The Nose and The Rose

Dr. Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd)

For most of us, the nose is merely a structure which protrudes from our face, enabling us to take air into our lungs and to smell our favourite food. It can also be a source of interminable suffering in the form of sneezing, allergies, bleeding, etc.

To the yogi, however, the nose is the link to our most primal instincts and emotions and, thereby, the doorway to higher consciousness.

Anatomy and physiology

The nose is divided into two conical passages which conduct air into the lungs and smells to the approximately five million nerve receptors at the bridge of the nose. Though the number of receptors is small when compared to that in animals dependent on smell (for example, the rabbit has 100 million and the hunting dog 220 million), the human nose is an amazingly sensitive detector. We can detect one billionth of a gram of ethyl mercaptan, the essence of rotten meat, though only for a short time, as the nose adapts very quickly. The first few whiffs of a rose are the most potent and invigorating.

Just how sensitive an organ the nose is, can be demonstrated by the fact that we can detect minute differences in concentration between one nostril and the other and thereby tell where a smell is coming from. We are literally smelling the direction of an object.

Smell and the emotions

The brain structure responsible for interpreting smells is the oldest part of the brain, called the rhinencephalon, or 'smell brain'. It is the most dominant in primitive animals and the least dominant in man. Within it are centres responsible for generating fear, rage, aggression, pleasure, sexual drive and reproductive cycles, and these are somehow linked up with smell.

We know that the smell of perfume can remind us of a past lover or our mother and arouse various emotions and passions. These feelings are mediated via the rhinencephalon. Other smells can give rise to unpleasant memories or even to fears and anxiety. We may not even realize why we feel as we do or that our feelings are in some way linked to a smell sparking off subconscious mental impulses.

These findings of modern science are in agreement with the ancient yogic claims that smell is one of our most primordial senses. Smell is tied to mooladhara chakra, which is the centre for our instincts of self-preservation and material security. It is the first psychic centre in humans, although it overlaps with the animal world, and is therefore buried deeply in our emotional experience.

Smell in daily life

As a sense, smell is given last place by today's standards. Visual sense has, probably, the most powerful influence on our perception. However, it is much easier to remember a smell than a visual image because smell is tied to primitive, preverbal, emotional levels of our brain and thereby triggers the autonomic areas of our nervous system. Smell lies beyond our ability to consciously interpret and intellectualize, which is why the names of familiar smells so often elude us.

Just because we cannot easily interpret, analyze or understand smell and its effect on our lives we should not minimize its importance. Smell is a powerful means of perceiving our environment even though it works, for the most part, subliminally. The nasal apparatus can be made even more sensitive, and we can become more aware of its importance, through meditation.

Scientifically speaking, we know certain facts about the sense of smell and its link with emotions and our interpersonal relationships. For example, after women were unknowingly made to smell certain female hormones, they tended to favour people who were more feminine in nature, shy and retiring, rather than masculine, dominant and assertive. The individuals concerned did not realize why they felt the way they did because the smell only registered consciously for a few seconds while it changed concentration. Its effects continued on afterwards, however. Through meditation we can become more consciously aware of the continuing effects of external events on our inner life, as meditation opens up our inner perceptive ability.

The whole picture of smell and its effects on our interrelationships is complicated by the fact that we tend to distort natural odours with perfumes, many of which are of animal origin (musk, civet, castoreum). This is probably because of social taboos regarding body and toilet odours which tend to drive our awareness of smell underground into the subconscious world of the autonomic nervous system. This interferes with the natural process of smell communication which we see in animals, who use smell to communicate, to control mating and reproduction and in aggressive and maternal behaviour. By eradicating our own natural odours, we may well be cutting ourselves off from health, intuition and clarity. Meditation gives more awareness of the effects of past conditioning on our present feelings and ways of viewing the world.

The role of the nose in yoga

The nose plays a very important part in all yogic techniques simply because respiration is fundamental to diving deeper into meditative experience. It is for this reason that hatha yoga shatkarmas such as kunjal and neti are used to maintain inner cleanliness of the nasal passages, sinus and other related structures, and to allow the sense of smell, at the physical level, and its other related functions at more subtle levels, to function optimally.

Though the sense of smell is related to the lowest psychic centre in man, mooladhara chakra, it is also directly related to one of the highest centres, ajna chakra, the third eye. The point where the olfactory nerve receptors lie at the eyebrow centre is known as bhrumadhya, the centre responsible for triggering ajna chakra. This is the point we focus on to develop intuition and to tap inner knowledge and inner vision. All pranayama techniques cleanse, stimulate and eventually awaken this area.

Meditation techniques which make use of pranayama awaken us to the more subtle aspects of smell and allow us to dive into our emotional and psychic nature. These methods allow us to become aware of, and eventually restructure, our inner nature so that energy is utilized creatively. Smell is only one aspect that is made more conscious so that we can realize its effects on our behaviour and interpersonal relationships. At the same time, the other senses also become more acute and active. We start to, see how our whole perception is coloured by our upbringing and thereby we can be freed from its effects. We enter into a totally new relationship with the world and ourselves, one that looks and smells better and brighter.