Aromatherapy is an ancient form of healing based on the inhalation or external application of fragrant oils from aromatic plants. Aromatherapy dates back to around 4000 BC, when early-civilization cultures began burning fragrant plants as part of their religious rituals. In fact, the origin of the word "perfume" comes from the practice of incense burning; in Latin "per-fumum" means "through the smoke." Incense was considered another form of offering and the smoke plume was believed to connect the heavens and the earth. In Hebrew, the words spirituality and fragrance have a shared grammatical origin and are therefore almost identical: the word for "spirit" is "Ruach" and for "scent" is "Reach." This reflects the ancient belief that sanctity is characterized by divine fragrance. In the Old Testament, the priests servicing the sanctuary were instructed to prepare exclusive blends of Frankincense, Myrrh and sweet spices to serve as the "Holy Anointing Oil" and "Holy Perfume." These exclusive formulas were for ceremonial use only, other uses were prohibited and punished by death (Exodus 30.)
The many instances in which aromatic essences are mentioned in the Old and New Testament attests to the importance placed on aromatic plants in historical times. These include some well-known illustrations such as the gifts of Frankincense and Myrrh by the three wise men, the anointing of Jesus' feet with Spikenard oil by Mary Magdalene, and the delightfully fragrant descriptions of love in the "Song of Solomon." It is interesting to note that of all the many fragrant plants available, only few were used since antiquity for spiritual purposes. In addition to the holy oils used in the Middle East, Sandalwood fragranced the temples in the Far East, and Native Americans habitually used Sage, Cedarwood and Rosewood (in S.A.) for their religious ceremonies. Modern research has shown that the aromas of the ceremonial plants induce deep breathing, are profoundly soothing, and tend to generate feelings of grounding and connectedness. It is not surprising, therefore, that the oils of these particular plants are universally used for meditation today.
In 500 BC, Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, noted that "the best way to health is a daily aromatic bath and scented massage." And indeed, during the Greek Classical Period, hygiene and perfumery were of utmost importance. This era was probably the most "fragrant" in human history. Strong trade with the Far East supplied the precious herbs and perfumes, and fragrance was used for scenting the home, clothes and body, while fragrant wreaths adorned the head. This sensory-aesthetic richness went hand in hand with, and possibly inspired, the flourishing intellectual, philosophical and artistic creativity of the time.
Modern Aromatherapy has revived the use of aromatic oils for healing and spirituality. These oils are called "essential oils" by aromatherapists because they have captured the "essence" of the flower or plant part from which they were distilled. It takes 5000 lb. of hand-picked rose petals to make one pound of pure rose oil in the process of distillation. These precious oils can be found in small, amber bottles on the shelves of health food and new age stores. Since adulteration of essential oils is common, it is advisable to use organic or wild oils from reputable sources. Genuine and authentic oils are not inexpensive, but they are the most therapeutic, and have a fuller, sweeter, and milder character. It is important to remember these characteristics of a true organic or wild oil when shopping. A little bottle of essential oil can last a long time and the oil needs to be diluted before massaging onto the skin. Just a few drops of an authentic oil are needed for a healing fragrant bath or for diffusion in an electric diffuser or candle-warmed aroma-lamp.
Aromatherapy offers a sensory way to healing. The sense of smell is one of the most powerful of the senses and scents can have a deep influence on men, women and children. When the olfactory receptors in your nose detect a particular aroma, the information is directly relayed to the deepest subconscious centers of the brain (limbic system) where deep-seated memories are stored and emotions processed. With the gentle guidance of aromatherapy, many memories can surface and are gently dealt with (Vanilla and Jasmine are great for that purpose.) Blocks to healing are removed, and energy flows freely again. Stress is reduced (try Frankincense, Chamomile and Rose) and Joy and harmony permeate your life. The citruses, especially Neroli (orange blossom), Bergamot and Tangerine, are very uplifting to the spirit. The oils of Lavender and Geranium-rose are great balancers of moods and emotions. A bath with a couple of drops of Clary sage will promote a delicious night's sleep and enhance your dreams. Marjoram will ease feelings of grief and broken heart. Essential oils have many physiological uses too, from treatment of respiratory conditions to menopausal symptoms. Aromatherapy is also extensively used for skin rejuvenation and cosmetics.
Aromatherapy is a science as well as an art, and it takes learning and experience to maximize its healing potential. The science is still young, but the complex chemistry of the essential oils and their effects are currently vigorously studied. The art is manifested in the blending of the various oils to create optimal synergy customized to your own unique psyche and physiology. To create your personal scented sanctuary for meditation and spirituality, cultivate a location in your home for that purpose. Even a corner of a bedroom, once designated as such, can become "your corner." Decorate your sanctuary with soft cushions, plants, perhaps a water fountain, and in the center diffuse the fragrant oils of your choice. You will soon find, that even a whiff of your sanctuary while passing by, will trigger an instant relaxation response. There are many wonderful oils to choose from, including ready-made blends of Frankincense, Myrrh, Sandalwood and other soul-soothing essences. To maximize your benefit from Aromatherapy, I recommend reading some of the many informative books available, or better yet, learning through "nose-on" experience by joining Aromatherapy workshops offered in your area. For me, of all the alternative forms of healing that I have tried out, Aromatherapy has been the most rewarding way to pursue overall health of mind, body and spirit.
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