Body & Soul: Renew and Relax with An Herbal Massage


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Combining herbs with massage creates a sensual experience so indulgent, it can be difficult to remember the massage is also therapeutic. This combination of herbs and massage is so successful that hospitals are studying — and using — aromatherapy massage to relieve stress and anxiety, and to promote healing.

If you’ve ever given or experienced a massage, you know that slow, relaxed breathing allows muscles and a tense mind to relax. I like herbal massage because this deep breathing comes automatically as the client begins to inhale the herbs’ aromas. Even bodywork techniques that require little or no massage oil, such as acupressure or foot reflexology, are enhanced when a small amount of aromatherapy massage oil is placed on the fingertips. I’ve seen clients slip into deep relaxation so quickly during an aromatherapy massage that they seem to melt into the massage table.

Essential Oil Facts

The magic of aromatherapy is in essential oils. Derived from medicinal herbs, just a few drops of these oils turn almond oil (or any other mild vegetable oil) into instant massage oil. Essential oils work in two ways: The natural aroma of essential oils causes emotional and physical responses via the brain. Plus, they penetrate the skin to underlying tissue and the blood system to distribute their therapeutic properties. Massage oil offers the safest way to use essential oils, which are so concentrated that they rarely are used undiluted.

For massage, the most important essential oils are those that produce relaxation, reverse insomnia and reduce depression, anxiety and pain, including headaches and stiff joints. The most popular essential oils for massage are those that do double duty by relieving both muscle pain and stiffness while calming emotional distress. Examples are chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and marjoram (Origanum majorana). Some essential oils often found in massage oils for their antidepressant, relaxing aromas are bergamot (Citrus bergamia), scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), neroli (Citrus reticulata), rose (Rosa spp.), sandalwood (Santalum album) and the tropical flower ylang ylang (Cananga odorata). Aromatherapists suggest that clary sage (Salvia sclareas) be used to encourage emotional release. Various combinations of these oils can be mixed together to combine their properties and create a pleasing scent.

Massage oil also may contain small amounts of stimulating essential oils, such as peppermint (Mentha xpiperita), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), ginger (Zingiber officinale) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). These warming oils are used in liniments to relax tight muscles. Their scents also increase an individual’s alertness and focus. In a form of traditional Thai massage I’ve studied, therapists place hot packs of herbs over tight muscles to loosen them before massage.

Massage Oil Selection

Several brands of aromatherapy massage oils are available at health-food stores, and massage practitioners who practice aromatherapy often have a selection of oils from which you can choose. Whether you are the therapist or the recipient, be sure the massage oils are made with pure, undiluted essential oils derived from plants rather than synthetics. The bottle or brochure should state the purity and provide specific Latin names for the herbs. Also, make sure the label says “essential oil” rather than “fragrance oil.”

It’s important that the person receiving massage enjoys the aroma. Ask for a sample sniff of the oil before it’s used on you. Even though many people find an essential oil like lavender pleasant and relaxing, others may associate the scent with bad memories, leaving them anything but relaxed!

I’ve found that lightly fragranced massage oil is most therapeutic. For this reason, aromatherapy massage should be done in a well-ventilated room with a fan or a good air filter to remove scents from the air. You may be surprised how strong the fragrance in a room can become — especially noticeable when you walk outside and take a few deep breaths, then come back inside.

You don’t need to be a massage therapist to qualify for using body oils with massage. Even if you aren’t skilled in specific techniques, you still can give friends a therapeutic rub. Nurses who give their patients Therapeutic Touch have found that touch alone enhances healing. Or, treat yourself to self-massage to reap the benefits of aromatic oils.

I prefer using several massage oils, each one containing its own selection of essential oils chosen to treat a different condition. That way, I can address a client’s specific concerns, say to relieve a headache or sprained ankle. Or, how about lavender massage oil with cocoa butter for a pregnant belly? Babies love massage, too, provided you work gently but don’t tickle, and stick to gentle oils like lavender and chamomile. (Massage oil for babies and young children should contain no more than half the amount of essential oil as oil for adults.)

The Extra Touch

Aromatherapy is handy in other ways during massage. One way to enhance relaxation is to place a warm herbal compress over tight muscles. To do so, soak a soft washcloth in a quart of hot water with about five drops of essential oil. Wring the cloth out and place over the tight area for three to five minutes, removing before it cools. This type of compress — warm or cold, depending upon what feels best — also can be placed over the eyes and/or the back of the neck to relieve a headache or eyestrain.

Try a lavender, chamomile or scented geranium compress followed by a five-minute foot massage on a friend after he or she has had a hard day at work, and you’ll completely change the rest of his or her evening, I guarantee. Or, give your own eyes a break by applying a compress, then massaging around the edge of the bone surrounding your eye sockets. Using compresses also can be adapted to a popular face massage technique used at spas. Place two warm washcloth compresses over the face, arranged so the person can breathe easily. Remove after a few minutes and follow up with a facial massage. A good sequence begins at the chin and moves up “against” gravity using very gentle, circular strokes. Remember to work around the ears and the jaw, areas that hold a lot of tension, and to go easy around the eyes, where skin is very thin.

Custom Massage Oils

Make your own massage oil by adding six to eight drops of essential oil to each ounce of carrier oil, such as sweet almond, apricot kernel or another light vegetable oil. This amount is the total number of drops to use even if you add more than one essential oil. Blending several essential oils together is an art you develop through experience as your nose learns how the oils relate to each other. Begin by limiting your combinations to two to four oils. Once you’re comfortable blending, take aromatherapy to the next level by creating a different custom-designed blend for each person. For your first blend you can make a relaxing massage oil by blending 2 ounces of carrier oil with 9 drops of lavender oil, 6 drops of scented geranium oil and 1 drop of marjoram oil.

Essences from Your Herb Garden

To make your own massage oil from the herbs in your garden, select the most aromatic part of the plant you wish to use. Herbs that produce the essential oils mentioned in this article are good examples.

Chop the fragrant flowers or leaves and place them in a very clean glass jar. Add enough almond oil to barely cover all the plant material, but keep it completely submerged. Stir the contents to make sure any air bubbles are released. This is especially important if you are using fresh rather than dried herbs.

Place the jar in a warm area, such as in the sun or by a woodstove for two days, or in a crock pot set on a very low heat setting overnight (the temperature should keep the oil just below simmering). When it is done, the oil will smell strongly of the submerged herb. Strain the herbs through a kitchen strainer. If necessary, restrain through a finer strainer to remove all plant residue, which would feel uncomfortable when the oil is rubbed across the skin.


• Aura Cacia
(800) 669-3275

• The Essential Oil Company
(800) 729-5912  

Kathi Keville ( is author of 12 aromatherapy and herbal books, including Herbs: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 1995).