It’s so nice to be kneaded. In fact, what could feel better at the end of a tension-filled day than a massage, gently scented with your favorite aromatic herbs? Aches and pains fade, tensions ease, and for at least a few hours, the cares of the world seem to drift away. Massage is a way to help cope with stress, relax and focus on health and happiness.
A good massage oil greatly enhances the experience by easing the friction of skin against skin. Scented massage oils not only add an extra dimension of pleasure; the fragrance actually can guide you to a state of deep relaxation. If you’re an herb gardener, you may have a wealth of material ready and waiting to be steeped into a scented oil of your own creation. If you’re not, herb shops and health-food stores are stocked with likely possibilities.
I often have observed the power of fragrance at work in my herb garden. When I give a garden tour, everyone seems to respond similarly to the same herbs. Visitors smile and noticeably relax at the heady scent of lavender in full bloom; they seem to talk more softly around the chamomile, yet chatter away when we get to the peppermint bed.
I like to bring those herbal fragrances — and the responses they evoke — to the massage table. As a professional massage therapist, I know the value of fragrance in helping my clients relax or, if their energy or mood is low, to perk them up. Research has shown that herbal fragrances affect the mind and emotions; they can be not only relaxing but also lower heart and breathing rates. This use of fragrance forms the basis of aromatherapy.
When I first started with massage and herbal massage oils more than 28 years ago, I tried a simple experiment. I gathered a handful of lavender buds (always one of my favorite scents), placed them in a jar of almond oil and set the jar in a warm place. After a few days, the almond oil had absorbed the herb’s essential oils and its glorious aroma. When I used it as a massage oil, people relaxed so much they would sometimes fall asleep during a massage. Soon I was steeping many other fragrant herbs in almond oil in the shade of my garden wall. I now make many blends by combining different herbs and flowers, sometimes adding purchased essential oils of plants I don’t grow in my garden.
To impart fragrance to almond or another vegetable oil, start with your favorite aromatic herbs from the garden or dried herbs purchased in bulk from a health-food store. You also may use medicinal herbs, such as calendula and rose petals, which soften and heal the skin. For the best effect, match the massage oil formula to the mood you want to set, whether relaxing, uplifting or sensual.
The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day. —Hippocrates
Scenting An Oil
My recipes, or those you create yourself, can be made with fresh or dried herbs. My Scents and Sensibilites List offers some possibilities to use from your garden. I chop fresh herbs coarsely, place them in a quart glass jar with a lid, then cover them with vegetable oil. They should be completely immersed in the oil; even a tiny sprig sticking out will cause mold. Stir to release air bubbles. The moisture contained in fresh leaves and flowers collects at the bottom of the jar as they steep. When you strain the oil, discard the water or pour it in your next bath. Let thick-leaved, succulent herbs such as calendula wilt slightly to evaporate some of their water before immersing them in oil.
I use the same amount of dried herb as fresh herb. Dried herbs absorb more oil than fresh herbs, so you may need to add more oil after a few hours to keep them covered. Avoid using powdered herbs because they absorb oil like a sponge and clump together.
Many different oils can be used for massages, even those in your kitchen cabinets. Almond is still one of my favorite oils to use as a base, but I also have successfully used many others, such as coconut, olive, apricot, grapeseed and even inexpensive safflower oils.
Heat the herbs in the oil at about 80 degrees for several hours. The easiest way is to place the jar of herbs and oil directly in the sun for a couple of days. It will be 5 to 10 degrees cooler in the jar than the outside temperature. However, if that’s too cool, use a double boiler on the stove, an oven that’s barely warm or a slow cooker at the lowest setting. Check the cooker after 30 minutes or so and turn it off if the oil gets too hot. When the oil is fragrant, it’s ready.
Strain the herbs out with a fine kitchen strainer lined with a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth, pressing on the herbs with the back of a spoon. Any herb particles that come through the strainer may irritate the skin.
To make the massage oil creamier, gently heat it, then add 1 tablespoon cocoa butter, 1 teaspoon liquid lecithin or 1/4 ounce (by weight) of beeswax for every cup of oil. If you are not happy with the consistency, re-warm the massage oil and add more oil to thin it or more of the thickener, either lecithin or beeswax.
A quick and easy way to make a scented massage oil is simply to add essential oils to the carrier oil. This is especially convenient when you need a gift on short notice. Experiment with fragrance blends to create your own distinctive massage oils. Use a total of 1/4 teaspoon essential oils, or about 25 drops, per 1/2 cup of carrier oil.
Herbal massage oils will keep for several months stored in a cool place, or longer in the refrigerator.
Using The Oils
Use the oils on yourself or friends, or take them with you when you go for a massage by a professional massage therapist. Massage oils that carry the scents of your herb garden also make easy, thoughtful gifts.
Self-massage also can be a comfort. After a strenuous day of gardening or hiking, I massage out muscle cramps, tired arms and legs, and sore feet. I often rub herbal massage oil on my neck and wrists after working at my computer for long periods. Herbal massages also may relieve arthritic pains and improve circulation. (Don’t massage strenuously over bruises or broken veins, though.)
If you have never given a massage, try it. Apply the oil to your hands, using just enough to keep your hands smooth and slippery so they slide over the skin, and reapply as needed during the massage. The amount of oil you need will depend on the skin’s dryness and the length of the massage. Use gentle but firm pressure with long strokes and firmly knead any muscles that feel particularly tight. Ask the person you’re massaging whether you should apply more pressure or ease up and whether you need to use more massage oil. If you are unsure how to begin, check out one of the many how-to books and videos on massage. You will get great satisfaction at being able to give a relaxing massage, and the recipient will appreciate it just as much. Using a handmade massage oil from your garden will make it that much better.
Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association and author of 12 books, including Aromatherapy for Dummies (IDG, 1999) and Herbs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Friedman/Fairfax Publishing, 1999).