In dealing with the stress of modern life, what could be a more enjoyable therapy than receiving a massage? Massage melts away worries and relaxes tight muscles. Varying degrees of pressure applied to tight muscles relieves them of spasms and reduces lactic acid, which causes stiffness. In addition, massage influences brain activity, including alpha and beta waves and endorphins, in ways that directly reduce stress, depression and pain. Considering the number of diseases asso-ciated with stress, massage becomes an irresistible component of great health.
Besides reducing emotional and physical stress, massage offers other health benefits. It increases the flow of lymph to transport away waste, which helps prevent and treat any infectious disease, from colds to bronchitis or urinary tract infections. Massage also boosts blood circulation, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to individual cells to improve overall health. In addition, massage tones organs through stimulation of acupressure and reflexology points.
It’s hard to imagine a better scenario. But add aromatherapy in the form of herbs to any massage and the pleasure and therapeutic results are doubled. The 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’ve seen clients slip into deep relaxation so quickly during an aromatherapy massage that they seem to melt into the massage table. I like how 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.
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), 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 ¥piperita), 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 massaging them.
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 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 their 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.
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 overnight with the temperature set 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.
Kathi Keville (www.ahaherb.com) is a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health and is the author of 12 aromatherapy and herbal books, including Herbs: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 1995). She teaches aromatherapy for massage at Blue Sky Educational Foundation in Grafton, Wisconsin, and Phillips School of Massage in Nevada City, California.
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