An introduction to safe use of essential oils for yoga practice.
The penetrating aroma of essential oils has a powerful effect on our physiology and emotions, impacting every cell of our being.
There are many ways to use aromatherapy for self-healing. By using specific essential oils in combination with our yoga, pranayama, and meditation practices, we have the ability to create our own olfactory sanctuary.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. They are derived via distillation, expression, solvent extraction, or florasol extraction from plants and their various parts, including: leaves, flowers, roots, buds, twigs, rhizomes, heartwood, bark, resin, seeds, and fruits. Essential oils are often referred to as the lifeblood of the plant, as they share some biochemical structural similarities to human blood.
What makes essential oils distinct from other forms of herbs (for example, the leaf itself) is that the essential oil is exponentially more concentrated. For example, one drop of peppermint essential oil has the equivalent of the active ingredients of 26 cups of peppermint tea.
We have learned that essential oils have powerful effects on the plant itself: its life and function, its own health, and its protective mechanisms. They affect our bodies in much the same way; a growing number of clinical studies reveal benefits of essential oils such as increasing oxygen uptake by red blood cells, improving the ability of the immune system to fight infection, aiding in balance of the endocrine system and hormone production, promoting tissue regeneration, maintaining appropriate appetite, calming the nervous system, and easing pain and anxiety.
The Power of Smell
First and foremost, the effects of essential oils are found in their scent. Fragrance touches our heart and is even a magic key that opens the secret door to the chambers of our soul. The mechanism of our sense of smell is a fascinating journey to the center of the brain.
Our sense of smell (olfaction) is our most primal sense and dates to life’s origins. At birth, smell is our most fully developed sense. It is essential for animals’ survival in the wild; they use it to hunt prey and to protect themselves in turn from predators. In fact, California ground squirrels chew up rattlesnake skin and smear it on their fur to mask their scent.
As we inhale an essential oil, their aromatic molecules enter the body via the nasal passages and olfactory bulb and travel to the limbic region at the center of the brain, the group of structures that regulate processes like memory, creativity, and motivation, as well as the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems. This olfactory highway means that the scent bypasses the cerebral cortex—the conscious processing part of the brain. This is why even the faintest whiff of something evocative will instantly evoke a flash of memory, a recollection of a person from our past, or even inspire an emotional response.
Ancient medicine to Modern Miracles
Essential oils have a long and noteworthy history of use throughout the world for thousands of years. Places like Egypt, China, and India (used in Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani Medicine) have used oils for ritual and medicine. Hippocrates popularized their use in Greece and subsequently throughout Europe. They were used in the First and Second World Wars to reduce infection and improve wound healing. Today, essential oils are being used in hospitals, nursing homes, and in hospice care for their effects on pain, insomnia, nausea, and anxiety. Their use as an adjunct to yoga is also increasing as a result of their physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.
Essential Oils and Your Yoga Practice
Combining essential oil use with yoga practice can powerfully enhance feelings of well-being and presence. Inhalation or topical application of genuine therapeutic grade essential oils can be a powerful tool for radiant health for every major system of the body. Many yoga practitioners find that use of essential oils helps refine focus and mental clarity, deepen mental and emotional grounding, strengthen the body-mind connection, increase stamina, and reduce muscle and joint pain and tension. Yoga instructors have found that when they use essential oils in their classes, students often appear to be more alert, receptive, unified, connected, grounded, centered, uplifted and present.
Yoga instructor Vivica Schwartz of Yoga Desa in Topanga Canyon says that essential oils help her set an intention for the class and help her become more inspired about what to teach. She says that, “essential oils help calm my nerves when the day has been stressful. Before going to teach, essential oils help me transition from chaos to the Zen mind. When I use them in class I get a positive response from my students.”
Urban Zen instructor Hazel at Yogaworks says she uses different oils in her yoga classes as needed to help relax or invigorate her students. “When I drop a little oil into their hands I find it’s a lovely way to connect to the students and give back to my community. As my students inhale the oil, I see their faces become open and receptive to the experience of something new. It brings them more into their breath and their bodies.”
Not All Oils are Created Equally
You may have attended a yoga class where the teacher lovingly offers a few drops of an essential oil, like lavender, chamomile, or clary sage for you to enjoy during savasana or meditation. While these scents wonderful for enhancing relaxation, in my experience, many oils being used are unfortunately of poor quality or are even synthetically altered.
Not all essential oils are created equally. According to Kurt Schnaubelt, PhD, of the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, more than 98% of the essential oils on the market are adulterated, meaning they have been synthetically produced so they won’t deliver their full benefit and could even cause more harm than good. Using only genuine, pure, therapeutic grade essential oils is important for receiving their full benefit
What Goes into Essential Oil Quality
Begin with quality plants
An essential oil’s potency can be affected by a number of factors, including ensuring the plant is the authentic variety, the location where it is grown, the quality of soil, and even the time of day harvested. Ensure the company you are buying from has extensive experience in plant section for desired potency.
Preparation and Distillation
Once the optimal soil, plant, cultivation, and harvesting conditions have been adhered to, the plants must be distilled properly. To meet genuine therapeutic-grade quality, distillation standards require proper temperature that must be maintained throughout the distillation process, while pressure, length of time, equipment, and batch size are strictly monitored.
Ensure your brand prohibits diluted, cut, or adulterated oils, and that they test every batch of oil using rigorous, state-of-the-art analysis and reject impure oils.
Proper plants and preparation are all important components of potency, which is the ability of the oil to contain the highest bioactivity and ability to create the desired effect.
Guidelines for Safe Use of Essential Oils
Since essential oils are potent therapeutic agents, before using them in a yoga class or other setting, first ask if anyone has any allergies or specific health conditions like pregnancy, epilepsy, high or low blood pressure, or if students are taking medications like certain blood thinning agents. Although the side effects of using essential oils are minuscule, there are precautions to take into consideration. In addition, some people may have strong emotional reactions to specific oils based on their life history.
Essential Oils Basic Guidelines & Safety Precautions
1. Always have pure, vegetable-based oil on hand in the event of discomfort or skin irritation (including accidentally wiping eyes). Never flush essential oils with water; as this will exacerbate the irritation. Use a fatty vegetable oil such as olive or almond oil on the affected area. The fat in a vegetable oil will bond to the essential oils to soothe irritation or discomfort.
2. Store essential oils in a cool location with the lids fastened tightly.
This helps oils maintain potency. Essential oils are volatile substances, which means they will eventually evaporate if the bottles are left uncovered. Ideally, essential oils are kept in amber or blue colored bottles to protect them from any contact with sunlight, since direct sunlight decreases their potency.
3. Treat them like medicine.
Essential oils may smell better than any medication you’ve ever taken, but they are still powerful substances and need to be respected. Learn about your oils and their effects.
4. Do not use oils containing menthol, such as peppermint, on the neck of children under 30 months.
5. Know your oils.
Learn the specific contraindications to individual essential oils. For example, some oils are phototoxic, meaning they may cause a rash or dark pigmentation on skin exposed to direct sunlight within three to four days after application. Most citrus oils fall into this category as well as others. In addition, become familiar with which essential oils are best avoided during pregnancy or other conditions. Our collective information about this is still growing; gather information from a few reputable sources before making an informed evaluation.
6. Keep oils away from the eyes.
Some essential oils irritate the eyes (remember to use a fatty vegetable or nut oil on a tissue and dab into the affected eye to reduce irritation).
7. Remind pregnant women to consult their health care professional before using oils.
An expert opinion is essential; some oils are problematic during pregnancy while others are especially beneficial for pregnancy, childbirth, new mothers, and infants.
8. People with health conditions do well to know their own cautions and contraindications.
9. Keep essential oils away from open flames, as some essential oils are flammable.
(For a list of oils and their cautions, read this article online at: layoga.com.)
How to use Essential Oils
The Inhalation Method
Place one or two drops of essential oil on your left palm, then slowly and gently rub the oil in a clockwise motion three times with the fingertips of your right hand. (We emphasize putting the oils in the left hand first, as in many energetic healing art modalities the left side of the body is considered the receiving side.) This process will spread the oils evenly on each hand. Then, bring your cupped hands slowly towards your nose until they are about one to two inches away and inhale slowly and deeply. You can also put a drop of essential oil on a round cotton cosmetic pad. The scent of the essential oil will last for hours, sometimes days, students can take them home to anchor their post-yoga-class bliss.
A cold air or cold water diffuser is an effective method of using essential oils. (Avoid potpourri burners that use a candle, as the heat from the candle will denature the delicate molecular structure of the essential oil.) I recommend diffusing citrus oils like grapefruit, lemon, tangerine, lime, or orange. These oils have an uplifting yet mild scent that also helps reduce airborne microbes.
Essential oils can be placed under the nose, on the back of the neck, on the lower back, chest, or belly. For those concerned with skin sensitivity, essential oils may also be diluted with carrier oils, like coconut, sesame, olive, jojoba or a blend of these fatty oils. Before distributing essential oils to your students, please remind them to avoid touching their eyes and explain the use of vegetable carrier oils to reduce irritation.
Tracy Griffiths is the author of the Aroma Yoga® DVD and Aroma Yoga® On Line Teacher Training. She has trained certified Aroma Yoga® instructors and offers workshops locally and around the world. Tracy is also the co-author (with Ashley Turner) of the reference Aroma Yoga®: How to Use Essential Oils in your Yoga Practice. Tracy and her team will be offering classes and exhibiting at the Moksha Festival July 11-12 in Downtown Los Angeles mokshafestival.com. For more information, visit aromayogaguide.com.