While you may not consider yourself to be a formal practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy, you most likely have benefited at some point from the power of scent to alter mood, to recall memories, or even to reroute undesirable thought patterns. While scent may be more subtle than the senses we seem to chiefly use (like sight or hearing), our sense of smell has a profound influence on our minds. The reality is that the sense of smell is actually directly connected to the brain. In fact, the olfactory sense is, of all the five senses, the one most acutely linked to memory and recognition. If you've ever caught a whiff of a smell that instantly took you back to some other time or place from the past, you can probably understand why this is true.
So how can aromatherapy have any influence on the practice of yoga? Well, as it turns out, these two ancient sciences have quite a lot in common, as we will see when we compare the two. When therapeutic essential oils are used during yoga practice, it can increase the effectiveness and benefits of both.
Ayurveda - Ancient Indian Wisdom
Aromatherapy has it's roots in the Indian Ayurvedic tradition, and while it has changed and evolved over the centuries, the central principles remain the same. Ayurveda is a way of seeing the whole person. The physical body is only one part of the whole. According to Ayurvedic wisdom, there are seven chakras, each located on a different region of the spinal column, and each corresponding to its own nerve plexus and endocrine gland.
When these chakras are in alignment, then prana, or life force energy, flows freely and promotes wellness, but when the chakras are out of place, then prana is inhibited, and can cause illness and emotional or mental anguish. In conjunction with the chakras, each person is also a manifestation of some combination of the three doshas, or temperaments (a concept not unlike the four humours of the ancient Greeks). The three doshas can be described (very briefly) as :
Vata—changeable, flitting, airy
Pitta—driven, strong, fiery
Kapha—unmoving, slow to change, heavy
Again, each person represents each of these doshas, but most will be dominant in one of them more than the others. So the goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to bring these three doshas into balance to promote optimal health and wellness. Aromatherapy is used strategically as a key component of Ayurveda. For example, lavender and sandalwood are used to calm anxiety. Patchouli and vanilla promote focused energy, and citrus and peppermint can be invigorating to those prone to be sedentary at times.
So what about yoga, and how does aromatherapy relate to yoga practice? Yoga is a Sanskrit word which translates literally as “union”. The goal of the yogi (the person who is practicing yoga) is to unite the physical body with the mind and emotions. The idea is that when the body and mind are not working toward the same goal, then the flow of prana is inhibited. (Do you see a trend here?)
Yoga utilizes a series of postures, called asanas, along with breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation, in order to practice full engagement of the body with the mind and the breath. So that wonderful life force energy is allowed to move freely when mind and body are aligned and balanced. And this is where it becomes apparent that yoga and aromatherapy are really just different branches of the same vine. So it should come as no surprise that these two ancient practices, like a fine wine with a lovely aged cheese, can compliment each other remarkably well, as long as some care is taken to pick the right combination of elements.
If you are a yogi, or even if you just dabble from time to time, it can be very rewarding to incorporate essential oils into your practice. This combination of botanicals with asanas has been scientifically shown to have many benefits, including balance of the autonomic nervous system, and hormonal homeostasis.
But aside from physiological realities, the addition of certain scents when combined with certain asanas can assist in successful execution of the pose. For example, lavender promotes relaxation which can help you surrender into a demanding forward bend. Peppermint can give an energy boost needed for vigorous poses like the sun salutation. And chamomile can help with relaxation poses such as corpse pose.
Some essential oils, like tea tree oil, can even be used for disinfecting yoga mats and equipment, while imparting their healing, focused energies to your practice. No matter what your level of experience, even if you're a complete beginner, it would be worth your while to try this pleasant and rewarding combination!