The Chemical Magic of Ayurvedic Healing with Essential Oils
By Andrea Foster, Education Coordinator
To understand the modern communion of Ayurveda and aromatherapy, we find ourselves traveling back 5,000 years to the birthplace of India.
Nestled in the Indus Valley in the southwestern part of the Asian continent perhaps a thousand years before the Common Era, an early healer fingered the wrists of his patient and felt the imbalances within his patient’s body thrumming in the blood song. The botanical catalog of the healer’s memory whispered pertinent remedies as he would gather the plants he’d stored or that readily grew around him. He might add ingredients exotic to modern sensibilities, such as cow’s urine, or as persistently everyday as clarified butter. He would consider diet options, meditations, obeisance to auspicious gods and present all his recommendations to his patient.
A gust of time blows us to the 10th Century, west to Persia, where medical understanding that mirrors modern advice was developed by the elite doctors of the day. Ibn Sina, medical advisor to the sultan, exercised his vast knowledge of chemistry to incorporate distilled plant oils as part of his prescriptions.
Ibn Sina, also known by his Latin name as Avicenna, a Muslim philosopher prodigy who mastered anything he laid his mind upon, believed in the careful balance of hot, cold, wet, and dry, and his medical recommendations represented a holistic approach modern doctors are only just now coming to value. And part of this great understanding was the power held within the chemicals woven into the plants in the world around him, isolated and refined through steam to yield potent medicine.
This early aromatherapy was continued into the 12th Century by Andalusian pharmacist and botanist Ibn al-Baitar, who cataloged thousands of plants and their medical uses, to include the use of distilled oils. They both had systematically found a way to extract mighty medicine as well as exquisite perfume, though it wouldn’t be given the name “aromatherapy” until the early 20th century.
Back in India, the practice of abhyanga or a therapeutic oil massage to deliver nutrients to the body through the skin, was one of the earliest methods of incorporating plant oils into medical treatment. Modern practitioners using this same technique but incorporating distilled essential oils in abhyanga, can more precisely address imbalance by natural chemical assistance.
Ayurveda uses the theory of opposites to quell imbalance. If you have discomfort due to increased stomach acid, a practitioner may find excess heat or “fire” in a part of your digestive system and would then recommend a cooling remedy to counter the fire as part of a greater plan of remedies. Essential oils often play a role in the remedies the dhyana Center practitioners suggest.
Massage practitioner of 11 years, Hari Darshan Kaur was first struck by the power of plant essences in her first day attending an aromatherapy class at the dhyana Center. She began the day suffering from congestion and wondered aloud what might help.
“DeAnna [Batdorff, founder] put a root in my hand and within seconds the congestion cleared,” Kaur said. “That was osha root. I feel like it proved itself to me in its ability to work.”
Osha root is a plant prized for its capacity as an expectorant, clearing the lungs of congestion, making breathing easier. The chemicals within the root, and perhaps the scent releasing from the plant matter, went to work quickly. This is how essential oils can act in the dosage of a mere drop.
It can be daunting to contemplate the hundreds of available essential oils and the alchemy involved in combining oils together to deliver a useful, safe result. There are dozens of books on the market that explain oils and their uses, but scanty resources illustrating the application of aromatherapy in an Ayurvedic setting, even though oils are an important component. Nothing replaces hands-on experience that starts with personalized education through a class, direct mentoring, or guided, informed experimentation.
Susan Sykes is a dhyana Center practitioner, massage therapist of 18 years, and owner of Melina’s Garden, a line of steam-distilled hydrosols carried in the dhyana Center Essentials store. Aromatherapy was not a large focus of her initial Ayurvedic training, but has been a presence in her life from a young age.
“Oils were in my mother’s cupboard,” Sykes said. This made it easy for her to incorporate them into her treatments from a more intuitive understanding.
“Smells are deeply in our memory and associated with certain things, certain times, so there’s a familiarity. With familiarity there’s trust,” Sykes said. “It’s immediate medicine.”
Sykes understands the scientific basis for using oils and blending them together for a synergistic power, but she also bases her blending on personal acquaintance with the oil.
Perhaps Ibn Sina and Ayurvedic texts would agree, the chemical composition of different oils places them in categories of hot, cold, wet, and dry in relation to the body. And just as a single dosha does not stand alone in the body, an oil usually has a combination of elemental results. Sandalwood oil can have both cold and dry actions in the body, whereas cinnamon oil can have hot and wet effects. This directly affects the doshas by either increasing their elemental tendency or counteracting and “pacifying” them.
A healing tapestry can be woven from an understanding of the chemical foundation of oils and their strongest role in a blend, from base to top note. More than a way to freshen the air, aromatherapy can elevate the potency of the subtle energies at work within a plant, maximize the capacity for plants to harmonize, and provide botanical collaboration to support your body’s systems.
Dive deep into essential plant medicine during DeAnna Batdorff’s 10-day workshop, Ayurvedic Aromatherapy, currently open for registration. The course runs from March 22 – 26 and March 29-April 2. To register or for more information, please call 707-823-8818 and ask for Andrea.