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Essential Oils in Yoga Teaching - can they enhance a student’s experience?

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Essential Oils in Yoga Teaching - can they really enhance a student’s experience?

Sometimes, scientific studies yield results that seem too good to be true. Imagine this: the simple act of enjoying aromas as you sleep, practice yoga or lie in Savasana can significantly enhance your memory. Intriguing, isn't it? In a recent study published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience, researchers explored the fascinating connection between olfactory stimulation (stimulating the sense of smell) and memory function. The findings were astonishing: participants who slept with an essential oil diffuser beside their beds for six months experienced a remarkable 226% improvement in working memory compared to the control group.

The Role of Sensory Stimulation in Cognitive Health

Cognitive stimulation is an important part of preventing cognitive decline and dementia. It's clear that reduced cognitive stimulation over our lifetimes can lead to cognitive decline. Interestingly, sensory impairment in any of our primary senses, including sight, hearing, taste, and smell, has been associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Olfaction, or the sense of smell, may not be a whole-brain activity like vision or hearing, but it has a unique advantage. The part of the brain responsible for processing smells, known as the "entorhinal cortex," is adjacent to the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in long-term memory formation and is affected early in Alzheimer's disease. This proximity is often cited to explain the strong link between smells and memory.

The Science Behind Olfactory Stimulation

Several empirical findings support the idea that olfactory stimulation can enhance cognitive function and protect against dementia:

  • - "Olfactory Enrichment" in animals improves memory and stimulates the birth of new brain cells.

  • - Olfactory stimulation can restore olfactory function in humans, showcasing the brain's plasticity.

  • - Olfactory enrichment leads to an increase in gray matter in the thalamus and hippocampus.

  • - Exposure to various odorants improves cognitive function in dementia patients, including memory, attention, verbal fluidity, and language skills.

In summary, the biological plausibility and empirical evidence suggest that olfactory stimulation can boost cognitive function, promote neuroplasticity, and potentially protect against dementia.

How to Incorporate Olfactory Stimulation into Your Classes

Now that we've explored the science, let's discuss how you can harness the power of olfactory stimulation to improve your students’ experience in class, particularly in Savasana:

  • Gather your supplies: You'll need an essential oil diffuser and a variety of essential oils.

  • Set up the diffuser: Run the diffuser during class. Science suggests that variety is important here, so switch things up occasionally. Ensure that no-one in your class is sensitive or has objections to smells first!

  • Maintain novelty: The study ran for six months and novelty was important. To maximize the benefits, consider switching out your set of oils every six months to keep the stimuli changing.

Remember, the key is consistent exposure to new and noticeable smells over a sustained period. Just like novelty in music stimulates the brain, exposing your olfactory regions to novel aromas can help keep your brain healthy and fit. A few oils that I suggest for use during class include: sweet orange, bergamot, peppermint, neroli, sandalwood, lavender, vetiver or grapefruit. Blends are great, too!

A trauma-informed caution here - as we have discussed, scents evoke powerful memories. I once had a student who couldn’t bear the smell of cardamom and I didn’t know for several weeks! Definitely ASK before you diffuse! As well, many government facilities are now scent-free.

Smelling your way to better brain health sounds unconventional but it’s a pleasurable addition to your classes and a low-risk way to promote students’ brain health. As long as you ensure that all students are amenable - experiment with different oils to find your students’s favourites.

What is your experience with incorporating essential oils into your classes? Do you like it when teachers use oils? What are your favourite oils to experience in class or to use in everyday life. Do you have any strong aversions or any other warnings to share with us?

Essential oils

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