By Ellen Brenner, Certified Aromatherapist
Those of us attracted to natural health and healing often hear, and use, the word holistic, as in “holistic health” and “holistic aromatherapy.” But, do we really understand the true essence of its meaning?
What exactly does holistic mean? And, what does it really have to do with our health?
Does it mean:
- Natural health?
- Alternative health?
- Eastern medicine?
- Something else?
So, let’s discuss.
I believe it is important we understand its historical and present significance so that we may make informed choices about how to use and practice holistic health within its intended context.
The word holistic is derived from the Greek “holos,” which means “whole, entire, or complete.” When we look at something holistically, we are viewing the “whole” entity made up of interconnected and interdependent parts, rather than focusing parts themselves as independent elements.
Distilled down to its fundamental level, holistic health and healing very simply means we are looking at our “whole person,” or “whole being.”
So what does that mean?
In holistic, or “whole person” health, we see our whole being made up of mind, body and spirit. And, these interconnected elements of our existence must be in balance within ourselves, and with our environment, for us to experience optimal wellbeing.
Eastern traditions of healing have been approached care of the whole person for more than 3,000 years. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), originating in China, and Ayurveda from India, both stress the mind, body and spirit connection, as well as the need for balance in our natural energy flow for optimal health.
Ayurvedic medicine utilizes diet, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and massage as means to support balance. In TCM, acupuncture, diet, herbal remedies, and gentle movement such as Tai Chi are used to restore a state of harmony.
What is considered the advent of modern western medicine also began as a holistic approach more than 2,500 years ago.
Hippocrates, acknowledged as the Father of Western (or Modern) Medicine, is credited with taking medicine out of the supernatural and into the natural world among western health practitioners. Rather than a punishment from the deities, he believed that disease was a result of imbalances within our mind, body and spirit, as well as environmental factors.
Hippocrates also believed the body contains its own natural self-healing mechanism that seeks and requires balance for good health. Thus, he saw the role of the health practitioner was to help bring the whole person back into balance, as well as looking at sources that may be the cause of imbalance. In treating the individual rather than the disease, Hippocrates employed natural healing therapies such diet, hydrotherapy, movement and massage.
By the 17th century, the belief that mind, body and spirit existed as one interconnected aspect of our being fell out of favor. Due to religious doctrines of the time, this concept created interference in the advancement of medicine. Rene Descartes, credited, as the Father of Modern Philosophy, argued the mind and body were separate entities.
This revised view of the body as a biological collection of mechanical parts allowed for the study of anatomy and physiology paving the way for many medical advances we benefit from today. Today, this biomedical approach is still the primary practice, more than 300 years later, where health is defined as the absence of disease with a focus on how to eliminate biological factors that cause disease. But, it is also argued this view has created limitations in in our understanding and advancement of healing the person as a whole.
Any practice that did not fit within the parameters of the biomedical approach became mistrusted and marginalized. Once outside the mainstream, holistic medicine became synonymous with alternative medicine. Worse, alternative medicine became the recipient of an even greater negative connotation due to those who preyed upon the desperately ill from the shadows by promising false cures that stemmed from neither modern medicine nor ancient traditions.
In 1998, Congress founded the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to test the efficacy and safety of treatments available to patients who were pursuing them outside of mainstream medicine.
As research showed many modalities, such as massage and acupuncture, to be safe, soothing and not interfering with conventional treatments, they began to find acceptance under the now coined “complementary” health status. This implied a treatment considered “in addition to” conventional medicine vs. the alternative “instead of.”
With continued study validating the efficacy of these natural approaches, the newly renamed Center for Complementary and Integrative Health in 2015 renewed efforts to encourage increased research into holistic modalities and new study methodologies to suit their nature. 
While scientific exploration continues to verify, explain and reveal new information about efficacy and safety, it may take time to unlock the many mysteries of the natural healing arts. In the meantime, many argue the documented use and effectiveness handed down through the ages creates a valuable body of historical evidence based upon trial and error and replicated empirical demonstration.
When it comes to holistic health, we seem to have come full circle from Hippocrates to Harvard. Whole-person healing is enjoying a resurgence of research across our major academic medical centers under the headings such as mind/body medicine, systems biology and functional medicine. And, many top teaching hospitals offer natural healing modalities as part of their clinical practice for their patients. Holistic healing combined with conventional medicine is referred to as integrative health or medicine creating a sense of working together in synergy.
In the meantime, holistic health practices continue to thrive on their own, offering either Eastern and Western approaches. Whole-person approaches such as acupuncture, massage, yoga and aromatherapy have become mainstream for the masses as people experience the benefits of balancing their beings.
One modern, yet historically familiar, definition of a holistic health practitioner is as follows:
“Holistic health practitioners believe that the whole person is made up of interdependent parts, and if one part is not working properly, all the other parts will be affected. In this way, if people have imbalances (physical, emotional, or spiritual) in their lives, it can negatively affect their overall health.”
With this in mind, practitioners may call upon both conventional and natural methods of healing from both the Eastern and Western traditions, not only to treat symptoms, but most importantly to look at source issues that may be leading to health concerns.
Where does aromatherapy fit in?
Aromatherapy is the perfect partner in caring for your whole person. Approached in a holistic way, these aromatic essences can impact the wellbeing of our whole being – mind, body and spirit – putting nature in our hands to use as support for coming back into a healing state of balance.
In “The Wonderful Wide World of Aromatherapy,” we discuss dynamic and diverse ways in which aromatherapy is practiced. The modern approach to holistic aromatherapy was introduced in 1961 by Marguerite Maury. Drawing upon the practices of both Eastern and Western holistic health, Maury sought to integrate aromatherapy in a way that would impact the psyche, physiological and psychological needs of each unique individual.
Today, the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy defines the practice as:
“The art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. It seeks to unify physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance an individual’s innate healing process.”
Maury’s use of aromatherapy to enhance our whole being through aromatic massage echoes the often-quoted dictate of Hippocrates.
“The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day.”
It is with this holistic health advice in mind, from historical to modern perspective, that we can recreate our own whole-person restorative experience. We will combine aromatherapy with hydrotherapy and massage in a self-care routine as outlined below.
No worries if you don’t enjoy the bath. Benefits can also be enjoyed under the sensory-soothing spray of the shower. Bonus if you have a massaging-type shower head.
1) Choose a Synergy (or, use these as inspiration to create your own)
Balancing Bath Soak
2 drops fragonia
2 drops bergamot
1 drop ho wood
Helps to soothe and balance the mind, body and spirit.
Bathe the Day Away
2 drops ho wood
2 drops palo santo*
1 drop rose otto 10%
Helps to harmonize the mind, body and spirit with a sense of inner peace and overall wellbeing.
*Palo Santo was a recent offering through the Oil of the Month club.
2 drops bergamot
2 drops rosemary
1 drop spearmint
Relaxing to the body, awakening to the mind, while inviting joyful energy to the spirit.
2 drops frankincense carteri
2 drops spearmint
1 drop eucalyptus globulus
Uplifting and invigorating to the mind, while soothing to the body. Calming and clarifying, while promoting inner-contemplation.
2) Create a Bath or Shower Blend
For a Bath Blend:
- 5 drops (total) essential oil blend
- 1-2 T unscented, natural body wash
- Mix well. Then, add:
- ½ c Epsom salts
- Add to running water and soak.
For a Shower Blend:
- 5-10 drops (total) essential oil blend
- 1 oz unscented, natural body wash
- PET plastic squeeze bottle
- Shake vigorously
- May multiply blend per ounce based on the ratio above
3) Experience a Self-Massage in Bath or Shower:
- You will need a natural bristle bathing brush (I have one with a long handle for the shower and detachable brush for the bath).
- In the bath, apply unscented soap or body wash, while soaking in your aromatherapy blend.
- In the shower, apply your shower gel with essential oil blend.
- Use comfortable, circular strokes
- Apply your strokes so the flow of circulation moves toward the heart.
- Start at the top of an area first, working upward toward the heart then move to the areas below to work upward.
- Start with the left side, then work the right side in the following order:
- Upper Arm. Lower Arm
- Upper Leg. Lower Leg
- Switch Sides.
- Then, move to:
- Chest. Abdomen
- Upper Back. Lower Back (Don’t forget the buttocks)
This will provide you with a full body massage. Bonus if you massage your head with your fingertips. A head massage could also be completed while washing your hair.
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 Shutes, Jade. The Dynamics of Blending: A Guide to Blending and a Reference Manual for Essential Oils and Base Materails. Willow Springs, NC: NW College for Herbal and Aromatic Studies, 2011. Print.