Massage with essential oils is by far the most important application of aromatherapy, allying as it does the therapeutic power of touch with the properties of the individual essential oils chosen for a particular person at a specific time.

Massage itself with or without essential oils can be described as a formalisation of a very primitive instinct. If a child falls over, his mother will 'rub better' his bumped knee: if you trip and bruise ourselves, your unthinking first reaction will be to rub the painful area: if we find a friend in a state of distress, we offer a reassuring hug. All these are forms of healing, whether on a physical or an emotional level. The simple action of rubbing a painful part of the body encourages an increased flow of blood in the tiny capillaries just below the skin, and this in itself helps to ease the pain. A hug is a non-verbal way of communicating to our friend the sympathy and love that we may not be able to put into words in a crisis.

Both these kinds of healing enter into massage. The masseur learns a variety of movements, or strokes, which are designed to relieve pain, ease tense and tight muscles, increase circulation, or benefit the physical body in other ways. These strokes are applied to the superficial muscles - that is, those muscles which are visible below the skin - but the effects may benefit the deeper layers of muscle and possibly the underlying organs.

Some forms of massage aim only to benefit the physical body in this way, but even so, a general feeling of well being will usually result, and the most important effect is the degree of relaxation experienced after a massage. Often renewed energy and vigour will follow this deep relaxation. The benefit of massage is cumulative: although the person will almost always feel good following a massage and for some hours afterwards, regular massage will prolong the feeling of well being for ever increasing periods after each treatment.

As well as releasing tight muscles during the treatment, massage can act as a form of re-education, helping us to become aware of the fact that we are tensing certain muscles unnecessarily, and to feel the difference between a tight, or contracted, muscle and a relaxed one. Very often we do not recognise the fact that we are tightening certain groups of muscles until we experience those muscles in a relaxed state during and after a massage. Although it is a perfectly normal reaction to tense muscles when we feel mentally tense, it is important to be able to let go of this physical tension before the tight muscles themselves convey a sense of discomfort and unease to the mind, thus setting up a vicious circle of tension. This is one of the ways in which mental stress can lead to real physical symptoms, but massage can break this chain of events, especially when we work with essential oils that have a calming, soothing or uplifting effect on the mind as well as the body.

Some systems of massage, such as Esalen massage, and the various kinds of intuitive massage that have been developed in the past twenty years or so, take this link between mind and body further, and aim to work mainly on the connection between the mental and physical states of the person receiving the massage. The letting-go of physical tensions can often lead to a release of emotion. This may relate to the present situation of the person involved, or to something that has been 'stored' in the body for a very long time. Clearly, a relationship of great trust and sympathy between the masseur and the client must be built up before such a catharsis can take place, and this may need to be built up over a number of treatments. One of the ideas inherent in Esalen massage is that by very gently working on physical surface tensions, deeper tensions will be enabled to come to the surface and eventually released.

Different aromatherapists have quite different ways of giving massage, depending partly on their training and background, and partly on their personal outlook and preference. The variety of techniques used is enormous, and it would be pointless to try to describe all of them here, particularly as it does not matter too much which method is used, provided the therapist has been thoroughly trained in his or her chosen system, and uses it with care and a nurturing attitude towards the person who needs help. Far more important than this or that method is to ensure that the massage physically encompasses the whole body, and that the therapist takes into consideration the whole person's body, mind and spirit.

From the purely physical point of view, massage is vital to aromatherapy because it provides us with the most effective way of introducing essential oils to the body. The skin absorbs these oils very readily, and when the whole body is massaged a useful amount of essential oil can be taken into the bloodstream in a fairly short time. (The oils are always added to a carrier oil, usually in a dilution of 3%.) If it is not possible, for any reason, to carry out a full massage, then a back massage offers the next best possibility of getting sufficient essential oil into the body to have a therapeutic effect, since the back presents the single largest expanse of skin of any body area. In an emergency it is possible to massage the back repeatedly at intervals of as little as half an hour, to get the maximum possible amount of essential oil circulating in the body. (It should be emphasised that this is a technique to be used only by very experienced therapists, and preferably only those who also have medical qualifications. It is mentioned here only as an illustration of the ability of the back to absorb essential oils during massage.)

See also Lymphatic Drainage Massage.

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