God’s Gift: The Power and Versatility of Essential Oils
Part 2: Ayurveda and Essential Oils
This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH.
Welcome to Part 2 of “God’s Gift: The Power and Versatility of Essential Oils.” In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the history of essential oils (EOs), presented usage and safety guidelines, and illustrated how practitioners could incorporate EOs into the care of clients with selected chronic health conditions. In this piece, we’ll discuss Ayurveda and how essential oils can be used within the Ayurvedic framework. The fact that different healthcare systems, like holistic Western medicine, Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (which we’ll cover in the last blog of this series), frequently incorporate EOs into client care is a strong testament to the power and versatility of these precious phytochemicals.
Overview of Ayurvedic Philosophy
The word “Ayurveda” is derived from two Sanskrit words, “ayuh” meaning “life” or “longevity” and “veda” meaning “science” or “sacred knowledge.” Therefore, Ayurveda’s definition roughly translates as “the science of longevity” or “the sacred knowledge of life.”2 Ayurveda dates back around 5,000 years and is a holistic health system that encourages the user to actively participate in health-promoting strategies like nutrition, exercise, lifestyle choices, spirituality, and supplements. By striving to achieve balance in all areas of life, Ayurveda encourages participants to understand themselves and their own unique needs for achieving health.
Ayurveda teaches that five elements form the building blocks of nature: earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space). Every substance contains these elements in varying proportions, generally with one or two being predominant. Ayurvedic philosophy also includes ten pairs of two opposite qualities or gunas (20 in all) that are used to describe every substance. The gunas illustrate the Ayurvedic principles that “like increases like” and that “opposites balance.”2
For example, people that are cold-natured and living in a cold climate in winter will probably have an over-abundance of the cold quality (like increases like). Hence, the balancing Ayurvedic quality in that illustration is hot–warming foods, drinks, spices, clothing, and even heart-warming activities (opposites balance).2
According to Drs. Light and Bryan Miller, in their book, Ayurveda & Aromatherapy: The Earth Essential Guide to Ancient Wisdom and Modern Healing, Ayurvedic philosophy teaches that the five elements combine in pairs to form three dynamic forces or doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. These doshas, or combinations of them, can be identified in all life forms, but we’ll focus on people for our discussion. All three doshas are present in everyone, in varying ratios. Each dosha is characterized by specific primary elements and qualities in all aspects of their make-up: mental/emotional, physical, and spiritual.1
Vata (ether & air elements): Some qualities of Vata are dry, light, cool, rough, subtle, and mobile. A Vata-dominant individual could, for example, have dry and rough physical qualities manifested as dry skin and hair, or maybe a dry intestinal tract that, in excess, could result in constipation. A subtle emotional quality may display as introversion, while the cool quality could result in cold hands and feet.1,2
Pitta (fire & water elements): Some qualities of Pitta are wet, hot, oily, sharp, light, and spreading. As examples, the oily quality may give someone soft skin, or in excess, result in a tendency toward oily skin or acne. The sharp quality may manifest as a sharp, bright intellect, or in excess, a sharp tongue or overly critical nature. The spreading quality can manifest as wanting to spread your name or influence around, or even as a spreading rash.1,2
Kapha (earth & water elements): Several qualities of Kapha include cool, moist, heavy, slow, smooth, soft, and stable. Kapha examples include stability as an asset in relationships, but excess may result in sluggishness or stubbornness. Coolness may yield cool skin or a laid-back temperament. While slowness may mean a slow, steady, sustainable pace, in excess, this quality could result in getting stuck in an undesirable pattern of behavior.1,2
Visit this link for an online quiz to determine your inborn dosha constitution, learn more about it, and evaluate your current dosha state of balance: https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/dosha-quiz/.
Constitutions and Imbalances
Your constitution, or prakriti in Sanskrit, is the combination of doshas or body type with which you were born. Each of us also has a state of balance, or vikriti in Sanskrit, that represents the combination of doshas that are elevated or out of balance at any given time. “Ayurvedic theory believes that health results from harmony within one’s self,” writes Dr. Light Miller. So, in order to be healthy, Miller states there must be a “…connectedness between self, personality, and everything that goes into our mental, emotional, psychic, and spiritual being.”1 According to Ayurveda, we’re all different proportions of the three doshas. You might say we’re each composed of a different “recipe.” Ayurveda celebrates that individuality. Whatever constitution you were born with is healthy for you, even though you most likely have one or two dominant doshas. It’s when your vikriti, or current state of balance, strays too far from your prakriti, or inborn constitution, that health problems can arise. The goal, then, is to know your constitution, your current state of balance, and seek to make lifestyle and nutritional choices that bring any imbalances back into alignment. Remember: like increases like and opposites balance.
Balancing the Doshas
When doshas are imbalanced, disease (dis-ease) can result from excess dosha qualities. For example, Vata is “airy.” Think about how wind behaves: constant movement, sporadic, always changing. Excess Vata, then, can result in trouble focusing, over-multitasking, drastic mood changes, difficulty relaxing or insomnia, or excessive muscle movements like tics, tremors, or muscle spasms. Pitta is “firey,” so examples of excess Pitta can be anger or rage, excessive thirst, heartburn, hot flashes, sweating, and inflammation. Kapha is grounded and “earthy,” thus, excess Kapha can lead to complacency, stubbornness, lethargy, sluggish bowel movements, and weight gain.1,2
Recall the Ayurvedic principle of “opposites balance.” Following that principle when seeking to correct an imbalanced dosha means making food, herb, exercise, and lifestyle choices that are opposite of the imbalanced dosha. For example, being cool and dry, Vata can be balanced by warming and moist things, like soups, hot teas, humid climates, grapes, cantaloupe, garlic, cumin, and walking in warm temperatures. Since Pitta is hot and wet, cooling and drying choices, like mint, dill, turmeric, cold drinks, or calming yoga, can dispel an imbalance. Kapha is slow and stable, oily, and cool, so some opposing choices could be frequent physical and mental exercise, light meals to avoid sluggishness, hot peppers, leafy greens, pears, raisins, and energizing herbs like ginger.1,2
Another effective holistic tool for seeking balance is essential oils. “Today, essential oils are a great part of your Ayurvedic toolkit, but it’s interesting to note that essential oils were not part of the original Ayurvedic system of healthcare,” explains Laurie Berry, esthetician, massage therapist, herbalist, and Director of Education for Body Bliss Intentional Aromatherapy. “Certainly, herbs have always been part of Ayurveda, and many of the ancient Ayurvedic herbs, like frankincense, are aromatic. So, it was a natural adaptation to include essential oils in Ayurveda, but that adaptation came a little later.”
Many essential oils can be effective for harmonizing dosha imbalances, but the following are Berry’s recommendations and descriptions.
Just like you don’t always want to eat the same food every day, you don’t necessarily need the same scent every day. It’s very helpful to know your inherent constitution but understand that it’s not static. There’s a great deal of flow in Ayurveda. Individual experiences, different seasons of the year, and even different seasons of life can affect dosha balance. Berry’s essential oil recommendations are a good place to start, but it’s important to learn the qualities of oils and use that information as a guideline to fuel your personal experimentation. Below are several more suggestions, and if you want guidance on the qualities and benefits of essential oils, check out Trinity’s Certified Aromatherapy Specialist program.
“Whether we’re viewing them within the framework of Western medicine, Ayurveda, or Asian medicine, the use of essential oils as part of a healing system has a lot of substance to it for many reasons, but partly because breathing essential oils affects the olfactory system and the olfactory system directly affects the brain. As a result, scent profiles can ‘remind’ us of our healing process and intentions,” says Berry. For example, she suggests using essential oils during meditation, which is a key component of Ayurveda. EOs can help set your morning meditation intention for healing, and then later in the day, when you smell that same scent profile, it instantly takes you back to your original health intention. It’s a powerful use of essential oils regardless of the healthcare system in which it’s being used. “Essential oils can remind us of our joy and intention to focus on health,” Berry says, “which may provide a nice respite from always pinpointing what’s imbalanced or wrong with us and trying to fix that.”
Health, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is being true and balanced according to your particular constitution, not necessarily trying to make all three doshas equal. “We talk a lot about harmony in Ayurveda – harmony in mind, body, and spirit – but harmony is not one note. It’s flowing. It changes with different relationships, different environments, and many other factors. It’s not static. We don’t ever completely achieve balance or harmony. It’s a constant striving,” according to Berry. The goal is not to achieve equal parts of each dosha; rather, the goal is to be the best version of ourselves. “How boring would the world be,” she says, “if we were all 33.3% each dosha? We each have a different and unique contribution to make to the world based on our particular constitution, so we need to be true to our inherent gifts.”
1. Miller, L. and Miller, B. (1995). Ayurveda & Aromatherapy: The Earth Essential Guide to Ancient Wisdom and Modern Healing. Lotus Press: Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.
2. No author. (2021). Introduction to Ayurveda: Embrace Health & Embody Your True Potential.
1. Banyan Botanicals, https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/.
An Ayurvedic lifestyle company offering nutritional, health and beauty products as well as educational articles about the philosophy and practice of Ayurveda.
2. Body Bliss Intentional Aromatherapy, https://bodybliss.com/.
A wellness-oriented company offering a broad range of essential oils and related products, including an Ayurveda line of essential oil blends to balance all three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
3. The Ayurvedic Institute, https://www.ayurveda.com/.
An educational institution in Santa Fe, New Mexico offering in-person Ayurvedic study as well as webinars and consultations with Ayurvedic health counselors. They also have an online store for Ayurvedic supplements.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH has traveled a long and winding professional road that includes working as a teenage fine artist, later a personal trainer and wellness coach, a college professor and administrator in exercise science and education, a freelance natural health and fitness writer for national magazines, a property manager and interior designer for vacation and executive rental properties and most recently returning to the natural health arena while attending Trinity School of Natural Health to become a Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist and a Certified Master Herbalist.