Aromatherapy has been part of the human healing practice for thousands of years. Science continues to expand our understanding of how the human brain and body respond to fragrance. This ancient, yet emerging, field offers unlimited opportunities for massage therapists to enrich and deepen their practice using the precious essential oils of the earth.
We know from centuries of anecdotal evidence, and now from a growing body of clinical research, that aromas help to create profound, lifelong memories, emotional responses and bonds.
Human olfactory capacity is imperfectly understood. Many scientists today challenge long-held beliefs such as the notion of the limbic system and the so-called reptile brain, early and rather murky terms that were coined to attempt to describe the effects of aromas on human mood and behavior. It is fair to say our sense of smell remains, at its core, essentially mysterious.
Some of our olfactory responses may be purely neurological and chemical; others may be associative, perhaps an aspect of the placebo effect. Smelling bread baking, for instance, may trigger feelings of comfort, of being nurtured, trust and nostalgia. It is unlikely, though possible, that these responses are literally caused by inhaled particles emanating from the baking loaf. More likely, the smell of warm bread reminds us of childhood and home, and these positive memories lower our blood pressure; slow the production of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain; slow down respiration, resulting in deeper breaths; and allow the muscles to relax, among other effects.
The science of experience and memory is new and filled with discovery and controversy. Adding an aromatic component to your massage practice undeniably offers benefits to you and your clients.
Here is the central and most crucial lesson in aromatherapy you will ever receive: The most important aspect of introducing aromatherapy into your practice is to use only genuine aromatherapy products, meaning products that contain essential oils instead of artificial perfumes.
The emphasis upon the need for genuine aromatherapy products, containing 100-percent USDA-certified organic essential oils, is clear and strong. Whether you are a massage student or a seasoned practitioner, beware of those in the industry who claim to produce aromatherapy products but, in fact, do not.
Understanding exactly what constitutes aromatherapy requires vigilance and education, and as a practitioner of the healing arts, your integrity requires you to commit to understanding this aspect of the practice. It’s not accurate to presume products that contain botanical essences are genuine aromatherapy products. For example, strawberry is a popular fragrance in America, and many faux-aromatherapy products are strawberry-scented. (They also usually contain red dye, to reinforce the idea.) Some may even contain genuine strawberry juice. The smell is delicious, but aromatherapy is not based on how good something smells, a common misperception. Strawberries do not contain essential oils and, therefore, cannot be called an aromatherapy ingredient. Even more disturbing, many fake aromatherapy products contain synthetic fillers that may be harmful. Always consult with an expert before adding products to your practice; research aromatherapy brands for their authenticity; and learn how to read labels before purchasing.
Many theories and opinions surround the physical effects and esoteric qualities of essential oils. Some oils such as cinnamon are generally considered warming and comforting. Citrus and peppermint are often considered energizing and mood-brightening. Lavender and chamomile are typically considered calming. Some oils carry warnings with regard to certain clients such as pregnant women. Always seek mentoring from an expert when building your menu.
Depending on the nature of your specific practice, you may find yourself confronted with tongue-twisting terminology in Latin, Sanskrit and French. Especially early in your practice, you may focus on pronouncing abyhanga and effleurage. You may struggle to visualize the precise geography of the warm skin beneath your hands as you work, picturing the vast interior chart of the body’s bones, muscles, tendons, nerves, arteries, veins, capillaries, ligaments, lymphatic system, organs, marmas and meridians. Like a dancer or pianist, you may find yourself unconsciously memorizing placements and practicing movements, literally even in your sleep.
But while there is no substitute for the learned mastery of technical massage skills, the presence of genuine aromatherapy may play a crucial role in creating breakthroughs in your levels of expertise and your connection with clients. Embrace this knowledge as an ongoing area of study, and expand both the immediate and long-term benefits of your massage practice.
Peter Friis is a young entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, California, home of his first lifestyle brand, Essio (www.essioshower.com). Friis holds a Master of Business Administration from University of California, Los Angeles. His revolutionary aromatherapy product line, launched late in 2012, is the first of a family of related brands now being developed by Friis and his team, all emphasizing modernity, sustainability and eco-luxury.