Herbs have magnificent healing powers and can be used to treat many serious yet common ailments and to boost your health.

Aromatherapy Article

Article, International Journey of Aromatherapy

Volume 13, Issues 2 - 3, 2003, Pages 108 - 113
Copyright © 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Spiritual Practice and Essential Oil Therapy:
Exploring the history and individual preferences among specific plant sources

" Deep inside us, there is a spiritual connection that we can find if we just stand still long enough, and quietly absorb." - Valerie Worwood (Worwood, 1996)

Do historically employed essential oils still work to enhance a meditation and yoga practice? Does room exist for new aromatic traditions? The history of essential oils and plant materials used in spiritual practice within the roots of Western culture are briefly reviewed. Five experts within the field of aromatherapy were surveyed regarding their personal practices. Their recommendations of essential oils or other plant materials useful for a spiritual practice are discussed.

A single blind study conducted to determine if non-traditional essential oils have a place in modern spiritual practices is explored. Parameters of the study are given, along with commentary by the participants. Finally, a hypothesis regarding the efficacy of three essential oils for use in a spiritual practice is presented.

Historically, Goddess worship has been practiced for over 30,000 years in India , Pakistan , North Africa, the Middle East and Europe . Often associated with trees such as pine, juniper and cypress, Goddess worship began to dwindle around 6000 B.C.E. until in Greece , for example, the famous oracle at Delphi was one of the last remaining links to the ancient ways. The Oracle's visions at Delphi came through inhalation of the smoke produced by bay ( Lauris nobilis ). (Schlain, 1999).

Ancient Egyptians loved fragrance, both for use in this life and the after-life. They used incense of myrrh and saffron, frankincense, cassia, cinnamon, orris, and juniper. Cypress , spikenard, benzoin, lotus oils, gum barks and mastics were part of daily ritual and spiritual life. Embalming with fragrant phyto-aromatic elements was accompanied in the tomb with amphoras of fragrant oils for the voyage to the after-life. Much of the trade in the ancient Egyptian world was devoted to fragrant spices, resins, oils, and barks, employed in cooking, medicine, cleansing, perfumery and spiritual life. (Shlain, 1999).

Hebrews went into Egypt sometime after 1700 B.C.E. and stayed, enslaved until several centuries later when Moses led them into the desert. Exodus 30 details the instructions for the holy incense and anointing oils that were to be used for Yahweh's pleasure by his people in worship. Some of the ingredients in the incense are stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, costus, aromatic bark, and cinnamon, with the possible addition of saltpeter. The holy anointing oil was equally fragrant, being concocted of myrrh, cinnamon, calmus, and cassia and diluted in olive oil. (Armstrong, 1993, Shlain, 1999, Worwood, 1999).

Ancient Greeks associated fragrance with their gods and goddesses who were reputed to enjoy wonderful perfumes unavailable to mortals until after death, in the Elysian fields. Theophrastus, known as the Father of Botany, sometime around 345 B.C.E recorded that the Greeks used copious amounts of fragrance. He listed cassia, cinnamon, cardamom, spikenard, storax, iris, costus, saffron, myrrh, kyperion, ginger-grass, sweet flag, marjoram, lotus, dill, rose, gillyflower, lilies, myrtle, oil of balanos, bergamot, bay, mint, thyme, hyacinth, violet and narcissus (Worwood, 1999). The plants were incorporated into oils and unguents, likely using techniques such as enfleurage and maceration. Possibly crude distillation of essential oils was employed. The resulting perfumed oils with their health-giving attributes were seen as gifts from the gods by the Greeks and later the Romans. They offered up fragrant oils as sacraments in their worship rituals. (Shlain, 1999).

Eventually the Romans, borrowing from the Greeks, offered every form of fragrant indulgence to their gods and their emperor, whom they revered as a living god. This included fragrant baths and perfumed oils, especially rose oil. Incense was also used as part of ritual worship in the Roman Empire . When Christianity was immerging, Christians viewed the use of fragrance as participation in pagan ritual. It was often the refusal to light incense at the temples of the various Roman gods and before images of the emperor that led so many of the faithful to experience martyrdom.

Future generations of Christians would argue over the use of fragrance in Church services due to these early inauspicious links of fragrance to repression, regarding religious freedom. There was also a fear of sensuality associated with the use of incense and fragrant oils possibly stemming from the excesses of Roman rulers and the Roman population in general.

In the poetic Hindu writings known as the Vedas, completed around 900 B.C.E., the faithful are instructed on how to conduct their worship of the Trimurti, (Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva). The Trimurti, the first layer of the manifestation of Brahma the One God, should involve burning fires of fragrant woods, consecrated oils and sweet grass. India has produced fragrant materials for thousands of years including sandalwood, aloeswood, cassia, costus, patchouli, cinnamon, spikenard, rose, jasmine, saffron, turmeric, ginger, camphor, vetiver, cypress, pine, and aniseed. These were traded in the West for supplies of Arabian gums and resins, and in the East for benzoin from Sumatra and Malaysia . Each of the five heavens mentioned in the Vedas is blossoming with flowers and their fragrance. One heavenly flower, calamata, has a fragrance so delightful that its power will grant a person their wishes! (Worwood, 1999).

The Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama was born in the 6 th or 7 th century B.C.E. His teachings spread from India , which stayed predominantly Hindi, south to Sri Lanka , Thailand , Cambodia , Malaysia , Indonesia , Burma , and the Philippines . Buddhism also spread northward into Tibet , China , Korea , Japan , and Afghanistan . A versatile spiritual path, Buddhism adapted to regional ways quite readily, incorporating local fragrant materials into its ritual offerings in the forms of incense, resins and burning various fragrant woods. For example, China favored woods such as sandalwood, pine and camphor. The latter was often used to make rosaries for Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as chests to house sacred texts, known as Sutras. In Tibet , Buddhism adapted to the earlier Bon spiritual tradition. Tibetan Buddhists often added berries from Juniperus excelsa to incense offerings, which were once used as a narcotic to aid trance states (Armstrong, 2001, Worwood, 1999).

Allah's prophet Muhammad was born around 570 C.E. and married a businesswoman named Khadija. Arab traders were already trading as far away as China, West Africa, Zanzibar and Southeast Asia for centuries prior to Muhammad's revelations. Arab traders supplied Egypt and other Mesopotamian civilizations with the greatly prized resins, frankincense and myrrh. In addition they traded in jasmine and rose, possibly as enfleurage pomades. Their camel caravans and dhows hauled spices and fragrant materials all over the known world (Armstrong, 1993).

Many other wonderful rituals evolved over the entire planet wherever humans engaged in spiritual practice. Juniper, sweet grass, cedar, tobacco and sage were not distilled by Native Americans but used in conjunction with sweat lodges, Sundance ceremonies, Vision quests, and other spiritual practices. Polynesians utilized salt gathered from algae and seaweed beds along with Ti leaves and flowers in their practices.

What do aromatherapy experts consider to be effective phyto-energetic contemplative practice enhancements? Four aromatherapists and one procurer of essential oils participated in a questionnaire containing the following questions: Do you have a spiritual practice which you may define as yoga, meditation, prayer, quiet contemplation or anything else? Do you use essential oils or other specific plant materials to enhance your practice and if so, what are they? Is there anything else you use to facilitate your spiritual practice and if so, please elaborate. Have you had requests for practice-enhancing essential oils or other plant materials and if so, what have you suggested? Do you think there are essential oils that would generally enhance a spiritual practice? Do you think there are essential oils that would detract from a practice.

John Steele , an archaeologist and aromatic consultant with expertise in ancient and indigenous sacred use of fragrance uses Frankincense, Rose and Sage. He also uses hydrosols, in particular Frankincense, Jasmine, Rose, and various Lotus hydrosols (Personal correspondence 3/2003).

Alexandra Avery specializes in cosmetic aromatherapy. Her favorite essential oils for yoga include Frankincense, Neroli and Sandalwood (Personal correspondence 3/2003).

Ixchel Susan Leigh expresses her subtle aromatherapy practice as Vibrational AromaTherapy. It's the use of essential oils and Nature's Gifts (stones, colors, sounds, shapes, numbers, etc.) for the purpose of personal growth and transformation of Body, Mind, Heart, Spirit, and Soul. Instead of a daily practice, Ixchel uses walking to help her focus and to hone her intentions. While she feels that every essential oil has the potential to enhance spiritual practice, she expounded on three: Myrrh to enhance and strengthen spirituality; Frankincense to aid deeper meditations and prayers; Ho Leaf ( Ho sho cinnamonum) , which she calls a "Walking Prayer" helps open and balance the Third Eye (Personal correspondence 3/2003).

Valerie Ann Worwood considers her special area of expertise in aromatherapy to be the field of female reproduction, including pregnancy and infertility. Her very personal spiritual practice includes prayer and meditation/contemplative time. Like Ixchel Leigh, she says that all essential oils, in one form or another will help spiritual practice and that the choice is a very personal one. She also believes that fragrance helps settle the mind and allows the mind to focus so that spiritual intent becomes more purposeful. The first thing she shares in her classes is that when it comes to approaching essential oils, whether for spiritual practice or any other aim, one of the most powerful elements is the user's focus on intent, thought and purpose (Personal correspondence 3/2003).

Julia Lawless regards her books to be sources of information to the general public and in the training of professionals about the versatility of essential oils and how they can be used by everyone as simple home remedies. A Tibetan Buddhist who practices meditation and yoga, she uses dried plant materials rather than essential oils. She often burns dried Juniper, Cypress , Guglu (Amyris), incense or purification materials in the Tibetan tradition known as Sang. When asked to recommend spiritual practice-enhancing essential oils or plant materials she tends to recommend those she uses, as well as Frankincense, Copal, Myrrh and Elemi for their enhancing effects (Personal correspondence 3/2003).

Alec Lawless procures and sells essential oils for Aqua Oleum. His knowledge comes from having worked with essential oils for many years. He is a Chan practitioner and teacher, as well as having practiced meditation for twenty-three years. Alec does not use fragrant plant materials in his practice because he tries not to be dependent on externals, although on retreats he finds ritual useful for focusing on intention. He believes that essential oils would not generally be of much use in a spiritual practice except for beginners where they might serve the function of calming the mind. He states that affect is by association, so incense, candles, favorite cushion, prayer shawl, etc. serves generally as a way of reminding the body that something special will happen (Personal correspondence 3/2003).

I conducted an experiment using three essential oils, supplied by Valerie Cooksley of Flora Medica. Using only one "traditional" essential oil, I chose oils from three broad categories: Tree/resin, Fruit/citrus, and Leaves/floral scents. The experiment was a single-blind study with ten volunteers using the traditional essential oil, Elemi,C anarium luzonicum (Burseraceae) and two popular essential oils, Bergamot, Citrus bergamia (Rutaceae) and Geranium, Pelargonium graeolens (Geraniaceae). None of the participants were regular users of essential oils.

Bergamot (citrus aurantium subsp. Bergamia) is a favorite of the perfume industry. It was named after the Italian city of Bergamo , Lombardy . The supplier lists its class as ester, monoterpenes, alcohol.

Geranium (pelargonium gravolens) is steam distilled from the leaves and flowers. The oil has a rosy aroma and is not always of high quality or purity. The supplier lists its class as alcohol, ester, ketone.

A full analysis of Elemi (canarium luzonicum)was unavailable from my supplier, although sesquiterpenes, and monoterpenes are listed.

The volunteers were given three personal inhalers each containing 1 drop of the individual essential oil on an absorbent wick. The wicks are sealed within a vented plastic chamber and then covered with a screw top cover which forms an airtight seal. These were purchased from an aromatherapy supply house, Abundant Health. The instructions were as follows:

Thanks for participating in my aromatic meditation/practice study.

You will find 3 personal inhalers enclosed. Each has a number (1, 2, or 3) on the bottom.

The inhaler unscrews. Inhale a few deep breaths before beginning your practice.

Please do not smell ahead. Use inhaler #1 for two consecutive days, then #2 for two consecutive days, ending with #3 for two days.

For the seventh day, pick your favorite.

Please keep notes regarding the quality of your practice with each session. These can be brief or detailed.

I'd like to know if the inhalations enhanced or detracted from your practice.

I will call you in a week to follow up.

Nine volunteers completed the week-long study. One volunteer said none of the oils enhanced or detracted from his study. Only one named the traditionally used essential oil Elemi as their favorite for enhancing their practice. This participant stated that the oil reminded her of her father's garage business when she was growing up in New Zealand . Another participant likened the scent of Elemi to a petroleum product, an interesting observation in light of the New Zealander's memories. This is not surprising considering that elemi is predominantly monoterpene hydrocarbons.

The others chose Bergamot and Geranium in equal numbers, one stating that he could not decide between the two. Two Yoga instructors, both practicing since their early teens (now in their 40s), liked using Geranium best. One described her meditation experiences as follows: "Busy, confusing morning, rushed. The sniff seemed to help with focus today." The other instructor stated that his practice was, "Very centered. Focused. On key."

Another Yoga instructor chose Bergamot. She felt it recalled a particular place. "I am reminded of some place I've been before, only I am not sure of where. Somewhere pleasant. Somewhere else, maybe from long ago.another life-time perhaps." A participant who meditates twice daily found Bergamot to have, ".an awakening feeling for me." She had disliked Elemi because she found it too stimulating for her evening meditation.

In contrast, the volunteer who most enjoyed Elemi found Bergamot, "Helped with yoga, but my mind was so active it was not helpful at all for meditation." With Geranium her temperature and heart rate increased and her mind wandered and she was unable to focus. The second day of Geranium brought interesting visual effects. "Colors and light was more intense after meditating."

" For example, where a modern textbook describes an oil as antidepressant and we find an old herbal stating that the plant from which it is distilled 'maketh glad the heart' they are saying exactly the same thing in the differing terminology of their respective historical periods." - Patricia Davis ( Davis 2000)

I propose that the choice of Bergamot and Geranium over Elemi indicates our current cultural need for enhancing joy and uplifting the heart. It may also be simply that Geranium and Bergamot have a nicer aroma profile than Elemi. They are very different in chemistry to Elemi, and B&G do resemble each other being rich in oxygenated components. Perhaps Moses and those in history would have used essential oils of Bergamot and Geranium instead of the resins and woods if they had the opportunity. It may also be that currently, with perfumes and perfumed products on the market, Geranium and Bergamot are more familiar aromas than Elemi, which is not a common product put into general fragrancing. As Patricia Davis states in her book Subtle Aromatherapy , the oils of the Citrus family tend to be nurturing, ".feeding us on subtle levels just as fruits feed the physical body. They have a simple, cheerful quality to their energies and are often used as antidepressants in traditional aromtherapy" ( Davis , 2000

Geranium, according to Gabriel Mojay in his book Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, is one of the few essential oils in Oriental medicine considered cool and moist in terms of its energy. As such it clears heat and inflammation, relaxes nerves, calms feelings of anxiety, while strengthening Qi-energy . Calm strength and security are conveyed, beneficial for nervous exhaustion due to stress and overwork. Additionally, the oil helps to reconnect us to our emotional sensitivity and spontaneity. This translates into a healthy thirst for pleasure and enjoyment, imbuing us with a capacity for intimate communication (Mojay, 1997). Doesn't this sound like a perfect antidote for the stresses of modern life?

Julia Lawless, in her book Complete Illustrated Guide to Aromatherapy, describes Bergamot's key qualities as: reviving, refreshing, calming, soothing, uplifting, sedative, regulating, balancing, and anti-depressant. Regarding Geranium's key qualities, she lists tonic, anti-depressant, uplifting, balancing, refreshing, soothing, warming and regulating (Lawless, 1999).

Traditional essential oils and plant materials used throughout time will always be of value to us. However, new traditions for a new time are also appropriate when dealing with our present stressful and fast-paced world. Bergamot and Geranium seem suited to the volunteer's needs in focusing and enjoying their spiritual practices for this study. In addition to Bergamot and Geranium, other citrus and floral essential oils might be beneficial for meditating or practicing yoga, not least in part because of their current popularity in the perfume industry. These might include Lavender ( Lavandula angustifolia) , Lemon ( Citrus limon ), or Ylang ylang ( Cananga odorata ), for example (Worwood, 1996; Price, 2001).

My conclusions are as follows: Those who have a professional background in the use of essential oils, coupled with a spiritual practice, tend to be drawn to historically used essential oils such as Frankincense, either for their own spiritual practice or in their recommendations to others. The participants in my study were not professional aromatherapists, nor were they drawn to the historically used essential oil, Elemi. Instead, they chose currently popular fragrances, Bergamot and Geranium, in equal numbers.

I would have to agree with Alec Lawless when he states that affect, ". is by association." Perhaps using essential oils in a spiritual practice is, ".serving as a way to remind the body (and the mind?) that something special is about to happen."

References & Bibliography


Armstrong, K. (2001) Buddha . New York : Penguin Group

-(1993) A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam . New York : Ballantine.

Avery, A. (1994) Aromatherapy and You . Kailua : Blue Heron Hill Press.

Battaglia, S. (1997) The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy . Virginia : The Perfect Potion.

Catty, S. (2001) Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy . Rochester : Healing Arts Press.

Cooksley, V. (1996) Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide To Healing With Essential Oils . Paramus : Prentice Hall.

Cooksley, V. and Kyle, L. (2002) Institute of Integrative Aromatherapy Home Study Diploma Course, Vol. 2 . Self-published, Institute of Integrative Aromatherapy.

Davis , P. (1995) Aromatherapy: An A-Z . New York : Barnes and Noble.

Davis , P. (2000) Subtle Aromatherapy. Saffron Walden: C.W. Daniel Company.

Essential Science Publishing. (2001) Essential Oils Desk Reference . 2 nd ed. Hurricane: Essential Science Publishing.

Gerber, R. (1988) Vibrational Medicine . Santa Fe : Bear & Co.

Lawless, J. (1999) Complete Illustrated Guide to Aromatherapy . New York : Barnes & Noble Books.

Lawless, J. (1994) Aromatherapy and the Mind . London : Thorsons.

Leigh, I. S. (2001) Aromatic Alchemy . Winchester : Mansion.

Mojay, G. (1997) Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit. Rochester : Healing Arts Press.

Penoel, D., and Penoel, R. (1998) Natural Home Health Care Using Essential Oils . La Drome: Editions Osmoboise.

Price, S. and Price, L. (2001) Aromatherapy for Health Professionals , 2 nd Ed. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Schaubelt, Kurt. (1995) Advanced Aromatherapy . Rochester : Healing Arts Press.

Shlain, L. (1999) The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York : Penguin Putnam

Worwood, V. A. (1996) The Fragrant Mind . Novato : New World Library.

Worwood, V. A. (1999) The Fragrant Heavens . San Raphael: New World Library.

Worwood, V. A. (1991) The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy. San Raphael: New World Library.

Author's information:

© Sandra Thompson