Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2005.
Aromatherapy, a process utilizing the purest essence of a plant, is a 4,000-year-old technique that has enhanced the health of everyone from modern-day pop divas to the scholars of ancient Greece. The art of massage has its own deeply rich roots, with even Plato and Socrates touting the value of hands-on bodywork for good health.
Separately, these two therapeutic traditions hold individual prowess in the realm of personal health and well-being. Together, however, they become a formidable health alliance that can address not only a person’s physical health, but the health of the mind and spirit as well.
A Natural Complement
Our senses were designed to work best in conjunction with one another. Our sense of taste would not be as acute without our nose lending its support to the process. Our auditory senses might seem hollow if we weren’t gifted with sight as well. Indeed, there exists a quiet partnership between all our five senses that’s built on synergy.
And so it is with touch and smell. This is why aromatherapy is such a natural complement to massage and why more and more therapists are pairing the two as they see how the partnership nurtures body, mind, and spirit.
Let’s see how it works. Essential oils are extracted from herbs, flowers, and plants with the intent to improve a person’s health and well-being. Addressing everything from arthritis to whooping cough, effects of the approximate 3,000 oils found globally can range from sedative to stimulating and antibacterial to antispasmodic. The benefits derived from aromatherapy during a massage come in part from the contact the essential oil has on our skin, but even more so how it affects us when it’s inhaled and absorbed through the soft-tissue linings of our nose and mouth.
The scientific explanation suggests that the essential oil’s molecules, when inhaled, lock onto receptor cells at the back of the nose, sending an electrochemical message to the brain’s limbic system. This message appears to trigger memory and emotional responses, causing messages to be sent to other parts of the brain and body. “In this way,” says aromatherapist Danila Mansfield, “the production of euphoric, relaxing, sedative, or stimulating neurochemicals is stimulated.”
Judith Fitzsimmons and Paula Bousquet, authors of , say the use of essential oils creates a multiAromatherapy Through the Seasonsfaceted effect: “The real beauty of aromatherapy is that it works on a cellular and physical level and also in the emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic areas of your life.”
It’s really quite amazing when you think about it. Imagine an area the size of a small apricot pit, a 1-inch square area, filled with millions of sensory neurons that can capture, process, and store 10,000 odors. This is our olfactory system at work, and part of its job is to create a personal history for us based on scent, says clinical aromatherapist Éva-Marie Lind-Shiveley. “None of our other senses so well establishes a memory database.” She says our response to scent is both physiological and psychosomatic. “Within an instant of smelling an aroma, we can be sent back to the first moment we were introduced to it.”
By enabling us to recognize, revisit, and/or reclaim these various emotions and memories, aroma-therapy allows another avenue of access for healing during a bodywork session. It creates a path through which the somatic experience can find its full strength.
When the powerful effects of aromatherapy are combined with massage, it can take us to another level, says aromatherapy educators Shirley and Len Price. “When, during a massage, the touch of the therapist is combined with the mental and physical effects of the essential oils, the client is helped to achieve a temporary separation from worldly worries, somewhat akin to a meditative state.” Helping clients reach this level of relaxation is a primary goal of massage therapists and aromatherapists alike, so it makes sense that a partnership could beautifully exist.
A Scent Journey
Scent is not simplistic,” Lind-Shiveley says. “It is voluminous.” She illustrates this point with a quote from Helen Keller: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my Southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”
If you decide to do some personal exploration into the world of scent therapy, proceed with due caution in both the quality of the oils you buy and how you dose and administer them. There is a dichotic nature inherent in aromatherapy. It is gentle, yet powerful; subtle, yet intense. There are essential oils strong enough to cause miscarriage, but there also are many oils safe enough to use on infants. The key is knowing how to utilize nature’s gifts to provide the best, most effective therapeutic collaboration possible. Talk with your massage therapist about incorporating the science of aromatherapy into your sessions or if she can refer you to an aromatherapist in your area.