The Best of Well Being

Around us is a world of communication – no, not mobile phones or other telecommunications technology but a world of stimuli which we were we were designed to intercept, receive and interpret – our senses.  Mostly we think that we rely upon our eyesight, visual stimuli are main source of information and provides our main set of relationships with the world.  What we see is what we believe, even though illusion is commonplace throughout nature and science.  Reality is about as fluid as truth.

I was have just got to work on a fresh, sunny English Spring morning.  There was a slight chill to the air, sunshine was pouring through the kitchen window, the mellow old stone of the farmhouse we live in was just warm enough for insects to gather and spread their wings to catch the early morning sun.  Outside the air smelt clean, you could smell the farmyard up the road, you could smell the dew, the greenness, the traffic from the nearby road, next door’s breakfast.  It took a moment’s pause to reflect and think about these things.  My sense of smell brings information and delights.  My vision was quite different.  Although I could see everything and it looked really nice and helped me observe the things I have noted above, I didn’t need to process the information in the same way.  

Had I been that insect on the stonework, I would have perceived my surroundings in a very different way.  My reality then would have been a different view of the communicant and odour molecules that would have provided me with a surreal world – I would have “seen” with my antennae, “looking” in a different way.

On the journey to work through the countryside, looking at the greening fields, watching the early morning flocks of birds and listening to the cawing of the rooks close by my office window, I was taken back to one of my childhood haunts in Sussex, called St. Anne’s Well Gardens.  Here was laid out a scented garden for the blind.  There were roses galore, many other scented and fragrant shrubs.  It was an area of quiet contemplation that was enjoyed by many, especially the elderly.  There was a feeling of serenity.  I and my shrieking companions felt almost a sanctity about the place and we were quieted and I suppose learned a lot by just sitting on the grass and naturally observing as only children do.  

It was here for example that I first noticed the difference in air temperature over a very large bed of rosemary compared with the surrounding atmosphere.  The release of aromatics and temperature change noted by science was something that was observable without instrumentation, given time and the ability to reflect.  I returned there quite recently to this town, recently made city, which is well known for a certain political genre, to find a children’s playground, replete with safety regulated equipment, a special surface ensuring that the children could not sue the local council and the place was full of happy sound (a few of the older teenagers just discovering some other activities of growing up!).  The gravel paths were gone, the grass was gone, the aroma was gone.

We were evidently born to live in a fragrant earth, an aromatic world, an odour pool of communication.  Every time we go out of our door and even within our home, our little receptors are swept.  The constant swirl of communicant and odiferous molecules.  Generally we ignore them and don’t smell anything.  If we are familiar with things, we simply switch off, we don’t notice our own home odour, we don’t notice our own body odour to any great extent and only really get excited with some body else’s!  We all acknowledge that cat and dog don’t think this way, or behave this way.  

This ability to “switch off” has in a way been a cause of the debasement of the sense of smell and contributed to the poor understanding of its value.  Aromatherapy has appealed to this basic lack at its deepest sense.  It is true that in the last century there was a rise in deodorants and air fresheners as never before.  Aromatherapy has impacted the world in rather subtle ways.  If you ask the question around the world “What are essential oils mainly used for?” you come up with a surprising answer.  Most trained aromatherapists would say something along the lines of massage, health care or perhaps quote a disease condition and so on.  In the beauty world they would refer to them as for use in active cosmetics.  Let’s discount perfumery, because consumers don’t really buy them to make that many perfumes and there are a few other minor uses.  The big sales come from room fragrancing on burners.  A few years ago, you never really saw an essential oil burner.  Nowadays, every gift shop, every tatty shop, every department store has a variety.  China and Taiwan have made some good money in exporting these little ceramic pots, even terracotta pieces, to absorb and release essential oils.  

Now before everyone shouts “This isn’t true aromatherapy” it is and it isn’t. Let’s pause for a moment and think how essential oils are released or appreciated in the world at large.  In the 20s and 30s,in large epidemics of TB in Europe, the sanatoria were placed either high in mountains or deep underground in salt mines.  The objective was the same – to heal damaged tissue.  Which place would you prefer?  I am sure most would opt for the pine forests, where the constant ebb and flow of wind, the exposure to the sun gently released into the atmosphere millions of essential oil molecules.  A similar experience is found in any forest with aromatic trees.  You can ignore it, miss it, overlook it – it is so common.  The air is saturated with those same essential oils that health and safety experts insist are so bad for us.  If only they would pay the same attention to the stench of diesel and petrol fumes and the various “aromas” that hang around a petrol filling station.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful.  In one environment my nose says “that’s great” in the other it says “let’s get out of here”.  But the science of greed rather than purity reverses this role and panics us about quite natural matters we are mostly able to deal with by common sense.  Some friends of ours refer to the fragrant walks in the Himalayas and I well remember the first time I experienced the smell of the Garigue in southern France, where the thymol just rolls over you.  

So here we are in a domestic situation trying to bring those fresh natural elements into our home. It is not illogical to ask if they have the same effect and so on.  In simplest terms, a few drops of essential oil on a ceramic chip with local evaporation is going to scent the room to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the quality of the essential oil.  Fun can be had in blending the essential oils to give a woody or floral aroma etc.  Even a few drops of essential oil placed on cotton wool placed behind a radiator can have a mood enhancing or psycho therapeutic effect.  There is no sense in poo pooing such ideas just because they don’t make money for the trained professional or enhance the dignity of those who want to look like or sound like orthodox medical people.  Simple things often work best.

Migrating upwards in the scale of aesthetics one comes to the ceramic burners, or perhaps made of metal and glass.  All with the same basic use whereby a bowl or dish is heated by a candle and a few drops of oil appropriate to the requirement or condition are sprinkled on the surface.  Depending on the design, they can make delightful and sensual additions to a room setting.  They also make ideal gifts as an introduction to aromatherapy for friends and family.  

Even here, there are things to watch out for.  Most of the burners I have seen are cheap and cheerful in that they are too small and the essential oils are too near to the bowl.  Leaving aside aesthetics, you don’t want a burner that is too thin.  It’s really worth that extra little bit of money to get something that works properly.  If it boils the water then it’s probably not such a good idea.  Some of the more expensive designs, generally taller, allow for a large quantity of water that doesn’t dry out too quickly, doesn’t overheat the water so that you get a much better or therapeutic effect, and depending upon the oil, doesn’t leave that unpleasant sticky residue.  

Such taller burners, with larger bowls are also interesting for heating and releasing the vapours from incense, whether that be Frankincense and Myrrh tears or a readymade blend.  This can look visually attractive as well if mixed with flower petals or other herbs.  The gentle heat slowly releases into the atmosphere essential oils which are latent within the dried herbs, gums and resins.  Depending upon the gums, these may eventually melt and you end up with a little extra cleaning and for this effect, I prefer the glass or stainless steel bowl.  For essential oils, I do love to see fine ceramics and a wide bowl that allow for evaporation over a few hours.

Do they have an effect?  In my opinion yes and perform just as well as many of the electrical gadgets that are around.  A variety of ceramics with electrical heaters are around and if purchasing one of these, make sure that you buy something with the gentlest heat, using the principles described above for the old good fashioned candle burner.  You want the most gentle heat available, not a fierce heat.  

Most of the electrical apparatus concentrate on an evaporator pad, heated or not and some form of fan that drives the fan into the atmosphere.  These come in a range from home models to industrial models.  Some people find these quite successful but I must say that I have never found them as pleasing to use as simple burners.  Often the pads have to be laced with a synthetic to heighten the odour impact.  Most of the blends that come with the equipment seem a little gimmicky.  Nevertheless, there are those who swear by them and they certainly have that modern look and appeal that says “I am a scientific tool” so in a clinical setting can contribute something practical.  However, all the above relies either upon heat or upon local evaporation.  Without going into the technical reasons too much, changes can take place.  Obviously lighter molecules are releases faster than heavier molecules (crudely, you might end up with a burnt residue).  

My favourite piece of apparatus is the diffuser.  These come in various shapes and sizes, but basically consist of an air pump and nebuliser.  Such dispersion systems seem to me as near to nature as is practical, as they release the essential oils by a cold dispersion, releasing micro droplets in a similar way to what was described above in the pine forest, where the winds clash the needles and the resulting molecules give that added piquance of freshness which we have difficulty in describing but sense so easily.  In a world of aerial pollution – dust, dirt, fumes, even airborne disease, bacteria or germs - fragrant air lets you enjoy the benefits of a healthful air laden with micro droplets of nature’s beneficial essential oils.  This is, if you like, aerial aromatherapy in its truest and simplest forms.  Nebulising diffusers ionise these micro droplets, which stay suspended in the air for several hours.  The revitalise the air and depending upon the essential oil, may have an antiseptic and deodorising action.  Certainly the air feels fresher, more pure or more heady according to the choice made.  Such diffusers refresh the air, change the air and charge the air in minutes.  If you look of the nebulising glass part of the system, you can see Venturi tubes and above these a baffle, against which the essential oil “breaks” into the finest mist of micro droplets.  There is no need, and it is not recommended, to run nebulisers continually except in very airy or open conditions.  In fact, the thinnest dispersion gives the best results – they are best used in 15 minute bursts at say, two hour intervals.  Remember that you will quickly attune to the aroma and so it will appear to fade.  This is nothing to do with effect.  Nebulising diffusing systems are not suitable for blends which incorporate vegetable oils.  However, Floral Waters can be used in them.  

In my experience, nebulising diffusers are the best systems for public or private places where air treatment is needed.  It is not uncommon to find them in yoga, aerobic, gymnastic or fitness centres alongside offices, schools, treatment and waiting rooms.  In the work place they are often found in reception or where smoking causes problems.  Electric pollution is a complaint increasingly heard from VDU users and an aromatic change can make all the difference.  As with anything else, there are those who decry the system and as I have stated above, caution should be exercised in their use as in my opinion, this system allows for overuse and can lead to irritation.  One of the drawbacks to the system is that they are not quiet.  There is always a small hum from the pumps which are quite powerful and because the glass chambers are built to nebulise, there will also be a slight sound.  If working professionally, it’s a good idea to put a free standing nebuliser some distance from the air pump.  In beauty salons and airlines, the pump is often concealed beneath the counter where it is not heard, an air line being taken to a work surface where the nebuliser is free standing.  It too has a certain “scientific” look and appeal.

Sometimes we overlook the fact that when we breath, 2000 square feet of pulmonary tissue come into contact with air particles, the blood is regenerated, pure energy of living oxygen via catalysts energise and revitalise living cells.  This is well worth remembering when we remembering when we concentrate upon some physical applications of essential oils.  Mostly we talk about essential oils passing through the skin, in massage or bathing, but breathing them in is part of everyday life, whether we realise it or not.  

These days the question of allergic reactions comes up and of course people do have them.  This however, is a very extensive subject.  A literature search reveals not too many problems.  This is unsurprising as folk forget the fundamentals - that they are surrounded by odour molecules.  Yes, they may object to a certain perfume, they may object to certain fumes as I have done above.  One must remember, however, that we are constantly surrounded by toxic fumes and beneficial fumes.  We live in a fragrant world, even if our senses do not always acknowledge their communicant ability.  We live in a gaseous world, we have to, we are designed to work by gas, e.g. oxygen, carbon dioxide.  

So let’s not get too excited by these pro’s and con’s.  If you don’t like something or something affects you, switch it off or blow it out, if you see what I mean.  Trained therapists should have already a clear understanding of these matters and should concentrate on the positive aspects and healing benefits of aerial dispersion which is not far away from how nature releases its essential oils.  The fragrance of myrtle trees on a scorching hot day, so hot that you can fry an egg on the stones, is as cooling and as refreshing as any fountain.

Let’s take a moment of time, perhaps as you read this article, to sense around you all the aromas that you can, all the communicant molecules that wash over you in a constant tide that we do not acknowledge, and seek out those vital refreshing elements that can contribute so much to our well being in an air that is meant, at least, to be laden with the joy of living.