Aromatherapy is an incredible holistic and complementary therapy that is gaining recognition more and more each year. However, in the United States especially, the term has often been used as a meaningless buzz word to sell you smelly products. As a result aromatherapy is often misunderstood and very much undervalued by the general public. In this first lesson I will try to shed some light on what aromatherapy actually is.
Defining aromatherapy can be a difficult task in some ways. This is primarily because of the common misuse of the word. This misuse in addition to some of the elitist behaviors in the essential oil world itself has led to a gross lack of understanding by the common person. That is not to say all people who deal with essential oils are snobs by any means but I have witnessed personally certain people who work in the field behave snobbishly towards the public. Instead of making polite conversation and attempting to enlighten them they simply turn their nose up at the “obvious stupidity” and leave them flapping in the wind. When I witness this it annoys me to no end. If it has not been for the kindness of the woman mentioned in my last post I may have never had the same depth of understand I do now. She was kind to me and helpful in my quest for knowledge, despite my young age at the time.
I think that knowledge should be shared. Learning is vital to life and kindness is a virtue to cultivate. So here I will pass the kindness forward. I will teach you as best I can.
To begin with lets start with some history.
There is virtually no group of people in the history of humanity who has not at some time used plants for medicinal purposes. Aromatherapy is the use of aromatics or aromatic plants to support well being. Modern aromatherapy, as most people know it today, is quite young and has a rather short history. However, the history of medicinal and aromatic plants has an ancient lineage indeed.
Our primitive ancestors may have learned that smoke from a certain herb or berry dropped into the fire made them feel calm or opened there chest to breath easier. The Egyptians used resins, barks, oils and balsams for medicine, food preparation, spiritual activities and burials. It is thought that the Greeks learned much of there aromatic knowledge from the Egyptians and of course added there own experience to the history of it’s use. Hippocrates, considered to be the “father of western medicine” and a renowned Greek physician, is often quoted has having said, “the way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day” And, of course, the Romans where well known for there decadent aromatic bathhouses.
In the middle ages aromatics where often burned in the streets and in homes to ward off infections and the bubonic plague. It is commonly suspected that tanners, perfume and glove makers where often immune to the plague because they where constantly surrounded by the aromatic essential oils of there trade.
In many ways the history of aromatherapy is the history of herbal medicine. Aromatherapy as we know it today, however, is a modern development based on how these aromatic plants where previously used. For this I would most like to thank Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who coined the term in 1937 and the respective Gattefosse family.
Due to this connection to essential oils for there perfumery business Gattefosse was already well connected with the herbal trade but it was not until the now famous laboratory explosion took place that aromatherapy, as we know it, came to be.
The story has been retold just a little different here and there but here is the quote from Rene’s book, “Aromatherapie” (1937)
“…External applications of small quantities of essential oils rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores. In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, my hands where covered with a rapidly changing gas gangrenous. Just one rinse with lavender oil stopped the gasification of the tissue. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating and healing began the next day. (July 1910)….”
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse had some 50 years experience with essential oils before he wrote this book. It is was this above mentioned incident that led him to a lifelong passion and commitment for uncovering the therapeutic benefits of essential oils. He is the forefather of “aromatherapy” and therefore aromatherapy is defined, most simply as “the therapeutic application or use of aromatic substances (essential oils).”
In addition to the Gattefosse family, Dr Jean Valnet was another individual who contributed greatly to the shape of modern aromatherapy. Dr. Valnet was trained as a traditional physician at the University of Lyon in 1945. By 1953 he began his research into essential oils. He focused mainly on the best methods of application as well as dosage levels needed for maximum benefit without risk of side effects. During World War II Dr Valnet was successful at treating the wounds of war by using essential oils as antiseptics. He additionally created a number of effective remedies for issues ranging from skin conditions, respiratory conditions, muscular aches and pain and so on, utilizing essential oils. In 1964 he published, “The practice of aromatherapy” and it has since grown to be considered a classical text on the subject.
Also, Marguerite Maury deserves special notice as she pioneered the dermal application of essential oils for both psychological and physiological benefits gained threw pathways of the skin. She also is notable for emphasizing the importance of the individual. Thus contributing to an evolution of aromatherapy.
In modern practice, aromatherapy is dynamic, diverse and often divided. This is perhaps a reflection of both the industries youth and seemingly endless growth.
In England, holistic or traditional aromatherapy was made popular threw standardization. There a standard aromatherapy program includes, basic pathology, basic counseling skills, basic nutrition, anatomy and physiology, Swedish massage and basic reflexology. Oh, and of course, Essential oil therapeutics. This is to a lesser degree similar to many of the more comprehensive massage therapy programs offered in the united states. However, aromatherapy as a standardized practice has yet to be established in the US.
The original introduction of aromatherapy into the US mainstream was threw the retail and gift industries rather than threw the profession. With this original introduction so came poor quality oils and synthetic fragrances being sold as “the best of the best”. It’s no wonder that the average consumer is confused about what aromatherapy is and if there is a difference between essential oils and synthetics.
In my next article I will address this issue of synthetics vs. essential oils further.
I hope you have enjoyed this first lesson and that the content has been enlightening. If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below and I will try to address them as either in return comment or in the next lessons as they follow.