The class is invited to smell the essential oils with care.

Scent and Sensibility

10th March 2017

If, like Lisa Botwright, your only experience of aromatherapy is adding a few drops of lavender oil to your evening bath, then you’ll be intrigued to know that there’s much more to this ancient complementary therapy than meets the nose…

A particular brand of baby shampoo, freshly popped champagne, the perfume I wore to get married – these are all smells that have the power to mentally transport me to a particular time and place. It’s no coincidence that scent can do this: our olfactory system is found in the limbic region of the brain where memories are stored, so our conscious recollections inevitably become more powerful and emotive when linked with aroma. And to me, this makes sense… but the claim that scent can play an indispensable role in health care? I find I’m a little more sceptical about this.

Nonetheless, this may change, because I’m about to embark on a one day ‘Introduction to Aromatherapy’ course, run by holistic practitioner Daniele Robson, from her home in leafy North Watford. Actually, not quite her home: it’s a purpose-built studio, in fact, at the bottom of her garden. “Bring slippers,” was her only suggestion, so the slippers and I follow her down her pathway to a delightful wooden ‘retreat’. It’s a cold day, but inside the studio it’s warm and cosy, with comfy chairs arranged around a gas fire and a big cream rug. Naturally, the room also smells soporifically divine.

I and my three fellow ‘students’ begin by introducing ourselves and swapping stories about why we’re here. There’s Sarah – a young bride-to-be with incredibly sensitive skin; Julie, who suffers from severe eczema and wants to avoid using steroids, and Ruth, who initially consulted with Daniele after a neck injury, and has come back to learn how to make her own ‘excellent’ cream. Daniele talks about her own experience and explains what she hopes to cover today: the history and science behind it all (aromatherapy, as the name suggests, means healing through aroma), all about the essential oils we’ll be using – what they do and how to blend them. Finally – and I admit, I’m quite excited by this – we’ll make our very own bespoke cream that will address our own personalised concerns.

Like most things that are easily available in our commercially driven world, I hadn’t given much thought to where essential oils come from (lavender or rose, yes, but I couldn’t readily place the origins of eucalyptus or sandalwood) or to their legitimate role in nature. Their purpose, I learn, is to entice (in order to aid reproduction) or repel (insects, fungus, bacteria). They’re feisty stuff – nature’s original anti-bacterial and anti-fungal warriors. I’m coming around to the fact that their physical properties, as well as the emotional punch their scent packs, make for a pretty potent combination.

I’m also struck by how laborious the process is to extract the oil and the sheer quantity of the original plant that’s required. It takes over 100kg of rose petals to make a tiny 30ml vial, for example. Daniele says that she only uses ethical sources to buy her essential oils, and that we should expect to pay a realistic price for quality products. Those little bottles of ‘organic essential oils’ in pound shops? They’re likely to be synthetically made and far from the real thing. This doesn’t matter so much if we’re using them for oil burners or room sprays, but we won’t get the same therapeutic benefits.

Most aromatherapy treatments incorporate massage to push the oils deep into our skin. If the oils are potent enough, they’ll reach the blood vessels inside the hypodermis, and travel around the body: another reason to ensure that only safe and natural ingredients are used.

The oils can be applied topically to minor skin complaints such as insect bites, mixed with carrier oils/creams or added to a nice bath.

Aah. A lovely lavender bath. It’s the way that many of us choose to unwind after a long day, but it’s less well known that essential oils can also stimulate and revive. Daniele has chosen around ten oils for us to study, and as we waft the bottles daintily a little way from our nose, as we’re taught (as opposed to a big old sniff, which isn’t the done thing in a group setting, much less the fact that the oils are too strong for our bodies to process in this undiluted way) one of the oils makes me sit up straight in my chair. It turns out to be clary sage, which in Latin means clarity and healing. Daniele explains that “it revives us when we are feeling tired, especially as a result of nervous tension. It relieves emotional constriction and confusion that often manifests in our physical being as shallow breathing or headaches.” Gosh, who needs caffeine?

We also learn that the oils fall into categories such as warm (ginger, eucalyptus) or cool (lemon, chamomile) and are either moist or dry. Loosely speaking, it’s best to mix like with like, and its one of the first principles we absorb about making effective treatments. There’s also some maths-y stuff about calculating the correct proportions…

By mid-afternoon, we’re all experts (I’m joking: ‘the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know’ to borrow from Einstein) but we’re all keen to move on to the stage of blending our own creams.

What shall we make? We’ve all bonded by now, and cheerfully share our issues, from dry skin patches to mid-afternoon energy slumps. Buoyed on by this and by the revelatory effect of the clary sage, I attempt to make a concoction to ‘invigorate and energise’. I can envisage it now: a pot of aromatic deliciousness that will sit on my desk. I shall rub it into my hands, breath deeply and it will miraculously take away tiredness, steal that mid-afternoon slump and power me into clear-headed efficiency.

As I mix and blend, I talk weddings with the bride-to-be, and suggest what a lovely day this would make for an alternative hen do. A bride and her closest friends or family could make their own creams for the special day, to calm them, perhaps, if they think they might be nervous. “I could bring bubbles,” says Daniele. Whatever your reasons for attending, this is a super day. Fun and educational in equal measure.

Drifting home later in a dreamlike state (I feel almost intoxicated from the oils), and clutching my new-best-ever-going-home gift – I look forward to writing up my thoughts on the day, safe in the knowledge that even if I’m flagging a little, I shall have a secret weapon to hand.

Important: Most oils are completely safe, but some have potent contraindications and advice should be sought before use, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

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