It’s an age-old cliche that scent is the strongest tie to memory. But what about using scent as a tool for healing, as a way to enhance and enrich your daily life?
While sitting on an oversized pillow in an unpretentiously chic apartment in Queens, I came to learn more about the power of plants and the sacred art of blending botanical oils. The room was already prepared when I got there, and the living room table carefully arranged with tiny vials of concentrated essential oils, glass bottles, droppers, and paper sticks. Aba Gyepi-Garbrah, a certified aromatherapist, began her botanical perfume workshop in a confident, soothing tone, and the depth of her knowledge quickly became apparent: this lady knows her stuff, especially in regards to all things olfactory.
She asked if anyone was already familiar with essential oils, and I responded that I use them in my home regularly, in my own practices. Picking up on the vibe I was putting down, she began speaking of aromatherapy’s roots in therapy, and the fact that oils have been used by healers for centuries, including in magickal practices, as well as for medicinal purposes. “Scents are like medicine,” she said. “And sometimes medicine can be a little bitter.”
Because magick and healing practices are essentially about manifesting one’s intentions in the universe, plants are a great way to ground these intentions in an earth-based, tangible way. “Plants are allies to capture higher vibrations, especially if used for good. We can use botanical oils to marry the language of plants with our intentions,” Aba says. Yes, I thought. Exactly. But how does one go about making their own scent? How far does the power of the olfactory actually go?
First, she says, it’s about developing olfactory awareness. “There’s a whole song that goes on when you’re working with botanicals,” she said during the session. “Take your time and smell the difference between flowers at the bodega and flowers at the farmer’s market. Notice how different scents make you feel. Does it open up your chest? Make you feel softer? Give you goosebumps?”
Aba began her career as an aromatherapist after feeling dissatisfied with the pedagogical approach of large perfume corporations. While she enjoyed everything about niche perfumery, she wanted to leave out synthetics and also focus on the artistic, healing aspects of aromatherapy (hence our little impromptu jam session on the spiritual aspects of plants). “Essential oils are closer to the body,” she says, and just as the body is highly personal, botanical blends should be customized in a personal way, not according to consumerism or corporate agendas. Consumers have no control over what’s in their perfume and no insight into how it’s actually made. By customizing your own blend, you know exactly what ingredients you’re including, not to mention save a ton by not splurging on inflated retail perfume prices.
During the class, we blind-sampled, discussed, and made notes on our vibes, feelings, and physical responses to nearly seventeen essential oils. Anything goes, so when I said a particular scent “smells like woody mulch and childhood,” and my friend said “It smells like grass, with a citrusy feel,” both were just as valid. When this particular oil was ‘unveiled’, it turned out to be Vetiver (my new favorite). Aba responded: “It’s this tall, grassy plant with really long roots. So it’s a ‘grounding’ plant and helps relieve anxiety. If you’re feeling hysterical [in any given moment] this is the one. I call it ‘my chill blanket’,” she says.
Naturally, I included this plant in my customized botanical blend, because, well, let’s be honest, as an editor living in New York City, I need all the grounding I can get. But regardless of career choices, we all need a little grounding and relief once in a while, especially in our strange post-truth-digitally-saturated-era. So maybe we all should just heap on the vetiver (because it’s really, really good). Aba duly noted that it works particularly well with patchouli and ylang ylang and rose.
Admittedly some of the isolated oil scents weren’t my favorite, particularly the agarwood which had a fungus-like, funky smell. I wondered why some people are turned off by some scents, and not others. Is there such a thing as a bad scent when it comes to oils?
Aba remarked there was, in fact, no such thing as a good or bad scent, but certainly people can be put off by them. “But the funny thing is, they continue to smell or observe it because they pick up on the changes or certain energy coming from the aromatic. That original aversion turns into curiosity, a feeding or clearing of something in the way. All aromatics don’t have a sexy story to tell, but they each have their unique purpose,” she says. This initial aversion sometimes changes the immediate energy of the person and creates a “meaningful experience,” and that’s the medicinal aspect of the plant.
“There are a myriad of ways botanicals can help us live more full lives. In short, they simply connect us to the nature we often crave in order to refresh, reset and heal,” Aba says.
At the end of the session, I came away with a customized blend of rose, vetiver (what what!), lavender absolute, patchouli, jasmine, and lime. You can steal it if you want to, but make sure you call it by its new name: The Purple Goddess.