A couple of smells

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Alex Frangeskou was exhausted by a hectic and stressful term. To help her unwind, Victoria Neumark treated her to an aromatherapy massage.

Bergamot is the therapist's first choice and she drops some oil into a glass, saying, "it regulates the body, takes away too much stress".

It has been a long, hard term for Alex Frangeskou, who wriggles slightly on the treatment couch. In addition to the normally hectic duties of a junior class teacher and special needs co-ordinator, she has co-produced three drama productions this year at Hazelwood Junior School in Enfield, north London.

Her class of 11-year-old leavers, many of whom Alex has taught for two years, are transferring to numerous schools in and beyond the borough and it was a highly emotional end of term.

Now it's all behind her. Sun, sea and the beaches of Thailand beckon, but not before she has tested aromatherapy as a way to de-stress.

For the past 18 months, Alex and I have been running a drama group for about 30 children in my son's year group. The group was initially aged nine and 10 but are now "the leavers", aged 11. We've met after school for an hour a week - more when we've been in rehearsal - and put on three plays. The first, a workshop production, featured theatre games which we used to develop our actors' confidence and solidarity. This included an improvised play on migrant newcomers to a school. Many of our pupils, like Alex, have families originally from Cyprus and visit the island every year. Others are newer to this country.

Working on this cemented our relationship. She is the stern one with the quiet, calm centre and a booming voice which quells unruly pupils. I am the fizzy creative one able to psych them into doing eccentric things. It is an excellent combination. What the children don't see, of course, are the nasty fierce bits of me (reserved for home) and the inspiring, sympathetic bits of Alex (carefully restricted).

Once we had a solid group, we went on to do a highly revised version of the story of Oliver Twist. We ended this term with an 18-page, all-Shakespeare A Midsummer Night's Dream which was, even if we say so ourselves, astonishingly good, particularly as it was put together in four weeks. The children knew their lines, they mastered a lot of stage technique, had the confidence to continue in character, despite making mistakes, and learnt how to interact on stage. Above all, they were thrilled to bits with their efforts.

Alex and I were also thrilled but exhausted after daily rehearsals for three weeks. We had adrenaline comedown after such a great rush of activity and from the emotional strain of containing the children's excitement. So the prospect of a full aromatherapy massage and consultation beckoned with soothing luxury. Alison Phillips trained for three years as a beauty therapist and aromatherapist in her native South Africa. She sees all sorts of women in a busy week, many for beauty treatments, but more and more for aromatherapy. As she eases and pulls the knots from Alex's tired body, the room falls quiet. The clamour of children empties from our minds and is replaced by gentle introspection.

c4) = You can have aromatherapy to help with many complaints, from loss of libido to insomnia, from depression to over-excitability. However, Alison says: "The main benefit is in the touching, I think. We get people sent here by counsellors and psychotherapists who stress the good effects of touch."

The essential oils are used singly or in a combination dropped on to a neutral base. According to Alison they are "powerful, not only for the body but also for moods. They affect people spiritually by their smells and their penetration of the body."

These oils can be burned to give off aromas, dropped into a bath, tucked under a pillow on a wisp of cotton wool, or on to a hanky. Smell, one of the most primitive of the senses, acts directly on central nervous system. For her second treatment, Alex has camomile and lemon - oils meant to calm and revive. All citrus oils are good for reinvigorating the system.

Alex says she feels very relaxed. "But not the sort of relaxed where you just want to fall into bed, the sort where you don't mind doing things, like the tension of the past few weeks has really all gone." An hour, she says is "just right. Any more and I would have been too relaxed, any less and you haven't quite got into it".

"And," she adds, with a beaming smile, "my skin feels as smooth as a baby's bottom."

I found the therapy equally enjoyable, though not quite as relaxing. This might be because I have to go and fetch three children from a tennis course. My oils were rosemary for vigour and rosewood to balance my spirits. The total massage, from head to toe, is extremely pleasant, particularly the facial massage, which revealed knots on my jawline that I wasn't aware existed. Perhaps the best part is the five minutes left lying on the table after the massage in which I drift off into a deliciously drowsy half-sleep.

Alison says it is very important to keep the oils on for as long as possible so they sink in and also to drink lots to purge all the toxins from the body. "Try to avoid strenuous exercise," she adds.

It may well spoil the effect to rush off and plunge into London traffic. Better to saunter home and spend the day eating fruit salad.

Aromatherapy is certainly more special and more exotic than ordinary massage. The scent of the oils lingers long after the actual massage. The slow, smooth handling pampers without inducing a sense of total helplessness that a fierce, regular massage might. On the down side, I still feel there are knots in my shoulders left knotted and am not sure that the oils had any effect beyond making my skin feel softer and more fragrant. Alex has no such qualms. Would she do it again. "Not half!" Alison Phillips is at the Pure Balance Mind and Body Clinic, London N2. An hour's session costs Pounds 30. Tel: 0181 883 4316

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