Sweet smells for healing hands

Fiona MacAulay tries her hand at the art of aromatherapy
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The Independent Online
"You've heard of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, who introduce you to Shakespeare's plays in two and a half hours? Well, this is the Reduced Aromatherapy C ompany," began our tutor Lorna, on our one-day course at the Clare Maxwell-Hudson School. The agenda was to look at the plant fragrances (essential oils) and the way they work. Finally we would have a go at prescribing and mixing our own scented massage oils.

This game-plan seemed to meet the requirements of the assortment of people on the course. Some, like me, wanted to learn the basics for use at home; others were considering taking up aromatherapy as a profession. Taeko Arai from Japan, who is working as a midwife, was particularly interested in aromatherapy for mother and baby. Fiona Stoppard is about to start a massage diploma course, from which she hopes to earn a living. Since aromatherapy uses massage as one of its most effective tools she wanted to get a good grounding in the subject.

In the wake of the recent antibiotic scare, it did seem particularly appropriate to be attending the course. "The best recipe for health is to apply sweet scents to the brain," said the Classical Greek poet Anacreon. Smell, of all the senses, has the most direct connection to the limbic section of the brain, a part associated with memories, arousal and emotion. So the fragrant oils can have a significant effect on mood and mental state. They are also absorbed through the skin. Many of them have antiseptic qualities as well as analgesic, antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects, said Lorna. They are distilled from plants and are in fact not oily at all, but are called "oils" because they float on water.

Lorna took us through the different ways in which the essential oils can be used. The most obvious is massage, prepared by adding a few drops to a carrier such as almond or apricot oil. Alternatively they can be diluted in water to spray around the room, or wafted by the use of a vaporiser. You could add a few drops to bath water or use the oil in an inhalation. For administering to a localised area, dilute in water and then apply as a compress. A few of the oils have a beneficial effect when used neat on the skin, but they are strong and so should be used with care.

We next moved on to smelling some oils. Lorna passed each of us a thin strip of paper dotted with a blob of oil and we fanned it in front of our noses, shut our eyes and were then asked to describe the scent and its effect, helped along by Lorna. "Is it warming or cooling? Calming or invigorating? Does it go to your head?" In this way we went through 14 of the most commonly used oils, identified them and discussed their different functions. Frankincense "is a spiritual oil that helps with grief and anxiety. German choirboys were found to be getting stoned on the frankincense in church incense, so the chemical that has the hallucinogenic qualities is now removed. Clary sage is an antidepressant ..."

To try out our new knowledge, we split into pairs to make a restorative potion. Lorna recommended that we use no more than four oils in a blend. These were then diluted in a base oil to rub into the skin. The base oils have therapeutic qualities in themselves and are selected to suit each individual's skin type.

I was prescribing for Elaine Jacobs, who wanted something to relax her on stressful days. We chose camomile and neroli (from the blossom of the bitter orange tree), and added tea-tree for its anti-microbial action. Elaine wanted a light base oil so we chose grapeseed, with a small amount of evening primrose oil. To round things off, Lorna showed us a few of the basic massage movements, and still working in pairs we applied our personalised oils to each other. The trouble was, now that we were completely relaxed, we had to make our way home.

The cost of the course was the same as the price of an hour of aromatherapy massage, which seemed a bargain to me. Spend the same amount again on Clare Maxwell-Hudson's aromatherapy massage book and a small selection of oils, and you may feel you have made a sound investment in health and pleasure.

The Clare Maxwell-Hudson School in London (0181-450 6494) runs 'Introducing Aromatherapy' one-day courses, cost pounds 40. There is also a mail-order service for aromatherapy products.