More and more dancers discover the potential of alternative approaches when it comes to mental health, physical health, and injury prevention.
One particularly fascinating approach is aromatherapy, which is a form of herbalism, and part of the umbrella term of plant healing. Dance Writer talked to Helena Melissa McGill, certified aromatherapist and founder of the Brooklyn based aromatherapy company Morphologically about how dancers can use aromatherapy to enhance their wellness and their performance.
Helena, who has been in business as an aromatherapist for 20 years, is not unfamiliar with the dance world. She started doing modern dance and contact improvisation in Vancouver, and later moved to NYC to pursue modern dance. Dance for her is an expression of joy, and allows her to feel as connected as in her daily meditation practice. “I have always found solace in both vigorous movement and stillness”, she states.
Growing up in a tiny town in British Columbia, with parents of Hungarian background who grew their own food, and a mother who swore by the healing properties of plants, Helena witnessed the power of herbalism from a young age.
While Helena was in school to become a registered holistic nutritionist, which is unique to Canada, she was fascinated by the fact that “the language of aromatherapy has no boundaries”, and how one plant is known by so many different cultures for its healing properties. Working at an aromatherapy shop while in school rekindled her old joy for plant healing. When she finished school, she was able to work as a holistic nutritionist and aromatherapist, as these are deemed “valid forms of healing” in Canada. This work really made her focus on organic chemistry, “the seen and unseen vibrational frequencies in aromatherapy”. (For further reading about the vibrational frequencies of essential oils, I recommend this booklet from the Sound Healing Center). Shortly after, Helena got officially certified as an aromatherapist.
When moving from Vancouver to NYC, Helena learned that opportunities to work as a certified aromatherapist on the East Coast were much more difficult to come around, since the concept of a certified aromatherapist only existed in the UK and Canada. So she worked in fashion for eleven years, and then four years ago started her brand Morphologically. Helena feels that in founding Morphologically, all her educations came together “like puzzle pieces”. That said, she recommends young adults who are internally and externally pressured about their education and career, to “ask for time”. She is the perfect example that life in your twenties can look very different than life in your thirties or forties, and even if you make dramatic career changes, all your experiences inform each other.
Aromatherapy can be used in three different ways:
If inhaled, the small size of the particles allows them to “enter the bloodstream immediately through the lungs”, Helena describes. “When the particles enter the olfactory system, they hit the limbic portion and the endocrine portion of the brain”. The limbic system is considered the “seat of emotion”, while the endocrine system will respond to the different components of each note, such as esters, ethers, aldehydes, and alcohols, by triggering the release of certain hormones. This causes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to act in different ways. Aromatherapy is not just about smelling something nice, we are actually digesting the small particles of the oils in our body.
This means the components are entering the bloodstream through the follicles in the skin, which makes it especially helpful for local application, and useful for treating dancers’ bruises and injuries. Most of the time, it is advised to dilute the oils to prevent burns.
This means digesting the oils in your stomach, however, Helena does not really use it, since it is a controversial topic for her. “Essential oils are hydrophobic, which means nothing about it likes water.” And since humans consist of 60% water, it can be difficult to digest internally.
Based on her own dance experience, Helena has compiled a list of go-to oils for dancers:
“Fear and excitement set off the same reaction in the body, it’s just about where you go. It is so motivating, you don’t want to quell it, but you want to get to a point where you’re breathing”, Helena describes, remembering herself in performance situations. “Geranium is an adaptogenic, which means that it works directly on your adrenal system. If you are cycling really high or really low in the fight-or-flight mode, it is going to bring you to a level place and balance you.” Essential oils are released with heat, so one of the best ways is to use geranium is to put a little bit in your hands, rub them together, and put them over your mouth and nose while inhaling deeply, which will stimulate the adrenal and the endocrine system.
If the stress of performing affects your breathing, Eucalyptus is for you. “If you are holding your breath, your muscles are not going to be as responsive. Eucalyptus is going to open up your airways.” Proper breathing is “necessary for your muscles to function.”
For Injuries and Bruises:
Is “naturally anti-inflammatory and extremely good for pain”, Helena describes. It helps to heal bruises quicker and hurt less. “Bruising can go very deep into the muscle. Massaging around the bruise and gently swiping over it with Frankincense” helps get down into the tissue and get the blood flowing again.
For everyday use:
Is “extremely calming and anti-inflammatory. You could make yourself an all-in-one blend with Frankincense, Chamomile, and Lavender, [which would] cover inflammation, bruising, and tendon issues.” Aromatherapy helps “without making you drowsy or impeding your performance. It is all organic molecules, and it is in your DNA to respond to things your body recognizes.”
Dilates the blood vessels, which “speeds up the healing process because the blood is flowing quicker.” It is anti-inflammatory as well. These two properties help “push through stagnancy”, which is especially beneficial for physical injuries, spasms, muscle pulls and strains. It is particularly potent with the warming properties of Ginger.
Inhaling peppermint will provide mental clarity, which makes it “a good focus oil pre-performance. It wakes your body up, much like eucalyptus.”
Helena is a truly special soul. Her passion for using aromatherapy to help people remember and reconnect with the parts within themselves that know how to feel happy and be healthy is contagious. The Morphologically products are available in select stores in the U.S., and online.