Ayurveda is the oldest system of natural medicine that we know. And the principles of Ayurveda can bring deep insights to help us understand and prescribe the use of essential oils in modern day aromatherapy.
Ayus means 'life' or 'lifespan', and Veda means 'complete knowledge'. So Ayurveda is complete knowledge about life, and about health and how to maintain it.
The central tenet of Ayurveda is that good health is a natural state of life – a state of balance. So health becomes disrupted when imbalances accumulate. Therefore it aims to detect early accumulation of imbalances in the system, and prevent them from developing into symptoms by using a variety of methods. In this way, Ayurveda is primarily preventive in its outlook.
One of these approaches is through massage, which is highly rated in Ayurveda. Massage is recommended in terms of daily self-massage (you can try a self massage using warm natural sesame oil every morning before taking a shower; some people notice massive benefit continue through the day, particularly if they suffer from poor circulation), and also using macerated oils in specific treatment regimes.
This is very similar in outlook and approach to our approach to aromatherapy, which uses essential oils blended into a 'carrier oil' (vegetable oil), so let's see what our modern understanding can learn from the ancient approach.
According to Ayurveda there are three principles (doshas) that operate in the physiology and in Nature: vata, pitta, and kapha.
Vata governs the function of the nervous system, and is quick, light, cold, rough, moving. People who have a strong vata constitution tend to walk quickly, talk quickly, listen quickly (so they may interrupt you before you've finished your sentence). They tend to be of thin build, frequently very bright and alert. When they become imbalanced, this may lead to anxiety, worry, restlessness, insomnia, and also cold hands and feet. They would tend towards dry hair, and dry skin.
Pitta is hot and sharp, and governs metabolism and digestion. People with a preponderance of pitta tend to have energy, ambition, and drive. Because pitta is hot, they suffer less from cold; but on the other hand may tend to overheat in the summer, and may suffer from skin disorders.
Kapha has the qualities of heavy, cold, oily and stable. Kapha people tend to have large framed bodies, and may put on weight much easily. The hair is thick, lustrous, and they are often very attractive physically. They frequently exude feelings of stability, peace, and contentment. But when out of balance, kapha leads to a lack of flexibility, inertia and lack of enthusiasm.
A qualified ayurvedic practitioner will be able to determine the relative balance of vata, pitta and kapha to a great degree of accuracy by using pulse diagnosis.
However the simple description above should be able to help us to quickly recognize which essential oils could be indicated.
For someone with a vata imbalance, we want to provide ease, ease and comfort, reducing agitation and excess mental activity. So we should be on the lookout for oils that are sweet, warming, soft, stabilizing. Try Sweet Orange, Ylang Ylang, Vetiver, Sweet Basil, Jasmine, Ginger, Frankincense, Patchouli.
For a pitta type, we will be looking for cooling oils. So think in terms of Mint oils, True Lavender, Rose, Sandalwood, and German Camomile.
Remember that kapha is heavy and oily, so we should be looking for essential oils that are light and will cut through that quality. Think in terms of the confers (pines, firs, spruces), Black Pepper, Tea Tree, Rosemary Verbenone, and Lemon.
It goes without saying that the areas of both ayurveda and essential oils are immensely detailed; and either could take a lifetime of study. Yet the principles are simple and have a commonsense value. And best of all, they are easy to apply.