Ayurveda & Aromatherapy
By David Crow, L.Ac.
It was a steaming hot afternoon in Kerala, India, near the end of the monsoon. I had just arrived at a small clinic in a tropical neighborhood and was talking with the resident doctor. She was curious about the tour I would soon be leading for a group of international students, titled “Ayurvedic Aromatherapy.” “You know, there is no such thing as aromatherapy in Ayurveda,” the doctor said. She was a fully trained Ayurvedic physician, and spoke with authority. The doctor was correct, in a way. When people think of the term “aromatherapy” they generally think of the modern Western uses of essential oils and their typical methods of application such as massage oils and atmospheric diffusers. These forms of aromatherapy are not generally found in Ayurveda, especially the more classical forms offered in South India.
Several months before my arrival, however, I had taken the liberty to redefine the word “aromatherapy” so that it had many other important connotations, which I now explained to the Vaidye. According to my definition, the term “Ayurvedic Aromatherapy” has two primary meanings. The first is all the therapies that contain aromatic plants, and therefore have essential oils as their primary active ingredients. The second is all the ways that we can classify and use essential oils according to Ayurvedic concepts such as Prana (life force), Ojas (nutritional immunological essence), Soma (regenerative fluids), Pancha Mahabhutas (five universal elements), and so on.
This short article will describe how a large part of Ayurveda is fundamentally a form of “aromatic botanical medicine.” This is the explanation that I offered the doctor, which convinced her that many Ayurvedic treatments might indeed be the original form of aromatherapy.
Ayurveda is richly fragrant. Every aspect of treatment and therapy is infused with aromas, which are emanating mostly from the essential oil content of the herbal ingredients that are being used; it is these aromas (and flavors) that provide many of the therapeutic benefits one enjoys when using Ayurveda. Let’s briefly explore the numerous ways that aromatic plants are used in this classical healing system.
A Short List of Aromatic Plants Used in Ayurveda
The Ayurvedic pharmacopeia is filled with aromatic plants that are well known throughout the world, as well as its own collection of unique species. Herbaceous species include tulsi (holy basil), coriander, sages, fennel and mints. Aromatic roots include vetiver, valerian, and calamus. Flowers include roses, jasmine, champa, marigolds and lotuses. Tree species include sandalwood, cedar, agarwood, pine, and eucalyptus. Many resins are utilized, including frankincense and gugul, a species of myrrh. Ayurveda is of course rich in spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, long pepper, ginger, nutmeg, and clove. Several aromatic grasses are found, such as lemongrass.
Some Important Ayurvedic Uses of Aromatic Plants
Utilizing these and other aromatic species as raw ingredients, the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia contains a vast number of diverse preparations. Below is an overview of a few of the most important classes of medicinal formulations that contain fragrant plants.
Powders, Pills, Teas and Confections
Ayurveda offers many forms of herbal preparations for internal use, including pills, powders, teas, syrups, wines and confections. Aromatic herbs are found in many of these preparations, and are typically used for the same purposes found in other cultures, specifically digestive and respiratory benefits. Digestive formulas usually contain aromatics that have carminative, appetizing and anti-spasmotic actions, while respiratory formulas typically contain aromatics that are expectorant, decongestant and immune enhancing. Flowers are also used as medicines; one of my personal favorites is gulkand, rose petal jam, a nutritive tonic.
Medicated oils are extensively used in Ayuvedic treatments; even a small clinic in India will consume many gallons a day. These are generously applied during massage treatments, as well as poured directly on the body in rhythmic motions and given as shirodhara. There are hundreds of recipes for medicated oils, many of them containing aromatic plants as their primary ingredients. When used in oil the aromatic ingredients treat skin conditions, improve circulation, reduce inflammation in the muscles and joints, and calm the mind and emotions. The use of medicated oils in Ayurveda has a close parallel with modern aromatherapy, which uses essential oils mixed with carrier oils for massage.
Ayurvedic treatments generally include full body steam baths. Rather than using a few drops of essential oils for the aromatic therapy, however, whole plants are used. The patient will either sit or lie in a steam cabinet, which has an assortment of fresh herbs such as tulsi or eucalyptus leaves placed in the bottom. A variation on this is placing the herbs in a large pot of hot water and inhaling the steam.
Nasya therapy is the use of medicated substances that are injected into the sinuses. This is a very powerful treatment that is beneficial for conditions such as migraines, chronic sinus infections, sleep disturbances and brain health. A number of aromatic plants are utilized in nasya preparations, including calamus, rosemary, camphor and many others; these have strong effects on clearing the sinus cavities and increasing cerebral circulation. Nasya therapy should only be administered by trained practitioners, and essential oils should never be put directly into the sinuses.
Fumigation and Incense
Incense therapy and fumigation using aromatic plants are probably the world’s oldest forms of aromatherapy; both are still used extensively in Ayurveda. The two primary purposes of incense and fumigation therapies are for antimicrobial purification and protection, and treatment of emotional and mental distress. These functions parallel the uses of essential oils in modern aromatherapy, which have also been found to have strong antimicrobial powers and direct effects on moods and emotions. Some of the most precious aromatic ingredients are found in high quality preparations for treating the mind and spirit, such as sandalwood and agarwood; other aromatic ingredients include a large number of flowers, resins and spices. Originally, all incense was prepared from natural substances; now, the majority of commercial incenses contain synthetic fragrances and should be avoided because of potential toxicity.