confine your exploration to the bathroom, or just feel like experimenting in your spare time, the possibilities for using essential oils for personal health and pleasure are limitless. Below are some ideas to get you started:
- Massage, for yourself, a friend or that ‘someone special’. Add oils to a cold-pressed vegetable carrier oil, such as sweet almond, to make luxurious massage and bath oils. Massage gives us a sense of connection, a true expression of love and caring between the giver and receiver. Massage provides physical, physiological and emotional benefits primarily through the simple act of touching in a loving, generous and healing way.
- Put essential oils in your skin and hair care products, foot baths and facial steaming bowls, and add to bath water.
- Apply Chamomile to wound compresses, and inhale Cedarwood for cold and respiratory problems.
- Use in vaporizers, diffusers and burners; Petigrain for inspiration, Juniper or Jasmine to relax and calm during meditation, Sandalwood as room fragrance to create an atmosphere, and Lemongrass to kill bacteria. Eucalyptus is very effective during the cold season - cure ‘sick building’ syndrome.
- Add to drawer liners, padded hangers, herb and regular pillows, sprinkle Orange to revive old potpourri, and perk up dried flowers with Geranium.
- Keep essentials in the First Aid kit, such as Tea Tree and Lavender.
- Put a couple of drops on tissues to ease a cold, help nausea when travelling or to kill bacteria during hospital visits.
- Peppermint in pure water is a cheap and effective mouthwash.
- Place a scented cotton ball next to the air vent of a vacuum or sprinkle on the filter pad.
- Add to mineral water in a spray bottle for a face and hair spritzer or air freshener - great for curtains and carpets if there are smokers or pets around.
- Create your own unique perfumes.
- Add to cleaning products, or the water you clean with, deodorize and disinfect working surfaces, bathrooms and kitchens. Sprinkle in toilet bowls, drains and rubbish bins. Lemon is refreshing and bacteriacidal.
- Add Pine and Cypress to logs for atmosphere (use near open flames with caution as essential oils are flammable.)
- Add to washing up liquid, and the final rinse during machine or hand washing.
- Put a scented cotton ball, blotting paper, potpourri sachet or tissue in with your writing paper, between folded towels and clothes, and inside shoes.
- Use to make personalized gifts - scented soaps, incense and candles.
With regards choosing which oils to buy, nothing beats the power of the nose, (you never forget a smell,) so initially go for the scents that you are attracted to. As you add to your collection and become more experienced, you can choose oils for their therapeutic properties as well as their scent. A great way to begin is by trying some pre-blended oils. All the work is done for you leaving you free to sample and enjoy the numerous benefits of the many sumptuous combinations available. Check the selection on offer by Holisticshop.
If you are interested in using and blending essential oils but are not sure where to begin, the market is currently saturated with books on aromatherapy, so it’s a good idea to check what’s available at the library before spending a fortune. Some reputable names to look for include Valerie Ann Worwood, Robert Tisserand, Maggie Tisserand, Jean Valnet, Rene Maurice Gattefosse, Patricia Davis, Jeanne Rose, Julia Lawless, Kurt Schnaubelt, Wanda Sellar, Shirley and Len Price, Rosemary Caddy, and Christine Wildwood. Check there is a comprehensive section on safety, and read this before you begin.
For the more serious connoisseurs there are also several journals published, including In Essence, Aromatherapy World, Aromatherapy Times and The International Journal of Aromatherapy.
It is advisable to choose a supplier who specializes in their product as many diluted, low quality and synthetic oils are available.
In conclusion, essential oils can, quite literally, change your life. They can be uplifting, revitalizing, healing, soothing and relaxing. They can wake you up, inspire your creativity, calm you down, put you to sleep, purify the air and create different moods in your home and workplace. And don’t forget, they can be very romantic…
© Holisticshop and Virginia Evangelou 2003. All rights reserved.