What are Essential Oils? A Beginner's Guide to Aromatherapy in Yoga

Did you know that the human nose can detect over 1 trillion different smells?


As the only place where the central nervous system opens to the environment, the nose picks up smell faster than the eyes sense light or the ears hear sound. Once a smell reaches the brain, it has a profound impact on emotion, memory, and mood.


Aromatherapy is a science that taps into the power of smell to promote health, healing, and long-term well-being. These positive influences are primarily induced by the smell of essential oils.


Here’s an overview of what essential oils are, how they work in aromatherapy, and why these natural scents can enhance a yoga practice for deep, long-lasting healing.


What Are Essential Oils?


In a chemical sense, essential oils are not really oils at all. “Essential oils are pure essences produced through distillation from leaves, wood, bark, flowers, fruit peels, or seeds of the botanical world,” says Debbi Quinn, R.A., and Full Circle Yoga School facilitator.


In addition to giving each plant its characteristic fragrance, essential oils have antibiotic qualities that protect the plant or provide other functions due to their concentration of healing chemical constituents. Essentially, they capture a plant’s essence.

When we breathe in an essential oil through our nose, the olfactory cells send nerve impulses to the limbic area of the brain, which is associated with emotion, memory, and survival instincts. Stimulating the limbic brain with essential oils can stir old feelings and bring back long-forgotten memories to change a person’s mood. Aromatherapy harnesses the powerful impacts of essential oils to promote a variety of healing states.


In the same way that yoga helps release old emotions and promote positive energy flow in the body, aromatherapy seeks to restore bodily balance in a natural and healthy way.



How to Use Essential Oils in Yoga


Aromatherapy is an important part of yoga because it enhances the relaxation, focus, and ease needed for a therapeutic yoga practice. It makes yoga even more effective by adding deeper emotion and feeling to the poses being engaged.


“Aromatherapy achieves its effects through the application and diffusion of pure plant essential oils that influence physical wellness, a positive emotional state and mental clarity. Combining aromatherapy with yoga can powerfully enhance the yoga journey,” says Quinn.


She adds that it’s important to understand the botanical origin of essential oils in order to properly pair them with yoga poses. For example, sandalwood comes from a tree, so it is a grounding oil that can help you feel rooted in your decisions. In contrast, peppermint oil is from a plant and is known to be invigorating, making it great for inspiration and energy.


How to Use Essential Oils Safely


To enjoy the full spectrum of benefits from essential oils, it’s important that they’re used safely and properly. Essential oils should not be ingested, and they should only be applied topically when specifically formulated and diluted for a blend that’s safe for the skin. Essential oils can be diffused in an oil diffuser to create an overall mood for the space.


When using essential oils as a yoga teacher, you may rub the formulated blend onto your hands and wave them over students’ noses as they lie in savasana. Giving a head, neck, and shoulder massage with oils on your hands can reinforce a theme learned in class and promote relaxation.


After class is over, students will maintain the peace and calm they felt during class throughout the day. Since scent is so closely tied to memory, they’ll likely think of your class and the relaxation they felt whenever they smell the oil.


Here’s a general overview of the most common essential oils used in yoga, plus their physical and mental healing benefits.


Energizing and Mood-Lifting


Peppermint essential oil is an invigorating scent that can help treat pain from headaches and migraines. Due to its uplifting nature, it’s great for pairing with inversions in a vinyasa yoga practice.


Rosemary essential oil is another energizing scent. Known to have anti-inflammatory compounds, rosemary essential oil can complement a more vigorous yoga practice. Peppermint, rosemary, and eucalyptus can all be used to promote breath awareness during a meditation or breath work (pranayama) exercise.


Grounding and Soothing


Rose is a soothing oil that’s great for helping with stress and grief, and its pleasant and familiar scent can uplift the mood and bring a person into the present moment.


Meanwhile, sandalwood is a common essential oil used in yoga classes for its grounding, strengthening, and centering effect. It’s best paired with strong, confidence-boosting poses like warrior II, mountain, or crescent lunge.


Restorative


Restorative and yin practices can be complemented with lavender, which is perhaps the most common oil for promoting calm and reducing stress. Lavender can help a person let go of worries and anxiety when paired with poses like forward fold or child’s pose. Another earthy and relaxing oil is vetiver, which is primarily used to induce calm. Warming oils like orange or grapefruit can also help reduce stress, promote relaxation, and uplift mood.


Meditation


When working on clearing the mind and promoting focus, frankincense and peppermint are two of the best options. The bright, energizing nature of these oils can ground a person in their intention for new beginnings. Calmer oils like lavender can also be used for meditation, especially when accompanied by a slower yoga class and intentions around surrendering and letting go.


When used safely and mindfully, essential oils can elevate your yoga practice to an entire new level of relaxation, grounding and inner healing. Want to learn more about aromatherapy? We're offering an Ayurvedic aromatherapy course in Cocoa Beach and we also offer aromatherapy lessons at our teacher trainings.



Images by @katinicoleyoga, @positivelyshelly

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