by Gabriel Mojay MRQA, MBAcC, MRSS, MISB
Marguerite Maury was one of aromatherapy’s
foremost pioneers. She was a woman whose profound understanding of
people made her realize that the mysterious qualities of an individual
are inseparable from their unique ones. It
is not surprising, therefore, that she, too, turned to the East in
search of an intuitive and naturalistic way of comprehending the human
It may at first sight seems strange
to apply to aromatherapy (a therapeutic approach that seems so distinctly
European) the theories of an ancient medical tradition that originated
in China. That is, until we reflect that vital energy – whether we
we call it Qi or Dynameis – is as universal to humanity as is aromatic
plants to the planet. And hence we find that the wisdom of Oriental
medicine and diagnosis is successfully applied to everything from herbal
medicine, dietetics and exercise systems to massage, meditation and
Whichever therapeutic tool one chooses
to practice, however, its most fundamental action according to Oriental
medicine is that of its effect on the energetic aspect of the body
Oils to Tonify, Regulate and Disperse
For example, in aromatherapy, one may
choose an essential oil such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) in
order to tonify or strengthen – an energetic action required in conditions
of deficiency or weakness.
As an illustration, the famous French
aromatherapist & physician Dr Jean Valnet emphasized in his book
The Practice of Aromatherapy the distinctly invigorating quality of
rosemary oil’s properties, comparing it, for example, to sage (Salvia
officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). DR Valnet sites the essential
oil as a cardiotonic – an action which, in terms of Oriental medicine,
would reflect its ability to tonify the Heart-Qi. It is therefore suitable,
amongst other conditions, for a pattern of disharmony that includes
palpitations and other cardiac complaints; but only against a background
of general debility, poor concentration, and a lack of confidence and
joie de vivre (all symptoms of a deficient state).
On the other hand, essential oil of
pine (Pinus sylvestris) – although another example of a tonic – possesses
a tropism (or affinity) for the Lungs and Kidneys. It is therefore
useful for states of fatigue and nervous exhaustion that have their
root in Qi-deficiency of the Lungs and Kidneys. Attendant signs and
symptoms of this pattern may include shortness of breath, frequent
colds, urinary problems and/or impotence. (Impotence may result from
Kidney-Qi deficiency due to the fact that the Kidneys “store” the sexual/genetic
essence and thereby help to determine one’s overall sexual vitality.
DR Valnet listed this problem among the therapeutic indications of
A second generalized energetic condition
responds best to predominantly antispasmodic essential oils. It is
that of stagnation of Qi-energy. Rather than being in a deficient state,
vital energy when stagnant fails to flow properly, leading, in turn,
to symptoms of constriction, spasm, irregularity and pain. Essential
oils that are primarily antispasmodic in nature – lavender, clary sage,
bergamot and marjoram – are said in energetic terms to smooth, or regulate,
the subtle flow of Qi.
While conditions of deficient Qi-energy
may stem from weakness and hypo-functioning of either the Kidneys,
Lungs or Spleen-pancreas, stagnation of Qi is closely linked to an
energetic problem with the Liver. This is because it is one function
of the Liver to ensure that the Qi flows smoothly.
Essential oil of mandarin (Citrus reticulata)
is an example of an aromatic essence that has a direct effect on the
Qi-energy of both the Liver and Stomach. It is consequently described
by Pierre Franchomme and DR Daniel Péneöl in L’Aromatherapie Exactement
as possessing antispasmodic, digestive and cholagogue properties (the
latter referring to its ability to encourage the flow of bile). The
fact that they have indicated it for dyspepsia, gastralgia and aerophagia
is once more inseparable from its gentle power to regulate the Qi.
The therapeutic action of lavender essential
oil (Lavandula angustifolia) is significantly wider than that of mandarin,
and thus its capacity to regulate the Qi is more generalized. Franchomme
and Péneöl, listing its therapeutic properties, describe Lavandula
angustifolia as a “powerful antispasmodic, calmative, muscular decontractant
and hypotensive.” Lavender oil’s natural tendency to relax the nerves
and calm the Heart are inter-related, from an energetic perspective,
to its unparalleled ability to regulate the Qi. Because stagnant-Qi
conditions so frequently involve nervous tension and muscular contracture,
the therapeutic release of that pent-up vital energy results in relaxation
and an improved blood flow.
The final example of this energetic
trinity of imbalances is the general condition of excess.
When I spoke of deficiency I mentioned
only conditions of deficient Qi; whereas there are, in fact, further
types of deficiency that include deficient yang (too little warmth
and energy), deficient yin (too little moisture) and deficient blood.
Similarly, with conditions of excess, it is possible to have excess
yang (or heat), dampness (excess stagnant moisture) and phlegm (excess
moisture congealed). However, each of these excess conditions are the
same in the sense that they all require dispersing.
The therapeutic action of dispersal
is the antithesis of that of tonifying: while the basis of tonification
rests on the action of concentrating vital energy, dispersal is deemed
necessary wherever there is a need to eliminate and dispel.
Essential oil of lemon (Citrus limonum)
– mentioned by DR Valnet as cooling, depurative, diuretic and litholytic
– is a good example of a dispersing essential oil. Its ability, in
energetic terms, to clear heat from the Liver and blood corresponds,
from a Western perspective, to its detoxifying, depurative and antirheumatic
potential. Lemon’s ability to disperse both dampness and phlegm makes
it, in addition, an essential oil that is recommended for everything
from plethora and obesity to arteriosclerosis and urinary stones.
It should be remembered, however, that
virtually no medicinal plant possesses only one specific, or even general,
property. While lemon oil, for example, is primarily dispersing in
nature, it is additionally indicated by DR Valnet for hepatic and pancreatic
deficiency. Moreover, the ability of the juice to help counteract anaemia
means that it also works to tonify the blood. Essential oils with a
pronounced ability to disperse and cleanse tend to be predominantly
pungent or sour in nature – like eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) and
grapefruit (Citrus paradisii).
Essential oils that tonify vary considerably,
but many of them possess a sweet, resinous, woody or bitter olfactory
note. Obvious examples include: cinnamon (sweet); benzoin (resinous);
cedarwood (woody) and thyme (bitter). Regulating, antispasmodic essential
oils are usually harder to pin down, and frequently contain, within
their bouquets, a subtle complex of quite different smells. Take lavender,
for example: you will no doubt discern, when you open your bottle,
an intriguing combination of floral-sweet, gently pungent, and even
vaguely bitter notes pervade – all testament to its amazing ability
to imbue balance.
Oils to Harmonize the Elements
Another way in which Oriental medicine
allows us to recognize and classify an energetic imbalance is closely
linked to the vital organs and their corresponding Five Elements. We
can make use of the theory of the Five Elements in order to glean a
simple yet profound approach to applying the psychological benefits
of essential oils.
Together with yin & yang, the theory
of the Five Elements is one of the two main pillars of Oriental medicine.
Comparatively more recent than yin & yang, it was first documented
in China in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC).
The popularity of the Five Element system
waxed and waned throughout the history of Chinese medicine and culture.
There were periods during which the theory of the Five Elements was
extremely popular, featuring in almost every part of Chinese culture.
It was applied not only to medicine, but to the natural sciences, the
calendar, astrology, music and politics.
The Five Elements may be understood
as five phases or movements of yin & yang energy. Rather than being
separate elements in a literal sense, the images of water, wood, fire,
earth and metal represent natural forces that together form a dynamic
whole. The Five Elements are phases of a continual energetic process,
one that we can observe in potentially every aspect of life. Each Element
subsequently corresponds to a different pair of bodily organs; while
each of the five main yin organs are said to ‘house’ one of the five
root emotions and five ‘spirits’.
The first of the Five Elements – Water
– may be understood as energy in a condensed and relatively static
yin phase, reflected in the dormancy of wintertime and the night. Although
Water represents a ‘floating’ state of rest, it contains within itself
the potential for growth and regeneration. It is therefore associated
with the very source of life – with the procreative force and the will
The major yin organ of the Water Element
is the Kidneys; the spirit it houses, the Will (Zhi). The Will is the
source of not only our willpower, but of our innate inner strength
and capacity to endure. When the Will becomes destabilized, ‘Fear’
can arise – a psycho-energetic condition that can refer not only to
apprehension, but to anxiety, insecurity and lack of confidence. All
the root emotions can, in fact, express themselves in a number of different
An example of an essential oil that
is able to tonify Kidney-Qi and reinforce the Will is that of cedarwood
(Cedrus atlantica). The capacity of the oil to reinforce both the Kidneys
and Spleen-pancreas makes it indicated, on a physiological level, for
general lethargy, lower backache and poor concentration. On a psychological
level, it helps, not to stimulate the Will to action, but to give us
the will to hold firm – even against persistent external forces.
Cedarwood oil can therefore give us
an immovable strength in times of crisis. Steadying the conscious mind,
it helps us to resist the sudden events and powerful emotions that
threaten to undermine our confidence and morale. It can ‘buck-up’ the
ego when we feel alienated or destabilized – when, for example, we
find ourselves in a foreign country or strange situation, or out of
favour with current opinion.
The second Element – Wood – is indicative
of energy in a rising and accelerating yang phase, as in the sense
of awakening that comes with springtime and morning. In this stage
of transformation, the contained and latent forces of Water are aroused
and given direction.
The Wood Element is subsequently associated
with both movement and evolution. The Wood Element’s main yin organ
is the Liver. It is said to provide the residence of the Hun, or Ethereal
Soul – our mental-spiritual capacity to envision, dream and plan; as
well as our psychological source of ambition and motivation. When,
for whatever reason, it becomes “blocked” and obstructed, the root
emotion of Anger can manifest. In a similar way to Fear, Anger may
express itself not only as annoyance and wrath, but as frustration,
irritability, moodiness and even depression. Depression may occur when
Anger cannot find a positive outlet, consequently turning inwards to
oppress the Ethereal Soul.
Two of the most effective essential
oils for restoring harmony to the Element Wood are those of Roman and
German chamomile (Chamaemeleum nobile and Chamomilla recutita). Major
antispasmodic oils, the chamomiles work to regulate the Liver, dissipate
stagnant Qi, and relax the nervous tension that frequently reflects
a Wood imbalance.
From a more subtle perspective, chamomile
oil may be said to ease the tension of excessive ego-desire – and the
frustration, resentment and depression that can follow in its wake.
Its warm, apple-like fragrance imparts a feeling of satisfaction, while
its gentle bitterness cools us with a touch of reality. Chamomile helps
us to let go of fixed expectations, calmly acknowledge our own limitations,
and more readily accept the help and support that others can manage
to give. It will, in so doing, frequently restore harmony to those
with an imbalance in the Wood Element.
The next Element is that of Fire – symbolic
of energy at its most expansive and radiant, of yang at its zenith.
It the Element of Summer, of midday and noon. Fire takes the Wood Element’s
urge to move and evolve and gives it raison d’etre – a felt sense of
the ideal. Energy at its most refined and sensitive, it is associated
with both conscious awareness and self-identity.
The Element Fire contains two main yin
organs: the Heart and Pericardium – although it is the Heart that houses
the Shen, or ‘Mind’. The Shen directs the functions of thinking, feeling,
memory and imagination, and is the focus of all mental-emotional activity.
The energetic cornerstone of sensitivity and feeling, the equanimity
of the Heart and Shen is fundamentally responsible for ensuring a well-integrated
and contented emotional life – as well as a balanced mind. Most psychological
problems will subsequently involve, at least to some degree, an imbalance
within the Fire Element.
One of the most widely effective essential
oils for harmonizing the Heart and Fire Element is that of jasmine
(Jasminum officinalis). Like rose and lavender oils, it both relaxes
and supports the Qi-energy of the Heart; calming the nerves, releasing
tension and uplifting the Mind (Shen). As a result, jasmine is one
of the most effective essential oils for nervous anxiety, restlessness
and depression – whether the individual involved has a hot or cold,
excess or deficient constitution.
On an emotional-sexual level, jasmine
works to reawaken passion and reunite it with love. Traditionally known
as a ‘Fertility Herb’, this is a property that in the mental-spiritual
realm reflects its ability to help restore a capacity for creativity,
for ‘fertility of mind’.
Fire is followed by the Element Earth
– energy in its descending yin stage, in a movement downwards towards
materialized form. Earth is predominant in late Summer, “the season
of mellow fruitfulness”, and in the afternoon. It takes the ideal inherent
in Fire and makes it real, imbuing consciousness with concrete thought
and Spirit with bodily form.
Earth is the Element that is associated
with two of the principal digestive organs – the Stomach and Spleen-pancreas
(the latter a combined organ). The Spleen-pancreas houses the Yi or
‘Intellect’ – that aspect of the psyche responsible for thinking, concentrating,
studying and memorizing. Just as the organs of the Earth Element oversee
the digestion of food, so too are they concerned with the absorption
and analysis of ideas and information.
If the Qi-energy of the Spleen-pancreas
becomes deficient, concentration can become impaired and thinking,
dulled. Just as weakness of the Spleen produces plethora and congestion
on a bodily level, it results in ‘overthinking’ and mental churning
on an intellectual one.
In this instance, essential oil of
frankincense (Boswellia carterii) may be employed to alleviate both
the worry and mental confusion that result. Possessing a profound capacity
to calm and centre the mind, it has a gently tranquilizing, yet deeply
clarifying, effect on the Intellect (Yi). It may be called upon whenever
the mind is distracted and overwhelmed by a cacophony of thoughts.
Like sandalwood oil, frankincense is
an ideal aid to meditation, contemplation and prayer, ceasing mental
chatter and stifling the mind. Facilitating a state of peaceful, single-pointed
concentration, it allows the Spirit to soar.
The fifth and final Element is that
of Metal – energy in a gathering and synthesizing yin phase of transformation.
Metal takes the formative nature of Earth and refines it, adding order
and definition. The season of Metal is Autumn, and the time of day,
evening – periods of quiescence and reflection. The Metal Element is
also associated both with the urge to interact and the need to maintain
The principal organ of the Metal Element
is the Lungs. While the Liver is said to house the Ethereal Soul (Hun),
the Lungs provide the residence of the Bodily Soul (P’o). The P’o is
the bodily or ‘animal’ aspect of the human soul, and forms the physical,
more yin counterpart of the Ethereal Soul. The Bodily Soul is primarily
instinctive and sensory in nature, and provides us with the capacity
for physical sensation and touch, as well as taste, smell, sight and
hearing. It also affords an animal-like sixth sense, which helps to
fulfill, on a subtle level, the Metal Element’s function of protection.
Living as it does in the moment, the
Bodily Soul is affected, in particular, by feelings of regret, remorse
and a lingering sense of loss. These emotions, in turn, can obstruct
the orderly rhythmic function of the Lungs as they ‘take in’ and ‘let
go’, reflecting an inability psychologically to fully accept and relinquish.
A Bodily Soul which is constricted, and cannot engage fully in this
process, is said to be afflicted by, or “stuck” in, Grief – the Metal
Element’s root emotion.
Through encouraging this process of
‘taking in and letting go’, essential oil of cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
reinforces the Metal Element and Bodily Soul (P’o). Dissolving remorse
and instilling optimism, cypress oil helps us to flow with the flux
of life. From here we can contemplate the tree’s long and deep relationship
to death and the grieving process, and why it was thought to be of
comfort to those in bereavement.
Cypress oil has, therefore, one of the
most distinct and profound of psychological actions. The sour, astringent
and woody notes of the essence convey a feeling of cohesion and stability.
At the same time, its fresh, coniferous pungency, and ability to circulate
the Qi and blood, relate it to both psychological transition and real-life
change. Cypress oil’s basic subtle action, then, is to help us cope
with and accept even difficult change – of both an inner and outer
nature. It can in this way help to restore harmony to even the most
problematic of Metal Element disharmonies.
The Five Elements afford a system of
energetic correspondences with immense potential for practical application,
particularly in the field of psychological aromatherapy. And it is
a system that relies – when fully explored and utilized – on the use
of all our ‘diagnostic’ faculties – on our logic, feeling, intuition,
and five senses.
Gabriel Mojay MRQA, MBAcC, MRSS, MISB
is a registered practitioner of aromatherapy, shiatsu, acupuncture
and medical herbalism. He is Principal of the Institute of Traditional
Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy, and is founding Chairman of the Register
of Qualified Aromatherapists. An Executive Committee member of the
Aromatherapy Organizations Council, Gabriel is actively involved in
promoting professional aromatherapy to government bodies, the medical
profession and the public. He is co-author of Shiatsu – the complete
guide (Thorsons, 1991), and author of Aromatherapy for Healing the
Spirit (Gaia Books, 1996).
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