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Scent of a Therapy

By Kumkum Bhandari & LifePositive.com

Aromatherapy uses healing essential oils, nature’s versatile fragrances painstakingly extracted from plants, to bring deep and far-reaching changes in our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. It is poised to be a key complementary therapy of the 21st century.

Sleepless nights, six weeks of a hacking cough, the mandatory course of antibiotics, changing bottle of fat, sweet globules of homeopathic medicine, experimenting with what seemed like everybody's grandmother's remedies - I went through it all. Nothing much helped. Aromatherapy, someone finally suggested. Now what could a smell-to-get-well therapy do for a person with a blocked nasal passage, I wondered, even as I set off in search of the smell pharmacy.

I returned from the aromatherapist's clinic armed with made-to-order aromatic massage oil, a blend of inhalation oils and essentials oils which I could dab on a tissue and sniff or sprinkle on my pillow? I balked at the idea of oily stains on the linen. That of course, was before I knew much about essential oils, the base of aromatherapy. Essential oils, present as tiny droplets between plant cells, are aromatic substances which are extracted from flowers, grass, herbs, peel of citrus fruits, seeds, leaves, bark, roots—virtually every part of the plant, generally by a process of ‘expression' (cold-pressure squeezing of fruit peel) or distillation. This process is slow, laborious and expensive.

For instance, eight million hand-picked jasmine blossoms yield a mere kilo of steeply-priced jasmine oil. Or 30 roses produce a single drop of rose oil. A liter of rose oil could cost up to Rs 4-5 lakh. These essential oils contain the plant's vital essence, its most valuable and concentrated therapeutic and nutritional properties. In nature, these oils, which are released slowly, protect the plant from climatic changes, pests, diseases and other imbalances. Amazingly, research is demonstrating the minute doses of these essential oils can work similar wonders within our bodies, stimulating, rejuvenating and balancing our delicate life-support systems.

Fifty percent of the world's essential oils lend their aromatic flavors and preservative qualities to the food industry, perfumery accounts for a substantial percentage, while five per cent is for aromatherapy, a small but significant figure which is growing. If these oils are used carefully, aromatherapy can be one of the gentlest, universally-applicable, natural healing therapies.

'More is better' doesn't work here, as I realized when I sprinkled a liberal amount of the recommended oil in the overly-hot inhalation water and flinched as the strong, vaporizing oil stung my eyes and the overwhelming aroma brought loud protests from others in the room. Six drops would be enough, reaffirmed the therapist, and keep your eyes closed when you inhale the aromatic oil added to tepid water. Worked better, through I felt far more comfortable when I sprinkled a couple of drops on my pillow and finally slept through the night. There were no oily stains next morning because essential oils are non-oily in nature, and, when pure, evaporate.

As I found myself bounding back to health, amazement at the efficacy of aromatherapy led me to read everything on the subject I could lay my hands on. Slowly, little brown bottles, double-sealed to protect the volatile oil from light and air, started lining my medicine cabinet. The oils, I discovered, were versatile, the possibilities of usage limitless. You could as easily use them to beat back insomnia, insects, indigestion, anxiety, acne or aches, as you could to sharpen memory, expand your consciousness or arouse erotic sensuality. Aromatherapy is poised to be one of the key alternative therapies of the 21st century.

People are realizing that they can get rid of their physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual ills through a judicious use of aromatic essential oils. Innumerable universities and hospitals are studying the use of aromatherapy oils. Innumerable universities and hospitals are studying the use of aromatherapy oils. Some hospitals in Oxford, England, for instance, have replaced chemical sedatives with essential oil blends which include lavender, marjoram, geranium and cardamom oil. The University of Cincinnati, USA conclusively demonstrated that the use of lily-of-the valley and peppermint oils increased, by 15-25 per cent, the subjects' performance in any task needing concentration.

Firms in Japan are pumping aromatherapy oils such as lemon and rosemary through the air-cooling systems to improve employee efficiency, especially in the less productive hours of the afternoon. An entire new field of health care, making use of aromatherapy oils with their sedative, calming, pain-reducing effects, is growing around the care of the terminally ill. Aromatherapy oils, with their air-purifying, anti-viral, antibacterial, antiseptic abilities, are ideal for vaporizing in hospitals and crowded public places to prevent airborne infections. Mass aromatherapy is also suggested to influence social behavior and increase work efficiency.

This, of course, is vehemently opposed by the advocates of holistic aromatherapy, who believe in individual prescriptions. Aromatherapy is essentially old wine in new (little brown) bottles. Aromatic essences were popularly used centuries ago in India, Egypt China and Greece. We've all heard the story of Cleopatra's amorous adventures aided by aromatic essences, of ayurvedic use of essential oils for medicine and massage, the use of sandalwood to enhance meditation, and the use of aromatic resins by Egyptian embalmers to preserve mummies. Modern aromatherapy, coming into vogue in the past 30 years, has given a new and focused impetus to the art.

Widely practiced in Europe and the UK, aromatherapy is also finding converts in Australia, Canada, the USA and Japan. A decade ago, you could hardly come across an English book on the subject, or find it mentioned in the periodicals. Today, the western media pans in on any new development or research in the field. Entire journals are now devoted to the subject, what with researchers, industries, medical practitioners, alternative health therapists, and amateurs jumping on to the aromatherapy bandwagon. In India, many homes unaware of the fashionable term ‘aromatherapy', have nonetheless a tradition of using essential oils.

Take eucalyptus oil: in south India, a drop or two is commonly added to the bathwater of babies or put on their bed linen to prevent coughs or bronchial problems. Traditional perfume concentrates like ittars and commonly-used incense sticks also make use of essential oils. Further, the close link between aromatherapy and ayurveda is part of our living culture. But urban India, with its looser links with heritage, remains largely ignorant of the uses of these oils.

Now, with the resurgence of New Age therapies and the urgent need to take individual responsibility for health, aromatherapy is slowly gaining ground here. Talking to some aromatherapists, the first impression one gets about this system is that whether it is used for cosmetic purposes or as a natural holistic health remedy, there can be no sharp or dividing lines in its practice. Even as you are being treated for specific physical or psychological problems through other modes, therapists believes that the essential oils can supplement the treatment, intelligently balancing and harmonizing your physical, emotional mental and spiritual nature, leading to overall well-being.

Delhi-based aromatherapist Sunita Agarwal, who has an MD, talks with palpable excitement about the therapy and how she discovered it. What began as a home remedy for her perpetually sniffling toddler soon spread to her circle of friends, and finally crept into her regular practice as a successful add-on relief measure for children who visited her clinic, with even chronic cases responding well to aromatherapy. "I would treat the children for respiratory problems, accompanying coughs, colds and sore throats. But because of urban pollution, these problems would keep recurring. How often can one prescribe antibiotics?" she wondered.

With a steady stream of patients walking into her clinic asking for treatment with aromatic oils, she gravitated full-time into the study, research and practice of aromatherapy. Typically, a consultation with her entails a detailed medical history, queries about diet and lifestyle. Then, she blends the required essential oils in a carrier oil for massage. You are asked to sniff the oil blend to ensure that you like the fragrance, your body's signals being an important guide to the correct choice. If massage oils are given for home use, basic massage techniques are demonstrated. Supplementary essential oils for inhalation and baths may be included. Agarwal's patients include women with postpartum blues, lower-back aches, cosmetic queries, gynecological problems, and the middle-aged and elderly coming with stress related problems, insomnia, spondylitis and arthritis. There are hundreds of essential oils available but aromatherapists generally use only 30 to 40.

Agarwal, who avoids using very expensive essential oils, would ideally like to import all essential oils, but the costs are prohibitive. So she largely relies on indigenous products. A trained nose, she says, is the best guide to detect purity. Essential oils, she elaborates, are chemically complex and very versatile.

Juniper oil, for instance, can be used to treat skin problems, dandruff, diarrhea or joint pain. The natural plant essences with their hormone-like properties and vitamins, minerals, and natural antiseptics, are easily absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin or nose. Different fragrances, with varied vital electromagnetic properties and vibrational energies, serve to stimulate our immune system, circulatory system and neurological functions.

Essential oils can be put in three categories: those that invigorate the body and rev up the spirit, those that tone, balance and regulate our bodily functions and life-supporting systems, and those which have a calm, sedative and tranquilizing effect.

We know that some fragrances can evoke strong emotional or psychological responses. They affect the cells of our nose, which send messages to the brain, which is then stimulated to release hormones and neuro-chemicals that bring healing changes in the body, and our psychological and emotional reactions. In Aromatherapy: Scent and Psyche, authors Peter and Kate Damian point out: "Olfactory research is still in its infancy—we are now gaining rudimentary knowledge of how and why essential oil fragrance affect human psychology and physiology."

In India, awareness about how aromatherapy works is poor. Even people who have used it and got well are unsure about it. Take Ritu Singh, 42. A recurring yeast infection, unsuccessfully treated by leading gynecologists, finally yielded completely to tea tree oil.

"But," she says, "I hardly know anything about this therapy and would probably end up visiting my homeopath first for any future problem." Anand Sen, 68, after two months of discomfort and regular visits to doctors, reluctantly let his family persuade him to get aromatherapy for a frozen shoulder. "Aromatherapy is all right for women who are more sensitive to smells. What can it do for me?" he asked, a prejudice echoed in many quarters.

Two weeks later, he sheepishly admitted substantial pain relief and ease in mobility, but still talks of going to his physiotherapist. Says Usha Kapoor, manager at Pivot Point India, an institute for hair and beauty in Delhi which also runs aromatherapy courses: " I know all about the refreshing, rejuvenating qualities of these essential oils, and how even a few drops in bath water has a therapeutic or mood-enhancing effect. But somehow I don't end up using them."

Putting things in perspective, says Blossom Kochhar, author of Health and Beauty through Aromatherapy, whose aromatherapy cosmetic range is available in select outlets in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai: "Three years ago, if I mentioned aromatherapy, people would go 'Huh?', I wouldn't have dared launch my Aroma Magic cosmetic range then. But things are looking up now."

The world over, aromatherapy is becoming big business in beauty and health spas, fragrance and cosmetic industries. Some use pure essential oils, others sneak in the cheaper, synthetic copies. "Only pure essential oils," emphasizes Kochhar, "can produce genuine results. There is nothing like nature for anti-aging help and rejuvenation. Essential oils advance cellular renewal by better circulation, hydration and removal of toxins from the body."

A serious campaigner, Kochhar often conducts workshops and lecture seminars on aromatherapy in India and abroad. She says that her route to aromatherapy was probably a natural progression from her early years in the Nilgiris where some herbs or crushed seed from trees held the answer to every childhood ailment.

She is working extensively with environment fragrancing and using her shop in Qutab Colonnade in New Delhi, India, to make people aware—in a fun way—of the creative, experimental and explosively rich potential of aromatherapy. At her shop, you find huge jars of colored aromatic waxes to create your own aromatic candles, essential oils to fashion your own perfume or cosmetics, ceramic aromatic diffusers which spread aromas of your choice in the room, serving as air-freshners and mood enhancers, corked miniature earthen pots in which you can put essential oils to perfume your cupboard, keep away the silverfish, or fill with basil oil and hang inside your car to keep you alert when you drive.

Says Kochhar: "We educate people back to natural, healing aromas. Given a choice, people often choose a synthetic aroma." This is hardly surprising with the modern penchant for the dramatic in fragrances. With nearly 10,000 synthetic substances available to fashion fragrances, many people don't have a nose for the real thing.

Less expensive, superficially synthetic fragrances certainly do not have the healing power of natural essences with their ability to ensure profound and real changes. Pure rose oil, for instance has as many as 2,000 complex components, each working holistically, safely and in wide-ranging ways, whether for cosmetic or therapeutic use, while a synthetic copy, which may be superficially stimulating, may have about 50 components. Nature can never be duplicated.

Take pure lavender oil: among the most versatile oils available, by virtue of its complexity, it heals burns, counters stress and depression, eases heart palpitation, soothes nerves, is anti-inflammatory, works to get rid of insects and headaches disinfects babies' nappies, combats the hot flushes of menopause, cures insomnia, lowers blood pressure, overrides impatience, irritability and hysteria, relieves aches and pains, and even smells good! Anyone for synthetic lavender?

Even as she widens her product range and works out new promotional schemes, Kochhar comments: "This is not a therapy for the masses. You need to be educated and informed about its uses to incorporate it into your lifestyle."

Agrees Mumbai-based aromatherapy consultant Deepa Bhatia, who markets her products under the brand name Breathe: "Aromatherapy, which people here still believe has come from Europe, is attracting the well-traveled, educated people—some probably for the wrong reasons like snob appeal. I guess when Indians start associating it with incense sticks and other Indian applications is when they will feel a little closer home to aromatherapy."

Rattan says:"The main problem most aromatherapists is the sourcing of essential oils, more so because their requirement for individual essential oils is to small for the extractor to entertain, and what you get in the market cannot be trusted for quality or price. FM's meets this need by supplying small packs of quality essential oils at reasonable prices."

His FM's Handbook of Aromatherapy serves as a guide for his aromatherapy workshops, which, says Rattan, "stress on the therapeutic aspects and give information about essential and carrier oils, formulation methods, applications and massage techniques. Participants include medical practitioners (allopaths, homeopaths, and gynecologist), housewives and beauticians.

In the offing is also an advanced aromatherapy course based on the core curriculum of based on the core curriculum of International Aromatherapy Organizations Council."

Ayurveda has unique and diverse ways of identifying the essential oils best suited to you, depending on factors such as your particular mind-body type.

If you are a vata type (typically susceptible to headaches, dry skin, constipation, nervous anxiety, hypersensitivity, insomnia), avoid sharp or strongly perfumed essential oils. You would benefit from warm, energizing oils such as camphor, cinnamon and cypress, combined with the stabilizing, calming oils such as sandalwood, jasmine or rose, blended in sesame oil, a carrier oil generally regarded as incomparable in its ability to penetrate the skin.

A pitta type (typically prone to ulcers, fevers, inflammatory skin diseases, acidity, agitation, anger) would benefit from cooling, calming oils, flowery fragrances such as gardenia, jasmine, mint, rose, sandalwood blended in a cooling carrier like coconut oil.

A kapha type (predisposed to respiratory ailments) will benefit from the use of warm, light, stimulating oils such as sage, basil, cedar, pine, myrrh in very light carrier oils. The use of sharp, stimulating fragrances is beneficial for the kapha type.

Aromatic ayurvedic massages, whether for rejuvenation or health, are big business the world over. An entire tourism industry is booming around it in Kerala, with tax and other incentives given to entrepreneurs to set up quality ayurvedic resorts offering genuine ayurvedic treatment.

Aromatherapy, an integral part of ayurveda, will obviously receive a fillip with such incentives. Over centuries and across cultures, the belief holds that essential oils have the ability to advance mystical ecstasy and heightened awareness—be it in places of worship, religious gatherings or in the meditation room.

Beneficial oils include frankincense, sandalwood, lavender, rose, jasmine, rosemary and angelica. An ancient recommendation of essential oils to balance, strengthen and energizes your seven chakras: jasmine and ylang-ylang for the base or root chakra, vertivert for the hara, rose-mary and lemon for the solar plexus chakra, neroli for the heart chakra, benzoin for the throat chakra, sandalwood for the third eye chakra and rose for the crown chakra.

For instance, sandalwood oil, blended in a carrier oil and rubbed between the brows, the third chakra, holds the promise of psychic enfoldment.

So what in essence, does one have here? An alternative remedy which has crossed barriers, got the tacit nod of approval from orthodox medical researchers, scientists and doctors. Their research has demonstrated that medicinal properties are actually present in aromatherapy oils, that aromatherapy is an immensely versatile system which is accessible to both scientific examination and individual experimentation.

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