By Gabriel Mojay
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2004.
Aromatherapy is unique among the various forms of natural healthcare for its chameleon-like ability to adapt to a wide range of contexts. It flourishes as a research-based branch of botanical medicine, as a natural partner of therapeutic massage, as a vital component of natural skin care, and as a marketing device for the cosmetics industry. No other natural therapy is so multifaceted, versatile, and — to the frustration of the purists — so exploited.
Even as a therapeutic modality, modern aromatherapy embraces a diverse spectrum of styles. It first evolved alongside French phytotherapie (herbal medicine) — promoted from the 1930s by renowned exponents such as the biochemist René-Maurice Gattéfosse and the physician Jean Valnet. These were the founders of the original French medical approach to aromatherapy, which in France remains the legal monopoly of pharmacists, physicians, and naturopaths. This is perhaps with good reason, as French medical aromatherapy concentrates on the intensive, often internal application of pure essential oils. Physicians and pharmacists in France frequently prescribe essential oils in the form of oral complexes and rectal suppositories — and treatment methods clearly require special training.
When, in the 1940s, French biochemist Marguerite Maury developed a gentler, more holistic approach to the therapeutic use of essential oils, the seeds of Anglo-Saxon aromatherapy were sown. Maury’s many years of study, research, and practice convinced her that a person’s health could be influenced externally via the skin — especially where massage was employed. She also came to believe that aromatherapy could contribute greatly to other forms of healing and medicine. One of its most important benefits, she believed, was alleviating the destructive effects of nervous stress and anxiety, which she saw as diseases of our modern civilization and lifestyle.
When Maury’s students introduced her style of aromatherapy into the United Kingdom, holistic aromatherapy took root. Practiced mainly by non-medical lay specialists, holistic aromatherapy — as opposed to medical aromatherapy — emphasized the external application of pure essential oils via the skin and inhalation.
Aromatherapy can be explained simply. Diluted essential oils are applied to the skin through therapeutic massage, or as part of a compress, ointment, or lotion. They are inhaled when dispersed into the air as a fine mist by an electric diffuser or spritzer, or through traditional steam inhalation. Inhaling essential oil vapors is an excellent means of taking advantage of the psychological benefits of essential oils, as they gently influence various centers of the brain through the process of olfaction (smelling).
This more indirect way of administering essential oils is inherently safer than the French medical approach because absorption via the skin and inhalation is slower, and the amounts absorbed are generally smaller. However, safety is a major consideration with regards to all methods of application. The well-trained aromatherapist takes great care, for example, to avoid skin irritation and sensitization — through applying only those essential oils that are safe for skin and massage application, and in appropriate dilutions.
Many practitioners refer to the holistic style as Anglo-Saxon aromatherapy because it spread from the United Kingdom and Ireland to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, it is also popular in Japan and other parts of the Far East, as well as in some European countries such as Germany. Holistic aromatherapy is not therefore exclusively Anglo-Saxon, although most of the world’s popular aromatherapy books are indeed written in English.
While the medical and holistic styles of aromatherapy are often referred to as if they were mutually exclusive and always clearly-defined, it is more common to find practitioners who have integrated key elements of the two approaches within a single professional practice. In France, it is likely to be the naturopath or physician who takes a holistic approach to the care of her patients, while retaining aromatherapy treatment methods that are clearly medical in nature. In the United Kingdom, an integrated approach is to be found among aromatherapists who have undertaken special training in advanced clinical aromatherapy, and who have learned to safely employ some of the more intensive methods of administration.
Aromatherapy in the United States has so far developed along strongly commercial lines, with a great deal of emphasis on aromatherapy products and creating product lines. Although there are a number of well-known American exponents of its true therapeutic practice, professional aromatherapy in the states has a way to go before it is appreciated and patronized to the same level as it is in the United Kingdom.
Aromatherapy in Britain and Australia is far more integrated with the practice of therapeutic massage. British and Australian massage practitioners place considerable value on the pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and circulatory benefits of essential oils, and see these as directly enhancing the effects of their therapeutic bodywork. It is surely only a matter of time before American massage practitioners look beyond the commercial “spin” of aromatherapy products to appreciate the enormous therapeutic potential of essential oils in bodywork. Many are already doing so.
My professional background as an acupuncturist and shiatsu practitioner has meant that, since the late 1980s, I have developed an approach to clinical aromatherapy that employs elements of Oriental medicine — elements that are diagnostic as well as practical. Oriental aromatherapy is an integrated style of aromatic treatment in which the trained practitioner first assesses the health of the client according to the energetic principles of Oriental medicine. This includes a comprehensive analysis of any and all physical and psychological signs and symptoms — a process that results in identifying the underlying imbalances that are the cause of the client’s problems.
Once the practitioner has pinpointed the detrimental energetic patterns involved, she can more accurately select the most appropriate essential oils for the client’s needs. Ideally, any clinical selection should be based on an informed understanding of the essential oils’ research-based, biochemical properties, as well as its benefits according to Oriental medicine. The practitioner can then be confident the treatment provided is based on both scientific evidence and traditional healing wisdom, and that it logically targets both the symptoms and their causes, the “branches” as well as the “roots.”
When it comes to administering the essential oils selected, the most effective means of therapeutic application is clearly one that maximizes the vital properties for which the essences have been chosen. From an Oriental perspective, a highly effective vehicle is provided by the body’s network of meridians or channels (Jing Luo), together with the acupoints found along them. Meridian massage (or acupressure massage) is an approach to therapeutic bodywork based on the manual stimulation of the meridians, and provides a practical, hands-on dimension to Oriental aromatherapy. It has been designed, and is taught, to be easily integrated with regular oil- or lubricant-based therapeutic massage.
When incorporating the use of carefully selected essential oils, acupressure massage becomes aromatic acupressure. Aromatic acupressure refers to the therapeutic application of specific essential oils to the organ meridians and acupoints of Oriental medicine. It provides a dynamic, hands-on method of application through which energetic bodywork and pure essential oils can work together in real therapeutic synergy.
There are three main ways in which aromatic acupressure can be applied in practice:
• As part of a full massage treatment — Incorporating the combined use of essential oils and acupressure points in any whole-body massage treatment greatly increases the overall effectiveness of the treatment, and allows the practitioner to effectively target specific problems and/or anatomical areas.
• As part of selective or localized treatment — Where there is insufficient time or space to carry out a full-body massage treatment, a single essence or blend of essential oils — diluted in an oil, ointment or gel base — may be applied to one or more specific meridians and acupoints.
• As part of client self-application — The practitioner can dispense a blend of essential oils in a carrier oil or ointment for client self-treatment at home and briefly demonstrate their daily application on one or more specific acupoints.
Three Acupoints and Three Essential Oils
Oriental medicine is based on a language of energetic physiology — a language that can be applied to the vital properties of essential oils just as it can to the actions of acupressure points. As an exercise in describing these concepts, I would like to compare three major acupoints with three important essential oils. The reason for making these comparisons is not to imply that each acupoint is linked in a predetermined way to a particular essential oil, but rather to explore the relative energetic actions of each in order to highlight their combined therapeutic use.
• Bladder-12 and Eucalyptus globulus oil
The acupoint Bladder-12 is on the upper back and forms part of the Bladder Channel. The Bladder Channel is an unusually long meridian that runs from the medial corner of the eye (at Bladder-1), ascends over the head, down the nape of the neck, and down the back 1.5 cun lateral to the mid-line of the spine. (A cun is an anatomical surface measurement that varies in length according to the size of the individual. For example, the distance between the elbow and the wrist is divided into 12 cun. A cun in most cases is roughly equivalent to an inch.) The Bladder Channel continues down the back of the leg to a point by the nail of the little toe.
All but two of the main 14 meridians have bilateral pathways. That is, each of them runs on both the left and right sides of the body, producing duplicates of the large majority of acupoints. The Bladder Channel, however, is somewhat different from the other meridians in that it has two bilateral branches that run down the back alongside each other, parallel to the spine. Both of these branches naturally lend themselves to acupressure massage treatment and, as many bodywork therapists know, make a significant difference to the effect of a treatment when massaged.
The more medial meridian — known as the inner Bladder Channel — is host to a number of powerful acupoints that directly tonify the major organs. In contrast, the outer Bladder Channel is host to several acupoints that possess important psycho-spiritual actions.
The Mandarin name for Bladder-12 is fengmen, or “wind door.” Men is a general term for an acupoint, and thus forms part of several major point names. Feng, or “wind,” refers to a specific etiological factor in Oriental Medicine — one that is frequently associated with the symptoms of the common cold and influenza. Wind produces the symptoms of acute respiratory disease when it penetrates the body’s layer of circulating Defensive-Qi, which is found just below the skin.
The term wind is basically a description of a pathological condition, and is of limited significance in terms of reflecting the negative effects of climatic wind. The image of wind is used to convey the rapid onset, strong force, and general unpredictability of a condition which, many centuries before the discovery of virus and bacteria, was thought to originate from the aerial environment.
Bladder-12 may be used not only to help expel Wind once it has penetrated the body, but to reinforce the protective power of the Defensive-Qi that, if weak, will leave the body susceptible to further invasions of wind. The acupoint is suitable for all the symptoms associated with flu, colds, and respiratory tract infections, as well as for reinforcing the strength of the body’s immune system.
From an energetic viewpoint, the effect of Bladder-12 is very similar in nature to the essential oils of Eucalyptus globulus, Eucalyptus radiata, Ravensara aromatica and Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree). Camphoraceous in nature, these essential oils possess a strong dispersing action that, in terms of Oriental medicine, helps to expel pathogenic Wind by stimulating the Lung-Qi and Defensive-Qi. This action corresponds in scientific terms to their antiviral, immunostimulant properties, which in turn is related to chemical constituents such as 1,8-cineole (a commonly-occurring aromatic compound).
Massaging diluted essential oil of Eucalyptus globulus or Eucalyptus radiata into Bladder-12 will enhance the acupoint’s ability to relieve colds, flu, and other acute respiratory conditions, and is additionally beneficial in reducing catarrhal congestion.
• Pericardium-6 and Lavandula angustifolia oil
Pericardium-6 is along the Pericardium Channel, a meridian that starts 1 cun lateral to the center of the nipple (at Pericardium-1), and runs along the anterior surface of the arm, across the wrist, to a point by the nail of the middle finger. The acupoint Pericardium-6 can be found 2 cun directly above the midpoint of the wrist crease, between the tendons of the palmaris longus and the flexor carpi radialis.
Pericardium-6 is best known for its renowned ability to relieve nausea and travel sickness, and from this perspective can be compared to at least one of the benefits of ginger (Zingiber officinale). However, Pericardium-6, or “inner gate,” is primarily used to regulate the flow of qi and blood in the chest area, as well as to calm the mind.
To regulate the flow of qi and blood according to Oriental medicine is to smooth and harmonize their circulation around the body. When the flow of qi and blood is disrupted or impeded in some way — frequently due to psychological stress and tension — the general condition of stagnation may ensue. Stagnation of qi and/or blood in the chest can result in constriction, discomfort, or pain, and reflects problems of a cardiac or respiratory nature.
Pericardium-6 not only helps to release and regulate the flow of stagnated qi and blood, but has a deeply calming effect on the mind and emotions. This is something it shares with some of the acupoints on the Heart meridian, except that it also helps to smooth and regulate Liver-Qi — the organ responsible for the smooth flow of qi throughout the body. It is this combination of actions that makes Pericardium-6 suitable for nervous tension, irritability, restlessness, and insomnia.
Although it is impossible to reduce the properties of true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) to these effects alone, the essential oil nevertheless mirrors the key actions of Pericardium-6. Lavender, too — an important ester-rich, antispasmodic essential oil — helps to regulate the flow of qi. Its ability to relieve nervous tension, anxiety, and agitation, as well as ease headache and palpitations, reflects the fact that it harmonizes the qi of the heart and liver in a way that is similar to Pericardium-6. Not surprisingly, lavender oil is considered to be the “rescue remedy” of essentials oils, particularly as it is also highly useful for cuts and burns.
Both the acupoint and the essential oil are also indicated for premenstrual tension and dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain) — further evidence of their therapeutic synergy.
• Spleen-9 and Juniperus communis oil
The acupoint Spleen-9, Yinglingchuan or “yin mound spring,” is below the knee, on the medial surface of the leg at a point 13 cun from the ankle, just off the edge of the tibia. Lying in what often feels like a natural anatomical hollow, the point is relatively easy to both locate and treat.
The main therapeutic action of Spleen-9 is inseparable from the principal function of the spleen itself. The term ‘“spleen” in Oriental medicine refers not only to the anatomical spleen, but to the pancreas as well. The two are considered to function as a single energetic organ, the central role of which is to govern the transformation and transportation of food and fluids in the body.
The spleen-pancreas therefore plays a crucial role in the digestive process — by transforming food and fluids into qi and blood. As a result, numerous common digestive problems require the tonification (strengthening) of the spleen.
Another possible consequence resulting from weakness of the spleen’s transformative function is dampness. Dampness is one of the most important pathogenic (disease-causing) factors in Oriental medicine, and is associated with a wide range of common disorders. Symptoms can include fatigue and lassitude, a feeling of heaviness, edema, leukorrhoea, osteoarthritis, and an overweight or obese condition.
The acupoint Spleen-9 is a key pressure point for this disharmony, working to strengthen the spleen-pancreas and eliminate dampness from the body. It is used for fluid retention, osteoarthritis, cystitis, and other common problems associated with dampness.
The decongestant, antirheumatic, and mildly diuretic properties of essential oil of juniper berry (Juniperus communis) are similar to those of Spleen-9. It is not surprising, therefore, that juniper oil shares with Spleen-9 a reputation for relieving edema, cystitis, and osteoarthritis. From an Oriental energetic viewpoint, their shared ability to drain dampness from the body clearly explains why.
Both Spleen-9 and juniper berry essential oil may also be employed for their psychological benefits in cases of poor concentration due to mental plethora, as well as worry and overthinking involving a burdened emotional state.
The Benefits of Integration
Oriental aromatherapy and aromatic acupressure offer the versatile practitioner a powerful way of applying essential oils — one that can be easily integrated with therapeutic massage and bodywork. The therapeutic principle that underpins their potential is one that is increasingly recognized as vital to healing — the concept of energetic synthesis, or synergy.
Licensed massage therapists hold the key to unlocking the future potential of clinical aromatherapy in the United States, as no other therapeutic approach is so perfectly designed to deliver the proven healing benefits of essential oils. It is a shame that aromatherapy is too often perceived as a commercial phenomenon driven by hype and hearsay, whereas the reality is very different. However, I am convinced this will soon change — if massage therapy will only recognize its “soul mate.”