How it works
In our evolution, the sense of smell was the most important of the five senses. We know of its primary importance by the sheer space that it took up in the archaic brain. As we developed all of the other senses were added but none of these had the element that makes smell so vital for yoga practice – the direct connection with the limbic brain.
The sense of smell by-passes the thinking front-brain and goes straight to the older, more meditative back brain – the part we try to access in yoga and meditation.
This is something experientially known by us all – the primal brain that has no sense of time. This is why we say that a smell ‘brings us right back’ – this is what it actually does*.
How it works: molecules travel through the nose (scent molecules turn into neural transmitters) and affect the brain through a variety of receptor sites, one of which is the limbic system, commonly referred to as the “emotional brain.” the limbic system is directly connected to those parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels, and hormone balance. The effects are immediate, but subtle. Because of a process called ‘habituation’, after a few minutes you will not be able to smell the oil at all.
It is still working. As it is applied topically, the molecules pass through the skin and enter the blood stream, travelling until they find the right cell receptor for binding. For example, a molecule of rosemary travels to cell receptors on the liver. Finding the right cell receptor, it acts to balance and regenerate this vital organ.
Gandha will also bring you back to your practice:
How it works: if you have a particular emotion or state of mind surrounded by a particular smell, that smell will always re-create that feeling.
It is because of brain geography. The neural translation of the chemical constituents of the substance is sent from the amygdala to the hippocampus, a center for short term memory in the limbic system. So, right away, the smell, emotion, and memory are co-mingled, as they are stored in the limbic system. Then this information goes on to the hypothalamus for long-term memory.
Imagine you are in a yoga class and you reach a deep state of relaxation and well-being. At the same time, you are subliminally aware of the smell of the yoga oil. From then on, every time you smell that smell, your body will be inclined to return to that state of being.
*this is how using gandha outside of our practice will help to bring us back to that state we are in in our class – it’s not just a reminder – it’s a physiological happening.