by Charlotte Michael Versagi, L.M.T.
a massage therapist interested in adding aromatherapy to my practice,
but I'm not sure how to get started. How do I learn what scents
to use, and how to handle essential oils safely?"
Read a couple of good books
and practice on yourself first - that's the advice from two experts
who have been aromatherapists for a combined 30 years. You don't have
to walk around like an encyclopedia, but you need to know when to
look something up," says Valerie Cooksley, R.N., co-owner of
the Institute of
Integrative Aromatherapy, based in Seattle, Washington, and author
of Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils.
"Learn when to ask questions and what to ask; that's most important."
Cooksley recommends two well-respected
starting references, The Practice of Aromatherapy, by French physician
Jean Valnet and presently reprinted stateside under the title Medical
Aromatics; and Shirley Price's The Aromatherapy Workbook.
Marlene Ericksen is a massage therapist,
clinical herbalist and aromatherapist who runs the Clinic of Herbal
Medicine and Herbal Therapy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She suggests
that interested therapists take a short aromatherapy course offered
by a massage school.
"Focus on the needs of your clients
and then buy your books and take your courses accordingly, then
blend your knowledge slowly into your practice," Ericksen says.
Her book, Healing with Aromatherapy, is an overall guide that includes
step-by-step directions, information about the chemistry of essential
oils, and specific therapeutic uses and formulas.
Regarding the actual practice of aromatherapy
and learning the effects of the essential oils, Cooksley says, "Don't
practice on your clients! Get to know lavender or eucalyptus, for
example, on your own, on a personal level."
Although a widely used oil like lavender
is known for its relaxing properties, a client may have had very
unpleasant experiences associated with that scent; therefore, assumptions
cannot be made that all scents have predictable effects on all clients,
Cooksley says. (Research:
Aromatherapy's Affects on Moods and Minds.)
"Remember, Hippocrates said, 'First,
do no harm,' she says. "The sensory part of the brain that
smells is closely related to our moods. You've got to know the effects
of these oils on yourself before you use them on someone else."
Cooksley and Ericksen also have advice
on how to go about purchasing essential oils.
Cooksley suggests purchasing just a
few, say, three to six, types of oil. "Dilute them in proper
proportion for a massage or diffuse them into the air," she
says. "Safe starter oils would include chamomile, lavender
or mandarin, as opposed to the stronger oils like sage or hyssop."
And, she says, blend the appropriate number of drops (which will
depend on the potency of each oil) of the essential oil into a natural
unscented massage lotion or oil.
Prices start around $7 (for a one-third
ounce, or 10ml bottle of a citrus essence), and can go up to $70
per ml (for hard-to-distill oils like rose, jasmine or helichrysm).
You can find essential oils in health-food stores, natural product
stores, herb shops or online. (Learn
how to make your own massage oils and lotions.)
Quality and purity are, of course,
both important when purchasing natural products. Although all oils
are available in a wide price range depending upon their origin
(what part of the plant they come from, and where in the world they
are shipped from), it is best to read the label. "You should
not buy a bottle that just reads, lavender", Cooksley says,
as it could contain an artificial scent. "Make sure it reads
that it is the actual authentic oil that comes from that plant."
Both Cooksley and Ericksen agree there
are many sound physiologic reasons to incorporate aromatherapy into
a massage practice.
"Therapists find that essential
oils can become a powerful tool in their practices because the medical
benefits of the plant (botanical medicine) penetrate the skin during
massage, affect the bodily systems and have an immediate effect
on the nervous system and the psyche," Ericksen says.
"Stress underlies many ailments,"
Cooksley adds. "If we address stress [through the effective
use of aromatherapy] we can help prevent imbalances on physiological,
spiritual and emotional levels. The effect can be very pleasurable
if the oils are used correctly."
Ericksen suggests that before using
any essential oil massage therapists question clients about skin
allergies. She also says that clients with thyroid problems and
hypertension should not be exposed to overly stimulating oil. In
addition, anyone who's taking constitutional homeopathic treatments
should never use peppermint or eucalyptus, because both are very
strong, high-energy, high-intensity oils that could negate the homeopathic
treatment, Cooksley says. Also, women should not use any essential
oils during the first trimester of pregnancy.
"Essential oils get into the bloodstream,
so you don't know how much of it gets to the baby." Cooksley
says, adding that because not enough research has been performed
on the effect of essential oils on a developing fetus, it's best
to lean on the conservative side and simply not use any essential
oils during the first trimester.
Essential oils are highly concentrated
essences of natural substances, and must be handled safely.
"[Essential oils] need to be used
only in small quantities, as directed," Ericksen says. "Never
use them neat (straight, undiluted). You're better off starting
with lower doses in carriers like vegetable oils."
Cooksley adds, "Essential oils
are 99 times more potent than the fresh or dried plant they come
from. Keep them away from children." If ingested straight,
essential oils can cause serious side effects. They can also cause
burns if applied directly to the skin.
For safe storage, keep essential oils
in a medicine cabinet (oils kept in a cool, dark place like that
will also last longer).
Michael Versagi, L.M.T., N.C.T.M.B., is a journalist and a massage
therapist who specializes in manual lymph drainage and work with
clients with cancer.