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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

Being Sensible about Scent

Others who continue to use scent in some form have modified how they use it. "I tend to shy away from using any kind of incense or scented candles, because I actually find that it interferes with the quality of my voice when I lead chants. As far as using scented lotions, though, I'm all for it," says Alanna Kaivalya, a Jivamukti yoga teacher in New York City.

Because the Jivamukti tradition involves physical adjustments, Kaivalya says she enhances the experience by using an organic, vegan lotion infused with essential oils (such as lavender, rosemary, or mint), to rub on her students' necks and shoulders during Savasana (Corpse Pose). "This is aromatherapeutic goodness that gives students one more chance to let go and sink into the yogic-buzz," she explains.

Migdow, a pranayama expert who co-authored the book Breathe In, Breathe Out, says he now burns incense for 10 to 15 minutes before classes in the studio and waiting area. "That way, when students arrive, there's just a subtle feeling or vibration from the incense in the studio and lobby, but it's not so strong."

For Kennedy, her use of scented candles and incense evolved to a citrus spray. "Just a handful of students said scent bothered them, but it was enough for me to say it might affect their practice. And having fresh air as much as possible is people's preference, so we open windows, weather permitting."

Besides Using Scent

So what are some unscented ways to set the mood? "I use soft instrumental music, a mix of real and flameless candles, as well as my own voice," says Kennedy.

Sometimes, lightening the mood of the class is enough to get everyone positive and focused. For example, Rosen says, "I like to tell a joke. I'm trying to put the ha back in hatha". Others like to gently guide their students into a quiet, peaceful state, so that they can be more receptive to the teachings of yoga. "When we get to class start-time, I talk students through a bit of relaxation, just for a few minutes—it puts a margin of space between the rest of their day and their practice," says Howard.

Other yogic traditions can help to hit the right note and initiate novices into the spirit of yoga. For example, says Rosen, some teachers begin class with a Sanskrit chant. Or you can direct the class's attention "to one of the two propitious compass points, east or north."

Adjusting lighting and temperature can also help; Kennedy suggests getting rid of the stark overheads. "The ability to dim the lights is ideal," she says. For daytime classes, the most natural lighting is the best, such as sunlight. "In terms of temperature, we certainly don't want to freeze students out or overheat them," says Kennedy.

Whatever the path, the end is the same. "Most of all, setting a yogic mood is simply creating a safe space where a student feels she can be herself and be present with her own body and practice," says Kennedy.

Angela Pirisi is a freelance health writer who has covered holistic health, fitness, nutrition, and herbal remedies. Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal as well as in Natural Health, Fitness, Cooking Light, Let's Live, and Better Nutrition.

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Reader Comments


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!


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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