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Consider It a New Age Version of Q-Tips

Fads: While doctors may not believe there's any medicinal value to sticking flaming cones of wax and cloth into your ears, it's all the rage among the health food crowd.

May 28, 1996|MAKI BECKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are few experiences as bewildering or even downright gross as staring at clumps of yellow powder and globs of amber crystals floating in a bowl of water and being told that these unearthly substances came out of your own ears.

Yikes, I thought, has that crud been in my ears all this time?

"You're a dirt head," answered Valerie Anne Kirkgaard, a "performance coach" with a penchant for alternative health fads who had just "coned" me.

Never heard of coning?

It's a rather unusual ear-cleaning process that seems to be all the rage among the health food crowd. Long, tapered cones made out of cloth and wax are inserted a short way. The far end is lit and curls of warm smoke go into the ear. Through the process of convection, advocates say, wax and other yucky stuff gets sucked out.

The cones are known by several names: ear cones, ear candles and Indian smudge candles. They are sold in many health food stores alongside food supplements and loofah sponges, and advertised in health and New Age magazines next to yoga classes and hydrocolonic therapy sessions.

Once exclusively handmade, cones are now popular enough to be mass-produced. Kirkgaard still prefers to make her own with organic muslin and beeswax that she buys from a beekeeper.

Her Pacific Palisades office is located in a woodsy, two-story building off Via De La Paz, amid an array of pretty boutiques.

Her assistant and fellow coner, Mike Randall, greets clients and leads them into a darkened room. Opera can be heard from a boombox and the room is decorated with Eastern drawings.

On the day of my visit, Kirkgaard was a couple of minutes late. She apologized profusely. First, her clothes dryer had caught fire in her new Topanga Canyon home, and then her body-wrapping appointment (for a cocoon of cornmeal and microbes) had taken longer than expected.

Dressed in brown velvet leggings and matching top and wearing a comforting smile, Kirkgaard instantly made me feel at home, even if she had just rolled around in corn mush.

She had me lie down on my side on a couch and placed a towel on my shoulder, then lit one of her handmade cones and inserted the tip inside my ear.

Kirkgaard told me she mixes herbal extracts with the wax she uses to make her candles. The flaming cone in my ear was a "Love Cone," she said, a mixture of rose essence and rosemary. "They smell fabulous," she assured.

As the cone burned, I noticed a faint, warm feeling inside my ear canal and then the crackling and popping sound of wax--the cone's and mine--melting and the muslin burning. The aroma was not unlike marshmallows toasting over a campfire.

Inside my ear, the wax and other gunk was being gently pulled up into the cone by the heat from the flame, Kirkgaard said.

While holding the cone, Kirkgaard discussed the history of ear cones, how the process has been traced to ancient China and Egypt. While the Chinese used it for medicinal reasons, Kirkgaard said, the Egyptians believed that "if you cone your ears 11 times in a row, not more than a week apart, you can hear God speak."

She learned about coning about four years ago at Los Angeles' annual Whole Life Expo. She researched cones and figured out how to make them and has since added coning to her repertoire of New Age healing. She estimates she has coned nearly 1,000 people.

Some people cone themselves at home, she said, but she recommends that you don't cone alone. If you're going to do it at home, you should always cone with a partner who can keep an eye on the flame and not let the cone burn too far down.

About 10 minutes after Kirkgaard lit the cone, she took it out of my ear and turned it upside down over a metal mixing bowl filled with water.

I watched curiously, and anxiously, as she poked out the contents of the cone. A huge hunk of wax, about 3 inches long fell out.

"Don't worry," Kirkgaard said, "that's just the beeswax."

And then what looked like tablespoons of yellowish powder plopped down into the water. She said that gunk was a combination of dead skin, remnants of past yeast infections inside the ear and other toxins excreted by the body.

Then she did the other ear. I felt a little lightheaded and then noticed that my ears seemed to feel clean. Perhaps there was a placebo effect going on. I honestly couldn't say, "Yes, this works, everyone go out and get coned."

Dr. Bruce Fetterman, an ear specialist who practices at the House Ear Clinic near downtown Los Angeles, said he would not recommend coning to his patients because he does not consider it medically effective. In addition, he said he has treated patients who suffered burns while coning themselves.

He said the only possible benefit would be that the warmth from the burning cone would offer the same result as holding a hot compress against the ear.

But I hesitate to write it off completely.

For instance, I was telling a colleague about coning, a little worried he might think I had stuck one too many cones in my ears.

Instead, he recalled that his grandmother, a practicer of folk remedies, used to perform a similar treatment on him for earaches when he was a little boy.

Dr. Edmond Noll, a USC physician familiar with alternative medicine, said that while he, like Fetterman, did not believe there was any actual medicinal value to coning, there was probably no harm as long as no pressure is put on the eardrum and the person is healthy.

"If you feel better afterward," Noll said, "then keep doing it."

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