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Journal

Embodied Rituals for Skin + Soul

Lavender: An Old World Medicine

Katie Gordon

I've been busy testing recipes for the Lavender + Labdanum Wild Medicine Bundle, in honor of Imbolc, a festival of Fire and Light. I think I have it narrowed down to the 4 items that'll be included, but in the process of crafting and coming up with new ideas, I realized Lavender is a plant that seems to be both overlooked in favor of "sexier" herbs and simultaneously still serves as a go-to for so many issues from stress and depression, burns, wounds, and skin conditions to difficult labor, fevers, and digestive difficulties. Lavender has been widely used for thousands of years from the early Romans luxuriating in lavender baths, early apothecaries preparing freshly distilled lavender for their eau de Cologne, until now, when most of us have a bottle of lavender essential oil in our medicine cabinet or a lavender candle next to the bed. 

To me, that says there's something not only timeless about Lavender, but something that speaks to us as humans on a primal, physiological and psychological level. Something about this ancient plant that heals us in ways we perhaps don't understand, but still feel drawn to. Like we know there's something there for us without knowing what that thing is. After spending time researching Lavender from a standpoint of aromatherapy, herbal energetics, and Chinese medicine meridian theory, I still don't know. But I know a bit more about Lavender, "The Oil of Paradox and Renewal," according to Peter Holmes, my Aroma Acupoint Therapy teacher. 

I love paradoxes. Seeming opposites are bridged by something often subtle yet powerful. Paradoxes force us to wonder how two things can exist in one space that are so vastly and completely different. This reconciliation of opposites seems to me to be a place of profound medicine. Lavender guides us into those places of profound medicine. 

Imperial Gem Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Imperial Gem Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lots of people use Lavender for stress, so let's look at that as an example. There's such thing as productive stress and unproductive stress. Productive stress is a normal part of life. You need to be alert and on-watch when you're driving. If you were feeling completely and utterly relaxed, it probably wouldn't be safe for yourself or those around you. However, the stress you feel when you can't sleep because you're thinking about all the things you need to do and your mind jumps from one catastrophe to another, and then you get stressed out that you're stressed out and can't sleep, which only serves to keep you from sleeping even more? That's unproductive stress. It can stem from either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system. That kind of stress leads to, among other things, nervous tension, pain, irritability, feeling mentally distracted or unfocused, muscle spasms and cramps, heart palpitations, etc. Symptoms associated with being chronically in the fight-or-flight response. 

Lavender selectively inhibits certain sympathetic OR parasympathetic nervous system functions that cause those symptoms because it works with with the individual's constitution, so the body responds to the plant according to what it needs. Because Lavender works adaptively like this to modulate the nervous system, it doesn't interfere with the good/productive stress, which is a normal part of functioning in life.

Here's an example of Lavender's paradoxical power:

Let's say that habitual behavior or addictions, feeling stuck in a rut, repeating unhealthy or unproductive patterns, is on one end of the spectrum. On the other end of that spectrum is an acute crisis or spontaneous, sudden change such as an accident or trauma, surgery, family crisis, or the stress that comes with giving up an addiction (completely new patterns and behaviors that seem to us to come on suddenly). Lavender can help us both to move OUT of old, stuck patterns, promoting renewal and opening us to new possibilities, while also helping us to accept painful situations or the fear that comes along with sudden change and crisis.

Another place we see Lavender's paradoxical and harmonizing effects is how it can exert either a heating or a cooling effect on the body according to the needs of the person. For a person with a hot condition (fever, inflammation, often acute), Lavender would have a cooling, sedating, and anti-inflammatory effect. On the other hand, for someone with a more chronic cold condition (chills, exhaustion, cold hands and feet), Lavender would act as a stimulant, generating heat and activity in their system. 

Lastly, let's look at the energetics of Lavender for a few more clues to understanding its nature and effects. The Lavender shrub grows best in a hot, dry climate with a thin layer of rocky, well-draining topsoil. Lavender, tempered by these elements of Earth and Fire, expresses this rugged strength by reconciling contradictions. Just like we touched on above. Unproductive and productive stress. Habitual patterns and crisis. 

However, here we go with another contradiction, as far as fragrance classification goes, the scent of Lavender is largely considered to be the water element - cool, soft, fluid, sweet. It has harmonizing, calming, and refreshing properties, making it a plant of renewal through water as well as strength through fire. True transformation.

And if we look at the name, Lavender derives from the Latin lavare, meaning to wash. So, yes Lavender was used in and associated with bath houses, but the washing it really refers to takes place on the mind/body/spirit level, allowing the psyche to open up, and the heart to soften.

If you need some Lavender in your life, it's featured in the Imbolc Wild Medicine Bundle - crafted with Lavender, Labdanum (an ancient oil used in medicine and ceremony), and a bit of Clary Sage in honor of the Celtic goddess Brigid. Learn more or purchase yours here. They're available until tomorrow and then they're gone!