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Addressing Scent and Sensitivity in Class

With allergies on the rise, many studios and teachers are trending toward scent-free alternatives to incense, essential oils, and scented candles. Find out when to avoid scents—and what to use instead.

By Angela Pirisi

No doubt, scent can be a powerful means of inducing both physical and neurological changes that can redirect bodily health and emotional states, such as the scent of lavender to induce calm. In yoga, incense or essential oils have traditionally been used to set the mood of a class.

"Scent denotes certain things, so we use scent to set a mood, energy, and space," explains Terri Kennedy, PhD, founder of Ta Yoga in New York City and Chair of the Board of Directors of Yoga Alliance.

"Incense was and is still used in classes because scent often has a relaxing effect," says Dr. Jeff Migdow, MD, who directs Prana Yoga teacher training programs through the Open Center in New York and is a holistic physician at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. "People relax more, thus stretch more fully and move more deeply; many scents also have a meditative effect."

Nevertheless, recent years have witnessed a growing trend of scent-free classes in response to individual preferences and health issues, such as environmental sensitivities and respiratory illnesses. Migdow says, as he can recall from his own practice, incense use was quite popular in the 1970s, but the increasing rate of allergies curbed its use by the '80s.

From Religion to Health

There are ritualistic reasons for burning incense, historically part of religious worship in Buddhist, Christian, Hindi, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. Today, however, health concerns have trumped tradition and spiritual connotations. For example, New York City Asthma Initiative and Tobacco Control Program classifies incense smoke as a form of harmful second-hand smoke. And a growing number of yoga teachers agree that having students inhale incense smoke during their practice, especially during pPranayama when their breathing deepens, isn't a healthy proposition.

That's what Linda Karcher Howard, a yoga teacher in Annapolis, Maryland, believes, which is why she has been leading scent-free classes for more than 15 years. She says, "I have had numerous students who live with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory concerns. Scent-free classes provide the opportunity for these yoga students to take class without the irritant that scents often bring about."

The Powers of Distraction

It's also an extension of a yoga etiquette 101 rule: please do not wear fragrance or scents to class. "We are all individuals, and scents that appeal to me may not appeal to another person, and then they become a distraction to our yoga practice," says Howard.

That's true according to science, too, which has found that certain scents can be calming or arousing; but if you don't like them, they can have the opposite effect, inducing stress and aggression, says Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.

Scents, pleasant or unpleasant, catch our attention. "In the practice of yoga, we work toward moving away from distractions and turning our attention inward," says Howard. So whether pleasant or unpleasant, she explains, scent creates "distractions from the intent of the practice."

Richard Rosen is director of Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California, which is a "scent-free studio" that asks students not to wear fragrances to class. He agrees with Howard, explaining, "It seems to me that in a class, the teacher will want to minimize outside distractions so the students can more easily focus on themselves."

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Reader Comments

meghan

I get terrible migraines from scented candles, incense, and the odors from essential oils. The stress of breathing it if I choose to continue through a class with a scented candle makes my migraine worse, so by the time the practice is over, I'm tense and mad that I stayed. I cannot believe that teachers would impose scents on a class without checking with them first!

mary

I have stopped attending classes at studios that burn incense. I have asthma, but the studio owners/teachers don't seem to care when I tell them it bothers me. I think YJ should run an article on the study published in August 2008 - Researchers from Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark found that being regularly exposed to burning incense almost doubled the risk of developing squamous cell upper respiratory tract carcinomas including nasal/sinus, tongue, mouth and laryngeal.

E Calderwood

When I go to a yoga class and there is insence, my nose moistens, drips, and finally runs. It makes doing class very embarassing because my eyes tear at the same time and I can not "be present."
I believe that originally insense was used in open air and our classes are hold in inclosed spaces.

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