Essential Oils in Group Settings


Have you ever been to a yoga class or gathering like a women’s circle and been overwhelmed by the smell of essential oils in use? I have, and it is not a pleasant experience.

Essential Oils have become so popular that it seems wherever you go, people are using them. But are they using these oils wisely and safely? This is something that came up in my sacred sisterhood circle recently, and is a subject that I feel called to speak to from a Professional Aromatherapist’s perspective.

In a general sense, we are becoming more aware of the fact that some people are very sensitive to any kind of scent. Chemical sensitivity seems to be on the rise, and while essential oils are natural, they are still chemicals and could cause illness to those who are sensitive. This is why we now have many “scent-free” working environments.

When looking at the therapeutic use of essential oils in Aromatherapy, we are working with a specific intention. Knowing that essential oils can add a wonderful element to any spiritual work, we may want to share this experience with others. What do we need to consider with this?

We know that scent is a powerful and highly individual sense. In the “How Do You Smell” blog we explored how scent works in our brain and why we can have such strong emotional and physical reactions to scent.
So let’s think about two important factors that we learned about scent and the brain:

  • Scent is connected to our Limbic system and has the power to evoke memories.

  • Each person will respond differently to any given scent.

What does this mean for each individual who is attending a class or circle gathering where essential oils are being diffused or passed around and applied topically? What if that scent is connected to an unpleasant memory or circumstance for someone? You’re right if you’re thinking that this could have a negative impact on that person’s experience of the class or gathering.

Remember that in addition to the memory association of scent, the chemical constituents within essential oils can create physical responses in our body. Again, this reaction can vary from person to person. We also know that not all essential oils are safe for all people. Those with underlying medical conditions or who are on medication need to be extra careful when working with essential oils. In addition, there are only a handful of essential oils that pregnant women should be exposed to, and this includes by inhalation.

So imagine the scenario of walking into a yoga class or circle where the leader is diffusing peppermint for a fresh uplifting scent. You may simply not like the smell, or it could have an association that is not positive for you. For someone who is in the early stages of pregnancy, or has a heart condition, or a history of seizures, smelling this peppermint oil could have negative health implications. The problem here is that essential oils are very powerful, and many people who want to help others with their health and wellness do not have the necessary knowledge of essential oils to offer this ‘aromatic help’ in a safe way. We are seeing an increase in the use of essential oils, however the knowledge of safety seems to be a bit behind the level of use.

When we pull all of this information about scent and essential oils together, what we see is that patrons may be unknowingly subjected to chemicals within essential oils that may not be in their best interest, and could even present a risk to their health. While the intention of the person leading the class or gathering is well-meaning, there is still the possibility of harm to sensitive individuals. This is a conversation that we need to have. In my view, it is not fair that those who are sensitive or have underlying health concerns are excluded from participating in group events, simply because we are not considering the needs of all in attendance when it comes to using scent as part of the experience.

How can we address this? For those of us who lead classes or gatherings and know that essential oils can add significantly to the sessions, how can we incorporate scent and still respect the sensitivity and health of each attendee? My suggestion is first to inform attendees in advance that scent will be part of the experience, and second to provide this scent for inhalation to those participants who would like to add it to their experience. Some examples of how we might do this are:

  • A personal inhaler, sometimes called a “sniff-stick”, with essential oils inside

  • a small glass container with salt, with essential oils added

  • a drop of essential oil on a scent strip (a small strip of paper)


Any of these can be passed around the circle for those who would like to work with scent. It is important to remember that we do not need to wear essential oils for them to have an impact…inhalation is a highly effective method of use. Before any gathering I offer, I let participants know that scent is part of the experience and ask then to notify me of any concerns or sensitivities they may have. Sometimes I don’t hear from people, and this comes up again in the session where I begin with a brief intake form and information on essential oil safety. Proceeding in this way, I know that I have done what I can to inform the participants, and also that I am providing the scent in an individual way that allows participants to make their own choice as to whether scent will be part of their experience.

Essential oils are powerful allies and can add a tremendous amount to our spiritual work. As we know, anything that has the potential to heal also has the potential to do harm, and so we must respect this and apply this knowledge to group settings where we may want to include scent as part of the experience.