Imagine the scent of fresh-roasted coffee seeping from the kitchen, a bouquet of roses lifted to your nose, or the smell of spring rain as you step outside at dawn. Pleasant scents can lift our mood, spark memories, and improve our cognition, while unpleasant ones can cloud our minds or make us sick. Why? Because there is a direct link between our sense of smell and a part of the brain called the limbic system—the structure of basic instincts that sparks our emotions and memories.
Pleasant scents can lift our mood, spark memories, and improve our cognition, while unpleasant ones can cloud our minds or make us sick.
According to ayurveda, aromas can balance or derange the doshas, which directly affect our health and well-being. So while conventional “aromachologists” prescribe the same therapeutic scent for everyone, ayurvedic physicians take a person’s prakriti (constitution) into account and tailor aromatherapy to their individual needs. For example, a warming, soothing scent like cinnamon that can reduce stress in anxious vatas can be overheating for a tense, hot-tempered pitta.
If you’re interested in experimenting with aromatherapy on your own, remember that the scents that appeal to you are probably good for you. But in general, if you know you’re vata-dominant, warming, focusing, calming, grounding scents like geranium, wintergreen, cinnamon, orange, or rose will help rebalance you. Pitta types can opt for cooling, sweet, soothing, hydrating scents like sandalwood, gardenia, jasmine, violet, or lotus. And people with excess kapha do best with warming, light, stimulating, expectorant aromas such as sage, cedar, pine, or eucalyptus.
Here are a few sample recipes you can try at home. Massage one of the mixtures on your pulse or add it to any ayurvedic treatment that calls for essential oil. You can also omit the oil base and put a mixture into an aromatherapy diffuser or a hot bath.
Calming and warming (relieves anxiety; balances vata)
3 drops each neroli & lemon + 2 drops each jasmine & sandalwood + 1 drop vanilla + 1 oz. pure jojoba oil base
Calming and cooling (relieves anger; balances pitta)
5 drops each sandalwood & vetiver + 1 drop jasmine + 1 oz. pure jojoba oil base
Stimulating (relieves depression; balances kapha)
4 drops bergamot + 3 drops each lavendar & basil + 1 oz. pure jojoba oil base
Sedating (relieves insomnia; balances vata & pitta)
6 drops rose + 2 drops each jasmine & chamomile + 1 oz. pure jojoba oil base
Grounding and strengthening (relieves fear; balances vata)
4 drops patchouli + 2 drops each sandalwood & cardamom + 1 oz. pure jojoba oil base
—Pratima Raichur, Ayurvedic Beauty Care
Aromatherapy is so in vogue now that even corporate planners are using “ambient fragrancing” and “sensory engineering” to improve products, increase employee productivity, and affect consumer behavior. But corporate aromatics may do more harm than good because they choose synthetic fragrances over pure essential oils to maximize profits. Synthetic scents are devoid of prana, the life force that natural scents emit. They pollute our bodies (and the atmosphere) with chemicals that, once absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs and skin, create toxic waste, or ama—the fertilizer for all disease. Synthetic scents can also aggravate the doshas by throwing the nervous system out of balance and precipitating allergic reactions. Whenever you see “fragrance” listed as an ingredient, synthetic scents are being used. So avoid those products and choose ones that say “essential oils” if you want the real thing. In general (but not always), the more expensive an essential oil is, the more pure and therapeutic it will be for your body, breath, and mind.
Former Yoga International editor-in-chief Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.