The rich fragrances of sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, and rose have been intertwined with spiritual practices throughout history and yoga is no exception, just think of the prevalence of incense in studios.
Allopathic, naturopathic, and ayurvedic medicines all depend upon the healing properties of plants: whether in a whole state, a diluted or concentrated state, or as a point of inspiration and learning.
Essential oils are an approachable, enjoyable way to add the healing ability of plants to a yoga practice and subtly connect with its spiritual aspect.
The ability to trigger our deepest physiological responses – activation of the sympathetic nervous system for movement and activity, or the parasympathetic nervous system for relaxation and restoration of body systems after energy has been expended – this is the gift that aromatherapy can bring to a home practice.
With a twofold method of delivery, systemically through the blood (physiological) as well as the olfactory-nervous system route (psychological), aromatherapy has built into its application a multifaceted approach that can meet a practitioner where they are in the moment.
The most important decision of what oils to bring into your yoga practice is intention.
What is the purpose or aim you want to achieve? Do you need to relax and unwind at the end of a busy day? Energize and collect yourself before a hectic one begins? Does your morning vinyasa need better encouragement than a mug of coffee? Is life feeling off-center and in need of balance?
Whether your sadhana (practice) will be best supported by an oil with antispasmodic properties that helps reduce muscle tension shoulder openers have brought to your attention, your meditation would enjoy bolstering using sacred fragrances, or you would benefit from scents that fight off common colds– your practice will deepen with the addition of essential oils.
Aromatic Applications for Home Practice
The simplest method to use for your practice is an aromatherapy burner. This can be electric or require a tea light candle (beeswax is best) and holds water in a bowl on top. Into the water add 2-6 drops total of your chosen oils and allow the heat of the candle to evaporate the fragrance into the space.
Another approach is to create a blend: essential oil(s) mixed in carrier oil such as sunflower, olive, or jojoba.
Generally 10mls of carrier oil with 5-15 drops of essential oil is appropriate. For active practices, place a small amount of this blend on your pulse points, hair, and abdomen, turning your body into the heat source.
During a quieter, slower practice, full body application is certainly possible and pleasant. Or you may decide to fall into a long, gentle Baddha Konasana near the end of your practice and treat just your feet to a massage. For pranayama, a low dilution of a blend on the hands is very effective during Nadi Shodhana.
Essential oils are highly concentrated plant material and have safety considerations and contraindications like all medicine and asana. To reduce problems it is recommended that you use oils that are organic or as near to it as possible.
Choosing oils grown with utmost care for the environment honours the principle of ahimsa, non-violence, extending the use of essential oils from a purely physical undertaking to one that incorporates the philosophical foundations of yoga. Energetically, using quality oils you will find the plant’s prana, or vital energy, is most potent, the active constituents more likely to be intact, and the effects more immediate and well rounded.
When applying essential oils to the skin it is imperative to dilute them in carrier oil. Firstly this will reduce the concentration and therefore any potential for irritation or sensitivity (avoid oils of trigger plants if you have allergies); secondly it will slow the evaporation rate of the oil and lengthen the time you can enjoy the fragrance, similar in some ways to time release capsules inside the body.
Should an allergic reaction occur, wash the oils off immediately with lukewarm water and cease use. Do not ingest oils. Keep out of reach of children.
Below are some oils to experiment with and enjoy, grouped by overall energetic effect:
Lavender, Lavendula angustifolia
Considered to be clearing to the entire chakra system, particularly intuition at the third eye, it is also used as a near panacea for the physical body. The familiar scent is easily available to trigger the relaxation response in people outside of Yoga after regular exposure to it in the practice environment. One of the few oils that can safely be applied to the skin undiluted. Contraindicated by low blood pressure.
Frankincense, Boswellia carteri
Used traditionally in many religious ceremonies, frankincense is wonderfully supportive to meditation thanks to slowing and deepening the breath. Because of the action on the lungs (heart center) as well as being a resin (earth element, root center) along with the spiritual associations (spirit element, third eye and crown centers) this oil effectively wraps around all aspects of being.
Bergamot, Citrus bergamia
A wonderful oil, often utilized in cases of stress and depression for its ability to both uplift and relax. Related to the heart center bergamot brightens the mood and is also grounding due to relaxing the mind and body with a fresh, cheerful fragrance. Contraindication: phototoxicity within 12 hours of application, be especially vigilant to wear SPF30 if using.
Geranium, Pelargonium graveolens
By exhibiting a regulatory effect on the nervous system geranium is excellent to use for stress, tension, depression, headaches and anxiety. Particularly known to assist the balance of female hormones it can help PMT and menopause symptoms. Contraindications are not common, but use on very sensitive skin has been noted to cause dermatitis.
Grapefruit, Citrus paradisi
Citrus oils are typically associated with the third chakra and the pleasant intensity of grapefruit has a fragrance of friendly extroversion. It’s uplifting qualities are stimulating without causing hyperactivity. Contraindicated in the use of homeopathics and oral contraceptives.
Pine, Scotch, Pinus slyvestris
A very cleansing oil, the essential oil of Scotch Pine is far removed from the household cleansers many people are familiar with. This is a gentle but persistent heart-centered oil, working on the respiratory tract and so aiding in pranayama, as well as supporting the immune system to prevent airborne illnesses. Contraindications include high blood pressure and homeopathic remedies. Possibly skin irritating.