Are you in need of a little catalytic conversion? If so, bypass your local car mechanic; it's a healer you should be looking for. Martin Whittaker discovers a complementary therapy that's joining the mainstream. Why, there's even a course at a college near you...
College tutor Ruth Wright used to be terrified of her students. "I had a dreadful experience with one group who had hung, drawn and quartered me," she says. "They were a difficult group in a difficult year and there were a lot of con-frontations. It wrecked myconfidence."
Now, she says, she is a changed woman who is no longer crippled with anxiety and who takes things very much in her stride. And she says she's done it all with the power of healing.
Ruth, 43, is course co-ordinator at Aylesbury College in Buckinghamshire, which five years ago became the first FE college in the UK to introduce an accredited foundation course in healing. It was this course that Ruth turned to in desperation. "As soon as I was there the healers made me feel very safe. It's given me a relationship back with my students."
Healing comes in various forms. Some people call it "faith" or "spiritual healing", although patients do not have to be of any particular faith to benefit, or indeed even to believe in the practitioner's power to heal. But according to the Confederation of Healing Organisations, it helps if the recipient is a believer.
Sessions normally involve patients sitting or lying quietly, while the healer passes his or her hands over their body. What happens next, according to official reports, is a sort of catalytic conversion, where energy from the healer is transmitted to the patient, clearing blockages in his or her energy fields.
It's a case of patient, heal thyself: the healer is merely helping the patient to boost his or her inner resources. Healers claim that problem areas show up as "hot or cold" spots and they are able to channel higher doses of energy accordingly.
Ruth Wright emphasises that healing is not about curing people. "It's about helping them to feel better about themselves, giving them the courage to address whatever problem is in their lives.
"You are taught how to feel energies through your hands, and then you are taught the technique of hands working over the body. I used that this morning on my daughter who has just had some teeth out."
Sounds far-fetched? Maybe so. Of five clinical trials to establish whether there is any substance in healing, only two demonstrated any improvement in patients' health. However, since 1991, healers have been allowed to practise in doctors' surgeries and can be funded by the NHS. They also often work in hospitals and hospices.
The healing course at Aylesbury was put together by the College of Healing, an organisation founded 18 years ago by a group of couples wanting to start a community promoting alternative therapies. Based at Runnings Park, a sprawling mock Tudor house in several acres of grounds perched high in the Malvern Hills, its courses are today officially recognised - its foundation and professional diploma courses in healing are accredited by the Open College Network, and are offered at FE colleges and adult education centres throughout the UK.
Jan Creedy left teaching after 30 years to concentrate on teaching healing. She learned her skills at Runnings Park and says she often used her healing skills in her infants' classroom. "If you've got a child who is particularly aggressive, you can use your mind, your power of thought to calm them down. You send them a wave of calming energy. And if they'd been dashing around in PE, I would get them to lie down and do a breathing and meditation session to calm them down and get them back into work."
Freda Thornhill, who teaches five and six-year-olds at a primary school in Birmingham, has also done a healing diploma course. "I feel that everybody can develop this. Some people are further along the line and some are more sensitive than others.
"I'm able to do a lot of healing for myself, which I think is very important. It's helped me care for myself more - to be more in tune with my real needs."
She says healing now helps her with her pupils. If children are upset, she gets them to imagine they are in a protective golden bubble, which helps them to feel safe and secure.
"One day I took a class out on a visit. I needed them to be calm. It was a quiet place in the country and they were running around as high as kites.
"I settled them down in a circle and took them through a visualisation, growing roots into the ground, and tuning into the sun and the air around them, the earth beneath them. They were so still in the end that swallows started flying two feet above their heads. They enjoyed it. They felt good."
Diane O'Connell, co-founder of Runnings Park, says she first became interested in healing in the late 1960s - long before any courses. "I learnt by experience. When I started it was 1969. It was in someone's back room and very much behind closed doors. You were going to get branded as a witch or something if you weren't careful."
But is healing something which can be taught? "All people have a degree of awareness; we heighten that. We teach people to amplify it by doing all sorts of development processes," she says.
"We teach people about the aura which surrounds them. We get them to do things about being aware of other peoples' auras. So in one of the exercises we do, I ask the students to rub their hands together to create an electro-magnetic friction. You can actually feel the force field between your hands.
"That energy is coming off the body all the time. If someone's really healthy they'll have a really strong field. If they were very ill they'd have a weak field. This is not stuff that's off the deck - it's just normal everyday stuff.
"We get people into twos, so if I was working on you you'd sit down and you'd close your eyes and you'd think about sitting in this bubble of light. And I'd get someone to come up towards you using their hands to see if they feel your energy field - and people do. So that is developing people's awareness. And as they heighten their awareness, it changes their lives."
Whatever the ground support, some orthodox practitioners remain sceptical of the restorative powers of healing. Dr Thurstan Brewin is a former cancer specialist and member of the health watchdog, Healthwatch. He says a "most amazing number" of people practise healing.
"Anybody can do it, some don't belong to any association. People who take a remedy for everything don't realise how many things improve without one. Then there's the pyschological thing of placebo. With charisma you can suggests to somebody that they will get better. If you've got a strong personality, in many situations that will happen.
"It's a bit like fortune-telling. Gullible is rather a crude word, but people are very gullible. They want to believe it."
Association for Therapeutic Healers, 6 Cleaver House, Adelaide Road,London NW3National Federation of Spiritual Healers, Old Manor Farm Studio, Church Street, Sunbury on Thames, Middx TW16 6RGCollege of Healing, Runnings Park, Croft Bank, West Malvern, Worcestershire WR14 4DUConfederation of Healing Organisations, 113 High Street, Berkhamsted, Herts HP4 2D