Sidling up to the bar at Lunaroma is a lot different than pulling up a stool in a regular pub. Replacing Swedish vodka and Irish whiskey on the shelves are hundreds of identical, midnight-blue bottles, filled with potions imported from Morocco, Sumatra and Nepal. Instead of pickled eggs and pretzels, massive glass jars hold multicolored powders and dried leaves.
But the person standing behind this "aroma bar" is just as ready to lend an ear and serve up a delicious concoction as any saloonkeeper. "We're like bartenders," confirms Leyla Bringas, who started the Burlington aromatherapy business in July 2003. "People sit here, some with a lot of emotional stuff, because they're divorced, or something happened at work. And then the magic happens behind the counter."
After listening to her customers' woes, Bringas begins to select from 140 essential oils, holding a few bottles together and pausing to offer a sniff. A container of coffee beans sits on the counter, to clear the "palate" between sampling each smell. According to advocates of aromatherapy, one of the fastest-growing fields in alternative medicine, the olfactory barfly may leave with a cure for his troubles -- or, suggest skeptics, just a really nice-smelling souvenir.
The basic premise of aromatherapy -- that essential oils can improve health and well-being -- has been in the air for some 6000 years. Cleopatra is said to have scented her sails while en route to visit Marc Antony; Egyptian physicians embalmed their dead in fragrant oils; and Hippocrates was known to enjoy a scented bath. There's some dispute about exactly who revived the practice in the 20th century, but most holistic historians credit French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse for coining the term aromatherapie in 1928.
Today, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) defines the approach as "the art and science which seeks to explore the physiological, psychological and spiritual realm of the individual's response to aromatic extracts, as well as to observe and enhance the individual's innate healing process." At the center of the practice are hundreds of natural, highly concentrated essential oils extracted through distillation from flowers, plants, grasses, bark, fruits, vegetables and trees.
From celery seed and lemon to pine needle and spearmint, these oils are purported to have pain-relieving, diuretic, relaxing, antidepressant, antiviral or anti-inflammatory properties. Individuals, or massage therapists, either apply the essential oils topically -- to render physical benefits -- or inhale them in hopes of mental or emotional benefits. The distinction can be confusing.
"People come in and say, 'Well, if I smell this, will it make my knee feel better?'" says Bringas, who has studied herbology for 10 years. "Not really. Physical things you apply, and mental and emotional things you inhale," she says.
The anecdotal benefits of aromatherapy are wide-ranging. Some members of NAHA testify that they have successfully treated asthma, for instance, with aromatherapy. Among the preventative oils: peppermint, eucalyptus, lavender and lemongrass. Those suffering from breast cancer have used ginger, geranium and violet to lessen the side-effects of chemotherapy.
This summer, says Bringas' business partner Lisa Ecker, Vermonters flocked to Lunaroma for an all-natural bug repellent made from essential oils, as well as coffee-derived "Mocha Tan" for improved bronzing.
"There are a few groups working on using aromatherapy with people in elderly facilities to heal bedsores and promote relaxing," says Bringas. "In Japan, they've been using environmental fragrancing for businesses." Revolted by rosemary? If you visit one Japanese bank, too bad: The smell is pumped through the air ducts to calm impatient customers, while tellers are encouraged to stay alert with wafts of lemon and eucalyptus.
Aromatherapy also allegedly improves poor memory, balances moodiness, solves frustration and unties the knots of constipation. The scientific claims are debatable, however. As Lynn McCutch-eon has pointed out in the Skeptical Inquirer, many of aromatherapy's benefits may stem from a variety of circumstances and not just the oil itself. Drop a little orange blossom in your bath or undergo a chamomile massage and you'll feel better, she says. But is it the aromatherapy doing the work, or the hot water and the hands?
Lunaroma fans, many of whom were attracted to proven topical applications and then explored new aromas, are unconcerned. Sara Sudol of Burlington's Aras salon swears by the shop's waxing regimen. "It's not just slopping stuff on the skin," says Sudol, whose own clients report an absence of typical hair-removal horrors such as ingrown hairs and red, puffy skin. "It really works," she insists.
Andrea Altman is the treatment manager at the Stoweflake, one of many high-end spas throughout the country that have gone ga-ga over Lunaroma's hand-blended, regionally accented sugar scrubs, salts and polishes. "Guests are in awe of the aromatherapy treatments," she says. "They say they can feel their muscles relax, and less pain from past injuries. It works, it feels good and it smells good."
Some aficionados will pay more than $200 for a 10-milliliter vial of organic rose otto, which is produced in Bulgaria from 5000 pounds of handpicked petals. Along with Madagascar vanilla, this is one of the most expensive essential oils available; a vial of Italian Clementine, at the other end, fetches less than $10.
While the science behind aromatherapy may smell a little fishy to some, the aesthetic appeal is undeniable. As a visit to Lunaroma attests, inhaling the smells of jasmine, sandalwood and rose can be as sublime and personal an experience as viewing an Old Masters painting. Bringas points out the balance between sensuous and therapeutic products as she offers a tour. For me, the line seems blurred.
Smearing a dab of ylang ylang body butter on my hand, I feel a sudden bolt of nostalgia that brings back my late grandmother Nini, mother-of-pearl hairbrushes and the Connecticut woods in spring. A peppermint shower gel is invigorating, while a chocolatey balm tingles my lips. The "Delight" massage oil smells sexy and inviting. Inhalers open up my nasal passages; scented toothpicks provide an instant mid-afternoon boost.
In addition to these ready-made creams, lotions and lip balms -- including a highly-addictive chocolate-mint flavor -- Bringas keeps honey, beeswax and other natural products on hands to mix with her assortment of oils for customized bath and body gels. There are also dozens of diffusers, from candles and lamps to a car freshener that plugs into the lighter jack. During a session at the aroma bar, which can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, folks can figure out how to better attract a mate through a customized perfume, care for a stubborn scar or mask their preference for patchouli.
"Patchouli is a love-or-hate oil," says Bringas. "Some people don't want to offend anyone when they're wearing it."
Like any good bartenders, Bringas and Ecker remember their regulars' orders. They keep a recipe for each custom blend on hand, and can alter the ingredients to match changing circumstances. "If we've created a product for someone going through a divorce, they may not be as attracted to it later on," explains Bringas. "And it's amazing to be supporting somebody's evolution or their healing process using plants as allies."