Gandha is sanskrit for fragrance and the fragrant substances – woods, herbs, plants and resins – sandalwood, myrrh, cedarwood, jasmine, etc. That have been filling ashrams and rubbed on the skin for over four thousand years of yoga practice.These fragrant ingredients enhance the yogic state, and when used at other times help bring us back to that state.
The purpose of yoga and meditation is to quieten the busy front part of the brain and connect with the more meditative back brain. All of our 5 senses pass through the front brain – bar one – the sense of smell. It directly accesses the older, more meditative back brain – the part we to try to connect with in yoga. This is why fragrant products have always played a role in yoga and meditation.
The early yogis used cedarwood, sandalwood and other woods, because they were aware of the temperance conferred by these trees. While modern knowledge tells us that we can attribute that temperance to the therapeutic anti-spasmodic and nervine qualities of oil derived from these trees, early yogis were simply aware that they quieted the mental chatter.
What the plants do in nature, they do in your nature:
References to gandha are found throughout the ancient yoga texts in a number of forms. Substances with fragrant properties extracted from flowers, herbs, spices, barks, gums, resins and roots were used as part of bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion). The same word passed into arabic where it became attar, again meaning scent, fragrance or essence. The earliest distillation of gandha was mentioned in the ayurvedic text charaka samhita.
The upanishads detailed the ritual of puja in which gandha was one of the five elements. Traditionally gandha was used for offerings to the gods. When the gods appeared in the yogic texts, they were smeared with sacred oils and giving off divine perfumes. It became practice for sadhus to wear gandha themselves. Sandalwood was made into a paste and rubbed onto the forehead as part of practice.
The word perfume is somewhat related – in that it comes from par fum – meaning through the smoke – derived from burning fragrant woods and plants. Perfume used to be a wellness product. Most modern perfumes are chemical re-constitutions of smells which confer none of the health benefits of their originators. Fortunately nature still smells great and all that wellness is waiting for us.