The power of scent

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Can ‘good’ smells do more than just give us a momentary lift?

Scent of a rose: it might make you feel (seriously) better

Scent of a rose: it might make you feel (seriously) better


Back in the early 20th century, the French novelist Marcel Proust rhapsodised about the smell and taste of a sticky bun transporting him, instantaneously, back to his childhood. Further back still, our noses played a major role in our evolutionary survival strategy, with “bad” smells helping us to avoid potentially dangerous stuff such as poisonous plants and dead bodies. But can “good” smells do more than just give us a momentary lift?

Some Chinese medical practitioners are now using aromatherapy in conjunction with acupuncture as a powerful tool for healing. One of those practitioners, Jeffrey Yuen, will give a weekend workshop on the use of essential oils, as well as a public lecture on the concept of wellness, in Dublin later this month. He’s not just talking about creating a pleasant background ambience for a massage or an acupuncture treatment. “There are oils,” he says, “that have the effect of dilating or constricting the vascular system. And if you are able to relax the blood vessels, then it helps to bring down blood pressure.” Before we start rolling out headlines such as “Sniffing can reduce blood pressure shock”, however, he points out it’s not a straightforward equation: apply substance A and you get result B. Our sense of smell is as complex as it is instantaneous. “Take relaxing oils,” he says. “Now, lavender is usually described as relaxing. “But some people don’t like the smell of lavender. So they’re going to feel annoyed and get upset if you put lavender on them. Camomile is relaxing, too – but some people are actually allergic to it, because it is related to the ragweed family and can provoke a skin reaction. So as with everything in Chinese medicine, it comes back to treating every patient as an individual.”

Jeffrey Yuen’s knowledge of Chinese medicine – and the philosophy behind it – is unparalleled. He studied herbal medicine with a eunuch who served the imperial medical physicians of the last Qing emperors. He is an accomplished martial artist who trained from childhood with his adopted grandfather, a Daoist master who fled China for the US after the Boxer Rebellion. He is an 88th generation Daoist priest – a cardinal, technically speaking – who, if he wanted to, could put on red robes and a tall hat and swan around doing whatever cardinals do. Instead, at the Chinatown Wellness Center on New York’s Walker Street, he has dedicated his working life to spreading the traditions of classical Chinese medicine, giving workshops on acupuncture and other healing modalities as well as treating patients with acute or chronic illnesses.

“I get invited to do a lot of teaching in the US and in Europe,” he says. “Most of it is: ‘How do you treat high blood pressure?’ Or ‘How do you treat diabetes?’ Or, most commonly, ‘How do you treat cancer?’.” After 35 years as a practitioner, however, Yuen is moving away from a focus on the pathology of illness towards an interest in wellness, and how his patients might best cultivate it.

“What I intend to do in the Dublin lecture is reflect on the experience of my years of practice, and seeing those people who – I believe – heal.” It’s not a question of flashy stuff such as miracles; nor does he underestimate the seriousness of serious illness. “If you have a chronic degenerative disease or a disease that, in Western medicine, is considered terminal, you should be afraid,” he says. “The person should cry, and feel the pain of that.” But then, he says, we often get caught up in issues of which treatment is right and which is wrong, issues of blame and doubt. “We tend to be a very litigious culture. We fight this. We fight that. We make adversaries of ourselves as well as the world. But if you’re doubtful about what you’re doing with your medical treatments, then you’re already sabotaging yourself.” Yuen’s is a quiet revolution. But maybe that’s the kind we need right now.

Jeffrey Yuen will lecture on Empowering the Self to Confront Illness at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dún Laoghaire on May 24th at 7pm. His workshop on the use of essential oils in Chinese medicine is on May 25th and 26th at the same venue. More details from