Awareness of Smell: Sensing the Aroma of Now

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Smell, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Here's what they have to say about developing body literacy and self-knowing, by exploring and using our sense of smell in The Body's Way.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

The nose is an amazing part of the human body. It is designed to bring you pleasure, warn you of danger, help you select mates and find food. Odors can be classified into one of seven primary types: musky, putrid, pungent, camphoraceous, ethereal, floral and pepperminty. We often associate smells with specific events, places and people in our lives; scents have a special ability to conjure up memories and trigger emotions. Our sense of smell is inherently linked to taste and deeply impacts the way we act and experience the world.

Maria Skinner, Black Belt Certified Nia Teacher and NGT, says:

"Smell the moment." This is one of my favorite Debbie Rosas phrases. In a Nia class, this invitation is one of the ways to guarantee that students will take deeper breaths and use their whole body to do it.

Just for fun, I sometimes ask students in my Nia classes to smell the moment at the very end of the “Get Moving” cycle when we are all sweaty. Usually people laugh and take a big whiff! Yeah, we're often pretty stinky by then, but what better way to build community than to take in and celebrate each other’s scents at the height of joyful expression?

My sense of smell reminds me, more than my other senses, that I am an animal. Unlike my eyes or ears, my nose takes me to a primal, instinctive place and bypasses my mental realm. The way something smells is always more important to me than the way it looks. I once had a crush on a guy who smelled so good I would get light-headed around him. Turns out it was not his manly scent but his laundry detergent that was appealing. However, I still can't smell that detergent without thinking of him. There was another guy that I really liked until I got up close to him. He smelled like bologna and I had to hold my breath. That was the end of that.

Scents can be used to encourage deeper breathing and to cultivate more prana, more life. Things that smell good make me feel more alive. If I am really loving a smell and wanting to inhale the moment, I will fill my body with breath again and again and again. Even imagining things that smell good will produce the same effect. I sometimes invite students in my Nia classes to imagine they're smelling roses, freshly baked cookies, wet grass or city streets. These olfactory images can be more powerful that visual ones in terms of bringing movements to life since they invite the whole body to fill.

I find that when I do not like the way something smells, I hold my breath or take shallow breaths. This creates contraction in my body. So I go about my life adjusting the scents in my environment using flowers, essential oils and fresh air as my tools. What I choose to bask in may not be what my dogs love (dead snakes, for instance), but we are different animals.

Maria’s tips on smell:

• Make a list of your favorite smells, and imagine smelling them.
• Surround yourself with your favorite smelling items, and note what kind of emotions or feelings arise.
• Identify what smells you do not respond well to, and see if you can shift your routine or living style to eliminate them.

Kelly Atkins, Black Belt Certified Nia Teacher and NGT, says:

I remember as a new mother, shortly after my son was born, saying to my husband in a state of awe, “He smells like candy!” My husband’s reply at that time was, “Well don’t eat him!” This sense of smell in a pregnant woman is enhanced through hormone changes, a biological function designed to ensure the safety and bonding of the baby and mother.

When we smell something, we are moving molecules up into an area of the brain that is in the deep center, near the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and pituitary gland. The molecules trigger the olfactory nerve, and then the body reacts by sending messages. I recall coming home once and smelling melting plastic. The smell got stronger, so we called the fire department and left the house. Smoke wasn’t visual until much later after the fire fighters were there and discovered an electrical fire was starting in the kitchen lights.

Smell is the most animal-like of all the senses, as it’s used in the animal world proficiently. I watch my cat sense other felines outside our house with his nose, and his first instinct is to twitch his tail and spray to let the other cats know this is his territory. Male pigs secrete scents in their saliva that cause female pigs in heat to assume an accommodating position for breeding. Both of these instances have to do with pheromones, which are – as you may have guessed – secreted or excreted chemical factors that trigger a social response in members of the same species (Wikipedia).

Human pheromones are the scents we give out naturally that are affected by our hormones, emotions, diet, state of our health and other factors. One study proves that through pheromones called MHC (the name of the gene scent bearing your “scent signature” recognizable by your kin), we pick mates that have the best biological compatibility to our own for procreation of our species. If our partner’s MHC is opposite our own, then the combination is optimal for procreating.

As Lawrence D. Rosenblum explains in his book See What I'm Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses, “Tests have found that women on birth control pills actually have less ability to pick [mates who are] MHC dissimilar and more often pick the less compatible [partner]!” What this means is that our natural sense of smell may be connected to the healthy evolution of our species.

There are many studies and debates about smell and the olfactory nerve. Some believe smell is very deeply connected to emotion and extremely primal in nature. Others insist humans are “beyond” instinctual, animal-like responses, and argue that the theory saying pheromones induce either reflexive changes in behavior or longer-term physiology changes is too limiting – for both mankind and animals (Rosenblum). I maintain this resistance to the animalistic nature of our bodies is another example of a mind-body disconnect.

“Smelling the moment” is a way to connect more deeply with our primal selves and to awaken a deeper awareness of our body’s natural messaging system. If our responses to life come from an understanding of both our natural body and logical mind, we have more of an opportunity to make healthy choices.

Kelly’s tips on smell:

• Allow your breath to travel deep into your body. Notice sensations, memories or emotions that arise.
• Try using a variety of essential oils, lotions, shampoos, candles and foods to significantly increase pleasure and support mood shifts.
• Notice the difference between a natural, authentic smell as opposed to an artificial smell. For example, smell a manufactured perfume and then take a walk through the forest and inhale deeply by the trunk of a tree. Does your body respond differently? If so, how?

Megan MacArthur, Black Belt Certified Nia Teacher and NGT, says: 

Ever since I watched The Ice Storm about 14 years ago, I’ve thought about the act of smelling in a completely different way. In one part of the film, smelling is described as a process of consuming the molecules that have come off whatever object or living creature you are sensing.

In other words, when you smell something, you invite the outside world into the body – one of the most intimate experiences of moment-to-moment living. Molecules are granted unlimited access to your inner world, the textures and fluids of your existence.

Scent has a direct route to the brain. In fact, it has the fastest path to the brain. The olfactory centers touch the deepest part of the limbic brain (often referred to as the “emotional brain”), an area associated with memory, feeling and pleasure. Aroma sends direct signals to this “emotional brain” and almost immediately conjures intense responses in the body.

Breathing is our most intimate connection to receiving scents. Through an increased awareness, we can become more alert to fragrance and begin to connect to not only what is here in this moment but also to past experiences.

Through my relationship with the sensation of smell, I have hurt others emotionally, because I’ve had visceral, negative responses to their scent and blurted out my feelings from a reactionary place. I have also overcome physical fears thanks to aromatherapy, which has offered scents to my nose that have shifted my response from one of panic to one of ease. Through my relationship with scent I have recalled traumas and memories. I have fallen in love; the scent of my partner stirs sensuality and comfort. I’ve learned to appreciate the subtleties and severity of nature and my surroundings – brush fires, volcanic sulfur banks, flowers and fruits, sea breeze, mulch, grasses and so much more.

For me, stopping to breathe and truly sense the aroma of the now creates a calm wave of cool light up the front of my face over the crown of my head. It trickles and coats my neck with warm support. My whole body relaxes and my mind is available and expansive. My emotional realm arrives into the present moment. And I am here now, smelling this moment and allowing it to run through my body and become part of me.

Megan’s tips on smell:

• Turn breathing into the act of smelling and lengthen your breath cycle.
• Smell life and make smell a part of every experience.
• Try writing down one word per scent that comes to mind as you smell five of your favorite things. What role do these scents play in your life?

Linda Casto, Blue Belt Certified Nia Teacher / West Coast Ambassador to Johns Hopkins SOE Center for the Study of Creativity and Neuro-Education, says:

Since humans no longer depend on smell to meet their basic needs, our olfactory sense has become underutilized and even under-appreciated. As explained in Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th Edition, “Humans can distinguish more than 10,000 different smells (odorants), which are detected by specialized olfactory receptor neurons lining the nose….”

I know first-hand how those 10,000 odorants influence us! I am burning a candle as I write. If I take a deep sniff of its scent, I smell my happiest day – my wedding day. It’s the mix of the same fragrant candles we used in the space, and they are forever associated with anticipation and joy.

Imagine the smell of just-baked cinnamon buns, a just-bathed baby or a fragrant rose. You will probably agree that your sense of smell offers immediate delights, and you might remember something from your past that triggers a physical, mental or emotional response. This makes sense, since olfaction is handled by the same part of the brain (the limbic system) that handles memories and emotions (

I have learned to work with scent to stimulate my healing and creative endeavors. After I sit down to write, I apply a few drops of the essential oil blends developed by my teacher, David Elliott, to my third eye, throat and heart chakras.

As Next Generation Trainer Laurie Bass told me after I applied David’s Ascension Blend with the intention of opening her crown, “I had an immediate energetic response to the oil, and experienced a strong pulsing sensation and mental and energetic clearing. I don't recall the actual scent, but I remember really liking it!” Many essential oils contain medicinal properties that trigger these types of physical sensations. 

Diego Restrepo, co-director of the University of Colorado School of Medicine Center for NeuroScience, recently had a study published in the scientific journal Neuron. In this study, titled New Secret to How Smells Are Detected Uncovered, he writes, “We know very little about olfaction and we tend to think that it is not very important in humans compared to the other creatures. But much of what goes on is subtle and we are only beginning to understand it."

Scientists in Israel recently found that when men merely sniffed negative-emotion-related odorless tears of female participants, they experienced reduced levels of testosterone and a reduction in sexual attraction when looking at pictures of women’s faces (Human Tears Contain a Chemosignal).

Clearly, our sense of smell is just beginning to be understood. I invite you to play with the tips below to deepen your relationship with this practical and magical gift.

Linda's tips on smell:

  • For the next 24 hours, smell your food before you taste it. Imagine your nose is 50 times its size and fully explore your food by sniffing it. Does the smell of your food match its taste? It may not. In those cases do you taste with your nose or your taste buds?
  • Move through the Nia 5 Stages with the focus of smell. As you rise further from the floor in each stage notice what you smell and how that smell influences your movement.
  • Experiment with David Elliott’s sprays and oils.

Recommended Resources:

  • "Scents and Scentuality: Aromatherapy & Essential Oils for Romance, Love, and Sex" by Valerie Ann Worwood

  • "The Fragrant Mind: Aromatherapy for Personality, Mind, Mood and Emotion" by Valerie Ann Worwood

  • "Advanced Aromatherapy: The Science of Essential Oil Therapy" by Kurt Schnaubelt Ph.D.

  • "The Spell of the Sensuous" by David Abram

  • "A Natural History of the Senses" by Diane Ackerman