Essential oils are a very hot topic these days, especially with the likes of the Ebola virus and the resurgence of measles lurking in our awareness, but when I first became interested in Chinese medicine, essential oils weren't on the radar screen for acupuncturists. Now, as we look for ways to meet viruses without causing mutation or resistance, essential oils have become an important resource.
As a massage therapist in 1985, I was reading some of the seminal works in the aromatherapy world by Robert Tisserand and Jean Valnet, as well as experimenting with essential oils in my practice. At the same time, I became interested in Chinese medical thinking, drawn to the seamless way humans and their world were integrated in the poetic language of Chinese medicine. I became especially enchanted with the way that Chinese medicine used herbs, speaking to both the tangible and intangible aspects of experience in one stroke.
Then, 15 years ago, thwarted for the moment, in my aspiration to enroll in a two-year Chinese herbal medicine program, I found myself in an essential oils class with Daoist master and teacher, Jeffrey Yuen, and I saw that one stroke embodied in the single substance of essential oils. The Chinese medical view of essential oils added a dimension and an elegant simplicity to clinical practice that I had yet to imagine. Condensing native elements and creating new elements, the essential oil preparation expands the therapeutic scope of Chinese medicine in a number of exciting and special ways, a few of which I seek to share in this article.
What Makes Essential Oils So Powerful?
Unique in the pantheon of plant medicinal preparations, essential oils capture both the substance, yuan qi and the spirit, wei qi, of a plant. Inherent in plants in the same way that blood is inherent to the human body, oils carry the nutrients and the genetics to every corner of the plant. When we extract oils from plants and plant parts, we change both the concentration and nature of a plant's natural oil content, yielding a compact, powerful, and previously unborn substance.
Providing the presence of plants in the treatment room with the capacity to move the spirit in a moment, an essential oil renders an immediacy to herbal treatments not available through other preparations. When I began to experiment with the essential oils in the treatment room, I saw that even patients with extensive experience with needle treatments found essential oil treatments energetically powerful and moving. If needles were undesirable or time was short, I could simply apply the oil to points I wished to stimulate and allow a few minutes for the oil to get absorbed and send them on their way. The presence of the plant was palpable in the room and the movement of qi was evidenced in the patient's demeanor and sensation without a doubt.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
When an aroma enters the nostrils, it communicates directly with the brain; in ways that science has yet to fully explain, aromas have the capacity to activate emotion and memory, stimulating brain activity of many kinds. In Chinese medicine, the brain is thought of as the "sea of marrow," a sea of jing. An essential oil concentrates the DNA, the essence of the plant. Resonating with the jing in our bodies, essential oils can then confer a unique plant message for growth and change, informing our human essence with the particular messages of the plant world. In activating the essence in our bodies, an essential oil can awaken a powerful potential for deep evolution and substantive change in each of us.
While an essential oil's substance embodies the essence, tapping into the yuan qi, the aroma is an expression of its spirit (wei qi). The volatile oils captured in the creation of essential oils and released upon smelling provoke our wei qi, evoke the spirit, open the portals and alter our perceptions in an instant. Volatile oils — the natural way that plants protect themselves and communicate with their environment — proffer change for even the most impatient among us. As the recipients of these volatile oils, we can easily see a change to our mood, our thoughts, our feelings and even the pain in our bodies with a simple inhalation. In one moment, we go from feeling vulnerable and weak to feeling open and strong, from congested to breathing easily, from stuck and annoyed to fluid and free.
How Are Essential Oils Applied?
The magic of the essential oil lies in its ability to meet the movement of the moment without hesitation or further preparation, an especially useful feature when treating wind disorders of any kind. As an ideal match for treating any type of wind, the aroma moves quickly to the places where the action often begins and plays out, right under our nose! Inhalation, the oldest and simplest method for applying essential oils, is easily accomplished with a little hot water or a cotton ball. Front line oils for any kind of wind attack include Eucalyptus globulus, Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita), all of which are easy to obtain these days even in your local health food store. For inhalation, you can simply place a drop of oil on a cotton ball and inhale the aroma for a minute or two. In a pinch, you can just open the bottle and smell. Alternatively, though carefully, you can use hot water to activate the aroma and diffuse it into your nostrils. Place one to two drops of oil in a cup filled halfway to the top with hot water. Use a dish to help you regulate the flow of steam, by covering the cup with it. Then, place a towel over your head and lower your face to near the cup, lifting the dish to allow steam to escape for a few moments. Inhale the aroma for a minute, then replace the dish and take a rest. You will need to repeat this process up to once an hour during the onset of a wind attack, since these oils are all top notes. Top notes act quickly, but also evaporate quickly. With wind attack, timing will be critical for the body to get the upper hand, and determining whether you have heat or cold as the concomitant pathogen will help you to choose the appropriate essential oils.
For other easy and effective ways to use the oils you have chosen frequently, you can make a blend of oils into a chest or back rub, a smelling salt or a bath. Start with a Eucalyptus (globulus for cold, radiata for heat), then add something like Tea Tree as your deputy. Tea Tree will both strengthen the lungs and clear heat. Next, add an assistant and an envoy. As assistants in your formula, for cold, add something like Zi Su Ye (Perillae folium), for heat Chai Hu (Bupleurum radix) or for something stuck in the head, add Chuan Xiong (Ligusticum wallichii) or Jing Jie (Schizonepetae herba seu flos), all newly available in this country as essential oils made from Chinese medicinal herbs. Any of these oils could be able assistants or envoys in your formula. To create a safe dilution, use a total of 20-40 drops in one ounce of carrier oil. Sweet almond oil is an ideal carrier oil for the lungs, but you could also use olive oil for wind or safflower oil to move the blood. To use as a smelling salt, add the oils to a small container that can be tightly capped and made of material resistant to absorbing the oil like glass. The salt will absorb the oil and, if capped properly, allow you to smell the oils whenever you need. For the bath, add 5 to 10 drops of the oil blend to 1 to 2 cups of sea salt to emulsify and then add to the bath water. Any of these methods can produce a profound and swift effect on any upper respiratory activity.
As potent drops of jing, essential oils also have a special gift for any disorder of the essence. By applying essential oils to acupuncture points, particularly those that resonate with yuan qi or essence, as well as to areas such as the lower abdomen where jing resides, we can directly affect the essence and all its emanations in the body. Essential oils are especially potent at Yuan-Source points, Back-Shu points, Front-Mu points and opening points for the Eight Extraordinary Vessels, supporting and creating change to our substance at a deep and lasting level. For effect on the yuan level, think about base note oils such as Sandalwood (Santalum album) or Rose (damascena/centifolia) for long-lasting treatment. Disorders of the essence can sometimes take three months or more for permanent change and oils should be used in a rhythm such as three days on, three days off to allow for change and prevent habituation.
Through essential oils, we tap directly into the elements that create the power of the plant itself. Often requiring no more than a pinprick amount of oil with direct application, a plant confers its wisdom, allowing each of us to become the "offspring," so to speak, of the plant world. In many ways, we are, indeed, the offspring of the plant world, made of the same substances — the sun, the wind, the water, and the air — that nourish all living things. And yet, an essential oil carrying the DNA code and the special communication of volatile oils illumines the world of plants in a way that we cannot access otherwise. With the advent of essential oils made from Chinese medicinal plants, therapeutic applications using Chinese medical principles are exponentially increased. Utilizing what we already know about these plants to fuel our choices, we can explore the use of essential oils following the patterns and systems of Chinese medicine, revealing essential oils as easy to use, cost effective, and often miraculous in their powers to stimulate healing and potentiate change in a very short span of time.
Josephine Spilka is a licensed acupuncturist and owner of www.essencepresence.com. She teaches independently and at Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville, N.C. Josephine has had the good fortune to study extensively with Jeffrey Yuen since 1999 and has come to share his passion for the classical teachings of Chinese medicine and wishing to share the benefits of these teachings with the world.