Anyone who’s walked through a curtain of lilacs in springtime knows the power of smell—nothing triggers memory quite like a familiar scent. That’s part of the reason the healing benefits of aromatherapy are so potent, but that’s only the beginning. Essential oils, which often come in familiar scents like peppermint, lavender and clove, are derived from plants for healing but the benefits are not relegated to just the olfactory glands.
Amy Galper, founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy, calls the use of essential oils aromatic medicine. When applied topically, the oils act on the physical cells. At the same time the scent is inhaled and acts on the limbic system, or emotional center. “It is the quintessential holistic delivery,” she said. According to Galper, the benefits are physical as well as spiritual and psychological.
Take chamomile oil as an example. “Chamomile is a powerful anti-inflammatory. The molecules diminish swelling. In addition to those therapeutic molecules, you also have aromatic molecules that affect the limbic system. For someone quick to anger, chamomile can be beautiful for balancing out that reactive state.”
Ginger oil offers totally different benefits. Galper explained that ginger is warming and great for circulation. It has antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial properties. “Ginger has molecules that are great for killing microbes that would cause a cold. And when we smell it, because it is being distilled from a root, we feel grounded and rooted.”
Galper’s level one aromatherapy training is a whole lot more than an opportunity to smell delicious oils or make healing products. It’s math, chemistry and physiology. She breaks down the plant-based oils to their molecular levels to determine how they can best be administered. There are the aromatic benefits, which can be delivered to the nasal passageways through diffusers or by simply smelling them. But through topical application the molecules can also heal the body on a physical level.
For example, eucalyptus and lemongrass oils can be diluted with carrier oils like coconut to create a respiratory treatment that can serve as an expectorant and decongestant. Or sweet fennel, which helps to energize dull skin, could be blended into a product for a facial treatment.
At her shop in the East Village, Galper sells all the tools, from oils to double boilers to cheese cloth, to create these products at home.
Galper was a shiatsu practitioner about 20 years ago. After a treatment her clients would leave feeling great, but the benefits would dissipate shortly after. “I wanted to give them something they could take with them,” she said. That prompted her study of essential oils. After 400 hours of training in aromatic medicine, she started incorporating them into her shiatsu practice. She made salves, salts, scrubs and other luscious products that offered ways to harness their benefits.
Galper was surprised there was no institute for higher learning about aromatherapy in New York. “My mission to educate and advocate for conscious beauty just kept growing,” she said. In 2013 she opened the New York Institute of Aromatherapy, where people can become certified aromatherapists by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). Now she leads aromatherapy courses in Manhattan and through Mandala Yoga in Amagansett.
Aromatic medicine has long been a part of holistic healing in Europe, but somehow when it made the journey across the Atlantic, it lost its depth and became commoditized. Essential oils were nice to smell, but little credence was granted to their true anti-inflammatory, analgesic or antibacterial properties. The growing in-depth training now available and a governing body like NAHA ensures aromatherapy is on its way to gaining better understanding in America.