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Aromatherapy Energetics An Oriental Approach

by Gabriel Mojay(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 15 - October 1996

"To reach the individual we need an individual remedy. Each of us is a unique message. It is only the unique remedy that will suffice. We must, therefore, seek odiferous substances which present affinities with the human being we intend to treat, those which will compensate for his deficiencies, and those which will make his faculties blossom."

The Secret of Life and Youth

The Five Elements Chart

Marguerite Maury was one of aromatherapy's foremost pioneers. She was a woman whose profound understanding of people made her realise that the mysterious qualities of an individual are inseparable from their unique ones. It is not surprising, therefore, that she, too, turned to the East in search of an intuitive and naturalistic way of comprehending the human spirit.

It may at first sight seems strange to apply to aromatherapy (a therapeutic approach that seems so distinctly European) the theories of an ancient medical tradition that originated in China. That is, until we reflect that vital energy – whether we we call it Qi or Dynameis – is as universal to humanity as is aromatic plants to the planet. And hence we find that the wisdom of Oriental medicine and diagnosis is successfully applied to everything from herbal medicine, dietetics and exercise systems to massage, meditation and acupuncture.

Whichever therapeutic tool one chooses to practice, however, its most fundamental action according to Oriental medicine is that of its effect on the energetic aspect of the body and mind.

Oils to Tonify, Regulate and Disperse

For example, in aromatherapy, one may choose an essential oil such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) in order to tonify or strengthen – an energetic action required in conditions of deficiency or weakness.

As an illustration, the famous French aromatherapist/physician Dr Jean Valnet emphasised in his book The Practice of Aromatherapy the distinctly invigorating quality of rosemary oil's properties, comparing it, for example, to sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Dr Valnet sites the essential oil as a cardiotonic – an action which, in terms of Oriental medicine, would reflect its ability to tonify the Heart-Qi. It is therefore suitable, amongst other conditions, for a pattern of disharmony that includes palpitations and other cardiac complaints; but only against a background of general debility, poor concentration, and a lack of confidence and joie de vivre (all symptoms of a deficient state).

On the other hand, essential oil of pine (Pinus sylvestris) – although another example of a tonic – possesses a tropism (or affinity) for the Lungs and Kidneys. It is therefore useful for states of fatigue and nervous exhaustion that have their root in Qi-deficiency of the Lungs and Kidneys. Attendant signs and symptoms of this pattern may include shortness of breath, frequent colds, urinary problems and/or impotence. (Impotence may result from Kidney-Qi deficiency due to the fact that the Kidneys "store" the sexual/genetic essence and thereby help to determine one's overall sexual vitality. Dr Valnet listed this problem among the therapeutic indications of pine oil.)

A second generalised energetic condition responds best to predominantly antispasmodic essential oils. It is that of stagnation of Qi-energy. Rather than being in a deficient state, vital energy when stagnant fails to flow properly, leading, in turn, to symptoms of constriction, spasm, irregularity and pain. Essential oils that are primarily antispasmodic in nature – lavender, clary sage, bergamot and marjoram – are said in energetic terms to smooth, or regulate, the subtle flow of Qi.

While conditions of deficient Qi-energy may stem from weakness and hypo-functioning of either the Kidneys, Lungs or Spleen-pancreas, stagnation of Qi is closely linked to an energetic problem with the Liver. This is because it is one function of the Liver to ensure that the Qi flows smoothly.

Essential oil of mandarin (Citrus reticulata) is an example of an aromatic essence that has a direct effect on the Qi-energy of both the Liver and Stomach. It is consequently described by Pierre Franchomme and Dr Daniel Péneöl in L'Aromatherapie Exactement as possessing antispasmodic, digestive and cholagogue properties (the latter referring to its ability to encourage the flow of bile). The fact that they have indicated it for dyspepsia, gastralgia and aerophagia is once more inseparable from its gentle power to regulate the Qi.

The therapeutic action of lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia) is significantly wider than that of mandarin, and thus its capacity to regulate the Qi is more generalised. Franchomme and Péneöl, listing its therapeutic properties, describe Lavandula angustifolia as a "powerful antispasmodic, calmative, muscular decontractant and hypotensive." Lavender oil's natural tendency to relax the nerves and calm the Heart are inter-related, from an energetic perspective, to its unparalleled ability to regulate the Qi. Because stagnant-Qi conditions so frequently involve nervous tension and muscular contracture, the therapeutic release of that pent-up vital energy results in relaxation and an improved blood flow.

The final example of this energetic trinity of imbalances is the general condition of excess.

When I spoke of deficiency I mentioned only conditions of deficient Qi; whereas there are, in fact, further types of deficiency that include deficient yang (too little warmth and energy), deficient yin (too little moisture) and deficient blood. Similarly, with conditions of excess, it is possible to have excess yang (or heat), dampness (excess stagnant moisture) and phlegm (excess moisture congealed). However, each of these excess conditions are the same in the sense that they all require dispersing.

The therapeutic action of dispersal is the antithesis of that of tonifying: while the basis of tonification rests on the action of concentrating vital energy, dispersal is deemed necessary wherever there is a need to eliminate and dispel.

Essential oil of lemon (Citrus limonum) – mentioned by Dr Valnet as cooling, depurative, diuretic and litholytic – is a good example of a dispersing essential oil. Its ability, in energetic terms, to clear heat from the Liver and blood corresponds, from a Western perspective, to its detoxifying, depurative and antirheumatic potential. Lemon's ability to disperse both dampness and phlegm makes it, in addition, an essential oil that is recommended for everything from plethora and obesity to arteriosclerosis and urinary stones.

It should be remembered, however, that virtually no medicinal plant possesses only one specific, or even general, property. While lemon oil, for example, is primarily dispersing in nature, it is additionally indicated by Dr Valnet for hepatic and pancreatic deficiency. Moreover, the ability of the juice to help counteract anaemia means that it also works to tonify the blood.

Essential oils with a pronounced ability to disperse and cleanse tend to be predominantly pungent or sour in nature – like eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) and grapefruit (Citrus paradisii). Essential oils that tonify vary considerably, but many of them possess a sweet, resinous, woody or bitter olfactory note. Obvious examples include: cinnamon (sweet); benzoin (resinous); cedarwood (woody) and thyme (bitter). Regulating, antispasmodic essential oils are usually harder to pin down, and frequently contain, within their bouquets, a subtle complex of quite different smells. Take lavender, for example: you will no doubt discern, when you open your bottle, an intriguing combination of floral-sweet, gently pungent, and even vaguely bitter notes pervade – all testament to its amazing ability to imbue balance.

Oils to Harmonise the Elements

Another way in which Oriental medicine allows us to recognise and classify an energetic imbalance is closely linked to the vital organs and their corresponding Five Elements. We can make use of the theory of the Five Elements in order to glean a simple yet profound approach to applying the psychological benefits of essential oils.

Together with yin & yang, the theory of the Five Elements is one of the two main pillars of Oriental medicine. Comparatively more recent than yin & yang, it was first documented in China in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC).

The popularity of the Five Element system waxed and waned throughout the history of Chinese medicine and culture. There were periods during which the theory of the Five Elements was extremely popular, featuring in almost every part of Chinese culture. It was applied not only to medicine, but to the natural sciences, the calendar, astrology, music and politics.

The Five Elements may be understood as five phases or movements of yin & yang energy. Rather than being separate elements in a literal sense, the images of water, wood, fire, earth and metal represent natural forces that together form a dynamic whole. The Five Elements are phases of a continual energetic process, one that we can observe in potentially every aspect of life. Each Element subsequently corresponds to a different pair of bodily organs; while each of the five main yin organs are said to 'house' one of the five root emotions and five 'spirits'.

The first of the Five Elements – Water – may be understood as energy in a condensed and relatively static yin phase, reflected in the dormancy of wintertime and the night. Although Water represents a 'floating' state of rest, it contains within itself the potential for growth and regeneration. It is therefore associated with the very source of life – with the procreative force and the will to survive.

The major yin organ of the Water Element is the Kidneys; the spirit it houses, the Will (Zhi). The Will is the source of not only our will-power, but of our innate inner strength and capacity to endure. When the Will becomes destabilised, 'Fear' can arise – a psycho-energetic condition that can refer not only to apprehension, but to anxiety, insecurity and lack of confidence. All the root emotions can, in fact, express themselves in a number of different ways.

An example of an essential oil that is able to tonify Kidney-Qi and reinforce the Will is that of cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica). The capacity of the oil to reinforce both the Kidneys and Spleen-pancreas makes it indicated, on a physiological level, for general lethargy, lower backache and poor concentration. On a psychological level, it helps, not to stimulate the Will to action, but to give us the will to hold firm – even against persistent external forces.

Cedarwood oil can therefore give us an immovable strength in times of crisis. Steadying the conscious mind, it helps us to resist the sudden events and powerful emotions that threaten to undermine our confidence and morale. It can 'buck-up' the ego when we feel alienated or destabilised – when, for example, we find ourselves in a foreign country or strange situation, or out of favour with current opinion.

The second Element – Wood – is indicative of energy in a rising and accelerating yang phase, as in the sense of awakening that comes with springtime and morning. In this stage of transformation, the contained and latent forces of Water are aroused and given direction. The Wood Element is subsequently associated with both movement and evolution.

The Wood Element's main yin organ is the Liver. It is said to provide the residence of the Hun, or Ethereal Soul – our mental-spiritual capacity to envision, dream and plan; as well as our psychological source of ambition and motivation. When, for whatever reason, it becomes "blocked" and obstructed, the root emotion of Anger can manifest. In a similar way to Fear, Anger may express itself not only as annoyance and wrath, but as frustration, irritability, moodiness and even depression. Depression may occur when Anger cannot find a positive outlet, consequently turning inwards to oppress the Ethereal Soul.

Two of the most effective essential oils for restoring harmony to the Element Wood are those of Roman and German chamomile (Chamaemeleum nobile and Chamomilla recutita). Major antispasmodic oils, the chamomiles work to regulate the Liver, dissipate stagnant Qi, and relax the nervous tension that frequently reflects a Wood imbalance.

From a more subtle perspective, chamomile oil may be said to ease the tension of excessive ego-desire – and the frustration, resentment and depression that can follow in its wake. Its warm, apple-like fragrance imparts a feeling of satisfaction, while its gentle bitterness cools us with a touch of reality. Chamomile helps us to let go of fixed expectations, calmly acknowledge our own limitations, and more readily accept the help and support that others can manage to give. It will, in so doing, frequently restore harmony to those with an imbalance in the Wood Element.

The next Element is that of Fire – symbolic of energy at its most expansive and radiant, of yang at its zenith. It the Element of Summer, of mid-day and noon. Fire takes the Wood Element's urge to move and evolve and gives it raison d'etre – a felt sense of the ideal. Energy at its most refined and sensitive, it is associated with both conscious awareness and self-identity.

The Element Fire contains two main yin organs: the Heart and Pericardium – although it is the Heart that houses the Shen, or 'Mind'. The Shen directs the functions of thinking, feeling, memory and imagination, and is the focus of all mental-emotional activity. The energetic cornerstone of sensitivity and feeling, the equanimity of the Heart and Shen is fundamentally responsible for ensuring a well-integrated and contented emotional life – as well as a balanced mind. Most psychological problems will subsequently involve, at least to some degree, an imbalance within the Fire Element.

One of the most widely effective essential oils for harmonising the Heart and Fire Element is that of jasmine (Jasminum officinalis). Like rose and lavender oils, it both relaxes and supports the Qi-energy of the Heart; calming the nerves, releasing tension and uplifting the Mind (Shen). As a result, jasmine is one of the most effective essential oils for nervous anxiety, restlessness and depression – whether the individual involved has a hot or cold, excess or deficient constitution.

On an emotional-sexual level, jasmine works to reawaken passion and reunite it with love. Traditionally known as a 'Fertility Herb', this is a property that in the mental-spiritual realm reflects its ability to help restore a capacity for creativity, for 'fertility of mind'.

Fire is followed by the Element Earth – energy in its descending yin stage, in a movement downwards towards materialised form. Earth is predominant in late Summer, "the season of mellow fruitfulness", and in the afternoon. It takes the ideal inherent in Fire and makes it real, imbuing consciousness with concrete thought and Spirit with bodily form.

Earth is the Element that is associated with two of the principal digestive organs – the Stomach and Spleen-pancreas (the latter a combined organ). The Spleen-pancreas houses the Yi or 'Intellect' – that aspect of the psyche responsible for thinking, concentrating, studying and memorising. Just as the organs of the Earth Element oversee the digestion of food, so too are they concerned with the absorption and analysis of ideas and information.

If the Qi-energy of the Spleen-pancreas becomes deficient, concentration can become impaired and thinking, dulled. Just as weakness of the Spleen produces plethora and congestion on a bodily level, it results in 'overthinking' and mental churning on an intellectual one.

In this instance, essential oil of frankincense (Boswellia carterii) may be employed to alleviate both the worry and mental confusion that result. Possessing a profound capacity to calm and centre the mind, it has a gently tranquillising, yet deeply clarifying, effect on the Intellect (Yi). It may be called upon whenever the mind is distracted and overwhelmed by a cacophony of thoughts.

Like sandalwood oil, frankincense is an ideal aid to meditation, contemplation and prayer, ceasing mental chatter and stifling the mind. Facilitating a state of peaceful, single-pointed concentration, it allows the Spirit to soar.

The fifth and final Element is that of Metal – energy in a gathering and synthesising yin phase of transformation. Metal takes the formative nature of Earth and refines it, adding order and definition. The season of Metal is Autumn, and the time of day, evening – periods of quiescence and reflection. The Metal Element is also associated both with the urge to interact and the need to maintain distance.

The principal organ of the Metal Element is the Lungs. While the Liver is said to house the Ethereal Soul (Hun), the Lungs provide the residence of the Bodily Soul (P'o). The P'o is the bodily or 'animal' aspect of the human soul, and forms the physical, more yin counterpart of the Ethereal Soul. The Bodily Soul is primarily instinctive and sensory in nature, and provides us with the capacity for physical sensation and touch, as well as taste, smell, sight and hearing. It also affords an animal-like sixth sense, which helps to fulfil, on a subtle level, the Metal Element's function of protection.

Living as it does in the moment, the Bodily Soul is affected, in particular, by feelings of regret, remorse and a lingering sense of loss. These emotions, in turn, can obstruct the orderly rhythmic function of the Lungs as they 'take in' and 'let go', reflecting an inability psychologically to fully accept and relinquish. A Bodily Soul which is constricted, and cannot engage fully in this process, is said to be afflicted by, or "stuck" in, Grief – the Metal Element's root emotion.

Through encouraging this process of 'taking in and letting go', essential oil of cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) reinforces the Metal Element and Bodily Soul (P'o). Dissolving remorse and instilling optimism, cypress oil helps us to flow with the flux of life. From here we can contemplate the tree's long and deep relationship to death and the grieving process, and why it was thought to be of comfort to those in bereavement.

Cypress oil has, therefore, one of the most distinct and profound of psychological actions. The sour, astringent and woody notes of the essence convey a feeling of cohesion and stability. At the same time, its fresh, coniferous pungency, and ability to circulate the Qi and blood, relate it to both psychological transition and real-life change. Cypress oil's basic subtle action, then, is to help us cope with and accept even difficult change – of both an inner and outer nature. It can in this way help to restore harmony to even the most problematic of Metal Element disharmonies.

The Five Elements afford a system of energetic correspondences with immense potential for practical application, particularly in the field of psychological aromatherapy. And it is a system that relies – when fully explored and utilised – on the use of all our 'diagnostic' faculties – on our logic, feeling, intuition, and five senses.


  1. katie buggs said..

    Thank you Gabriel Mojay. Your knowledge and wisdom guides me through my process. Best regards, Katie Buggs

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About Gabriel Mojay

Gabriel Mojay MRQA, MBAcC, MRSS, MISB is a registered practitioner of aromatherapy, shiatsu, acupuncture and medical herbalism. He is Principal of the Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy, and is founding Chairman of the Register of Qualified Aromatherapists. An Executive Committee member of the Aromatherapy Organisations Council, Gabriel is actively involved in promoting professional aromatherapy to government bodies, the medical profession and the public. He is co-author of Shiatsu – the complete guide (Thorsons, 1991), and author of Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit (Gaia Books, 1996).


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