Following My Nose: The Delights of Aromatherapy

Kripalu Healing Arts

As a child, I loved the smell of Play-Doh, salty and warm—the anticipatory pleasure of squishing and inventing, my mother nearby. This is my earliest memory of “aromatherapy.” One whiff and I felt glad and safe.

In an informal Facebook poll, 55 friends couldn’t wait to share their favorite scents: wood smoke, balsam fir, fresh cut grass, honeysuckle, lilacs, coffee, vanilla, dark chocolate, bacon frying, pizza (right out of the oven), and many others.

Favorites seem to fall into three basic categories: plants, food, and scents linked to childhood memories. Some surprised me: Low tide in the spring. My cat’s breath. The smell of a past lover. (“No perfume, no cologne, no frilly soaps, just her.”) One wrote, I have no sense of smell, so my favorite smell is pink.

For extra credit, I asked friends to describe their preferences. As Diane Ackerman notes in A Natural History of the Senses, we usually define one smell by using another smell or another sense.

Peeled parsnips are “earthy and spicy. I wish someone made a perfume.”

“The inside of my Dad’s guitar case smells like wood, polish, and hints of ‘bar’ (smoke and old beer). It smells like music.”

“My three-year-old son, after a day at the beach, smells like sunshine, sunscreen, salt, wind, fresh air, and love.”

“Sandalwood and pipe tobacco smell like my dream library, although I don't know why. Nobody is allowed to smoke in my dream library.”

“There’s a dock off the footbridge in my hometown. Right there is the best ocean smell combined with the smell of boat fuel. Weird, yes, but it smells like home.”

I happen to know this dock and she’s right. But why does it smell like home? What is the connection between scent and memory?

“The answer is likely due to brain anatomy,” writes Jordan Gaines Lewis, PhD, in Psychology Today. “Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.”

In other words, writes Sabrina Stierwalt in Scientific American, “The link may simply be due to the architectural layout of our brain.” Plus, “odor-driven memories” remain vivid because they usually occur during childhood years, “when we experience most smells for the first time.” This explains my Play-Doh preference.

I wanted to know more about aromatherapy, in which essential oils are inhaled or applied to the skin to improve physical, mental, and spiritual well-being,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health definition. Essential oils are highly concentrated forms of plants’ natural oils, usually distilled by steam or water from a plant’s roots, leaves, stems, flowers, or bark.

The term “aromatherapy” first appeared in the early 1900s, though the practice has been around for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used essential oils as far back at 3500 BC for mummification and to treat diseases. Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 AD), a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, wrote books about the healing powers of plant oils. Today, aromatherapy is used to relieve labor pains, reduce the side effects of chemotherapy, and help those with insomnia. It’s said to decrease anxiety in the dental chair and to help patients with depression use smaller doses of antidepressant medications over time. The American College of Healthcare Sciences now offers a Master of Science in Aromatherapy.

I wanted to experience the healing effects myself, so I volunteered to have Kripalu’s 50-minute Aromatherapy Massage. (Ah, the joys of research!) “The Aromatherapy Massage is a unique approach, different than any other massage modality,” says Erika Bayless, who has been a Healing Arts practitioner at Kripalu for 20 years. “Part of the flow is choreographed but, as with every modality, each therapist has a slightly personal approach and view. I love to do circles around joints, some pressure points are involved, and the direction of the strokes activates the lymph system. It is a whole-body (with an optional abdominal) massage. Based on the intake form, I choose a blend that is a good match.”

Question number one on the form: What scents do you most gravitate towards? Boat fuel/ocean was not an option, so I chose citrus. “The choice of oils is very personal,” says Erika. “It really depends on what the guest is doing at Kripalu—a cleansing program, relaxation, or easing tight muscles.” I indicated that I was seeking “tension release,” particularly in my neck and shoulders, from too much laptop use.

Erika used the Reflection blend for me, a mix of jasmine, palo santo, mandarin, black pepper, galbanum, spruce, clary sage, and rosewood. She added lemon and grapefruit to enhance the citrus smell.

I began lying face down, and Erika put a few drops of Reflection on a tissue and tucked it into the headrest, which allowed me to smell the oils immediately. “With the tissue infused,” she explained, “the olfactory nerves are stimulated right away. The scent goes right to the brain.”

After a brief centering, Erika placed rolled towels under my arms to ease my sore shoulders, and began the massage with gentle, circular strokes around the joints. I imagined my bodily tissues absorbing the essential oils, from toes to fingertips to scalp. (I prefer not to have oil on my face and indicated this to Erika beforehand.) By the time I flipped onto my back for the second half of the massage, I was not myself in the most delicious way. I felt lighter. I felt enveloped in scent.

Eventually, Erika peeled back the eye mask (placed there to block the late-afternoon sun) and I emerged from my citrus cocoon. I left with a take-home sheet, “Aromatherapy Massage Follow Up,” listing blends I might try at home and their subsequent effects on “mind, body, spirit and chakras.”

At home, Erika suggested, I could put a few drops in an organic base oil (for self-massage), in a diffuser, or in bath water. “I keep a lot of essential oils at home,” she said,  “and I go with my intuition in terms of what I pick.”

I brought two bottles of essential oil to my office: lavender and sweet orange, one to mellow and one to boost, depending on my energy level and mood. When my thoughts race and it’s hard to focus on just one task, I inhale some lavender. When I want caffeine, I sniff some citrus.

Which makes me recall a citrus memory in more detail: a recent Thanksgiving, the simmering pot of cranberry sauce with orange zest shaved in. The kitchen smelled bright and clean—sunny. Again, my mother was nearby.

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived,” wrote Helen Keller. The simple wizardry of aromatherapy can carry me whenever I wish.

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Lara Tupper writes, sings, and teaches in the Berkshires. laratupper.com