When we think of massage, usually what springs to mind is a luxurious spa experience, reserved for special occasions. Massage is generally associated with pampering as opposed to being a powerful aid to overall wellness, from the physical to the emotional.
However, ayurveda considers massage to be an essential part of regular self-care. Far from being a special treat for those few-and-far-between occasions, it should be incorporated into our daily routine. While receiving massage treatments from a therapist on a daily basis might be unrealistic, practicing self-massage delivers all of the same health benefits from the convenience and comfort of your own home.
What is Abhyanga?
Abhyanga is an ayurvedic massage treatment using medicinally infused oil. This massage is recommended daily due to its strong healing properties.
In a spa setting, Abhyanga is a luxurious treatment, usually practiced by two therapists who massage both sides of the body simultaneously. After the massage, heat is applied to the skin, either via a sauna, steamy hot shower or bath. This encourages further absorption of the oil and detoxification through light sweating.
Of course, receiving a treatment like this daily is unrealistic. The good news is that you can perform abhyanga on yourself in your own home. Self-massage is not only an inexpensive self-care regime, but it is also a deeply nourishing practice that is well worth the time and effort. (I recommend a minimum of 15 minutes daily.)
The Benefits of Regular Self-Massage
1. Increased Awareness of Your Body
One of the most fundamental benefits of spending 15 – 30 minutes massaging yourself daily is that you become very familiar with your body. Many of us have become so desensitized to our body that symptoms of disease can go unnoticed for long periods of time before we become aware of them. When we massage the body, our awareness is drawn to the subtleties of our body’s unique quirks and qualities. Through this practice we are more likely to notice any symptoms of imbalance during their early stages, before more serious complications can arise.
Self-massage is also an opportunity to practice acceptance and gratitude towards the body. In Sanskrit the word for oil is ‘sneha’. Sneha has a second meaning, which is ‘love’. Therefore there is an inherently loving quality in the act of enveloping the body in warm, soothing oils.
2. Pacified Doshas
Unless you are dealing with specific symptoms of skin irritation or excessively oily skin, abhyanga is pacifying for all three of the doshas, meaning it is beneficial for all body types.
- Vata is particularly soothed by self-massage, as it effectively vata’s qualities of coolness, dryness, and roughness.
- The sharpness of pitta dosha is pacified by the calming and relaxing practice of self-massage.
- A more vigorous massage is beneficial for stimulating heavy and lethargic kapha, shifting toxins, and supporting detoxification.
3. Improved Blood-Flow and Detoxification
Massage stimulates movement of the blood and lymphatic fluid, as well as healthy detoxification. The pressure of the hands on the body rubs out areas of stagnation and tension, while at the same time generating internal heat. This greatly benefits the circulatory system.
4. Better Sleep
An overactive mind is the nemesis of sleep. The act of massaging the muscles is deeply calming and soothing in its own right, but when combined with the element of heat and the use of herbally infused oils, the benefits are significantly enhanced. Abhyanga gives the mind and body a sense of stability, comfort, and warmth, all of which promote relaxation and deep sleep.
5. Strengthened Nervous and Musculoskeletal Systems
The action of massaging the body stimulates the nerves and softens the muscles. This keeps the body soft, supple, and strong, and releases any built-up tension.
6. Skin and Hair Health
Oil penetrates deep into the skin, making it the most effective and nourishing form of moisturiser. Applying oil to the scalp stimulates the hair follicles, promoting the growth of thick, lustrous and healthy hair. This is especially the case if you use an oil-infused with beneficial herbs (see below).
7. Toned Body Tissues
The deep application of oils keeps the cells healthy and naturally tones and tightens the tissues of the body. This has a major impact on overall health and physical fitness, including a boost in immunity, improved flexibility, and greater injury-resistance.
8. Slower Aging
As the tissues are nourished and toned, the skin will naturally get firm and smooth, reducing wrinkles or creping. Spots, blemishes and other symptoms of stress will reduce significantly, and muscles and joints will stay strong and well-lubricated.
9. Improved Vision
The eyes are mostly governed by pitta dosha, and therefore most vision-related problems are a result of excess heat and sharpness in the internal environment. The soothing and balancing quality of self-massage helps to relieve the sharpness behind the eyes and nurture clearer vision.
10. Whole Body Nourishment
The skin is the largest organ and is one of the greatest means to administer medicine to the body. Its absorbency allows herbs to be applied to the skin and to penetrate deep into the bodily tissues to encourage the healthy growth and functioning of the internal systems.
Which Oil to Choose
When choosing the ideal oil for self-massage it is important to consider your doshic balance and, in particular, any symptoms that need pacifying. The fundamental rule of ayurveda is that like increases like and opposites balance. Therefore, we should aim to find an oil that can pacify our predominant dosha.
When buying oils for abhyanga, it is worth it to pay that little bit extra to find high-quality organic oils.
Oils for Vata
Vata is cool, light, dry, rough and mobile in quality. Most oils are effective in pacifying Vata. The most common and traditional oil for Vata abhyanga is sesame oil (untoasted). Ayurveda calls sesame oil the ‘king of oils’ due to it’s inherently nourishing qualities. It is lightly heating, making it an excellent choice for cool, dry Vata.
If you are interested in addressing specific symptoms, herbally-infused (“medicated”) oils are effective. Ashwagandha oil is good for increasing strength and stamina. Ashwagandha is a popular ayurvedic herb and when it is infused into sesame oil it is an excellent means of encouraging healthy muscle development for supporting an active lifestyle.
If you are prone to stiffness or reduced mobility of the joints and muscles, mahanarayan oil is very beneficial. A traditional ayurvedic blend, mahanarayan oil contains over 20 herbs infused into a sesame oil base. This oil can be applied to the affected joints and muscles during abhyanga, using a plain sesame oil for the rest of the body.
For very dry skin, ghee can be applied topically to soothe and nourish.
Oils for Pitta
Pitta has the qualities of being hot, sharp, light, oily, and liquid. Therefore it benefits from an oil that is cooling and less rich. Coconut oil is a popular choice due to its inherently cooling property. Of course, as pitta can be oily by nature, the thought of applying even more oil to the skin might seem unappealing! This can be balanced by simply applying a smaller quantity of oil, or by choosing a medicated oil that has balancing properties. Neem oil is excellent for soothing pitta aggravated skin. It is deeply cooling, and it cleanses and pacifies excess heat and irritation. Neem also increases the skin’s natural immune function against unwanted microbes.
One of the symptoms of pitta imbalance is a thinning of the hair or premature balding. Bhringaraj oil is known as ‘the ruler of hair’ in ayurveda. It is a cooling and rejuvenative herbal oil promoting tranquility of body and mind. It actively supports healthy hair growth and luster. It is even said to prevent greying.
Brahmi is celebrated for its ability to cool and calm the mind, promoting greater awareness and clarity. It is a cooling and pacifying herb. Brahmi oil can be found with both a coconut oil base and a sesame oil base. So if you are looking to retain a little bit of warmth, choose sesame, otherwise the coconut base will support deep cooling for pitta pacification. Brahmi oil is very effective when applied to the scalp.
Oils for Kapha
Kapha by nature is cool, heavy, oily, slow, and smooth. The coolness of kapha is countered by oils with a warming nature, such as sesame oil or almond oil. Kapha also benefits from herbal oils that are heating, invigorating and detoxifying in a lighter weight carrier oil. Some medicinal oils contain a blend of multiple herbs. Examples of the kapha pacifying herbs you might find in a balancing oil blend are: purnava, chitrak, and manjistha. All three of these roots are stimulating for the digestive fire, aiding healthy metabolism, increasing internal heat, and facilitating a natural detoxification process.
How to do Abhyanga
What you will need:
- Your chosen oil
- A hot bath or shower
- A towel that you don’t mind getting oily
Step One: Begin by warming your oil. It’s not a good idea to reheat oil, so try to approximately heat the amount you intend to use. At the beginning this will require a bit of guess-work, but over time you will become familiar with the quantity you need. Perhaps start by warming ¼ cup (or ½ cup if you are particularly dry and vata). There are many different ways to heat up your oil, but I have found the easiest way is to pour the oil into a squeeze bottle and place it inside a pan of hot water, or simply run under the hot tap. Aim to get the oil so that it is pleasantly warm but not hot. You can test the temperature out on your wrist.
Step Two: In a warm room, sit or stand comfortably on a surface or towel that you don’t mind getting oily.
Step Three: Start by applying the oil to the crown of your head and work your way outwards in circular strokes. Spend a few minutes working in the oil and applying gentle pressure to the scalp. This practice is excellent for cooling and calming the body and mind – the head contains many important marma points – points of concentrated vital energy.
Note: it can be inconvenient to oil your hair everyday, so perhaps start with oiling the scalp once or twice a week, and stick to just massaging your body on the intervening days.
Step Four: Next, massage the face in circular motions, always in an upward movement. Pay special attention to the forehead, temples, cheeks and jaws. Give some attention to your ears, the lobes in particular, as this is another key site for marma points and nerve endings.
Step Five: The limbs (arms and legs) should be massaged in long, smooth and firm strokes, beginning from the extremities and moving inwards, towards the heart. Use circular strokes for the joints (elbows, knees, and shoulders).
Step Six: Massage the abdomen and chest in a broad circular motion. Rub the belly along the line of the large intestine, moving counterclockwise beginning from the right-hand side, moving upwards and down the left-hand side. Be sure not to neglect the chest area, as this can be an area of stagnation, particularly for women. Daily massage is vital for breast health.
Step Seven: Finish the self-massage by spending several minutes working on the feet. The feet are the site of many of the major energy points and nerve endings in the body. They also carry us about throughout the day and therefore deserve a little extra love — massaging the feet does wonders to promote relaxation.
Step Eight: The whole massage can last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, and should be practiced with love and patience. It is nice to sit in stillness for a few minutes after the massage to allow the body to relax, soak in the oil, and absorb the overall experience.
Step Nine: Enjoy a steamy warm bath or shower (being very careful not to slip with oily feet). Avoid using any soaps or products, simply allow the heat to encourage the oils to penetrate deeply into the skin and perhaps initiate gentle, detoxifying sweating.
Step Ten: Pat yourself dry gently using a towel that you don’t mind getting a little oily. The skin should feel moist and plumped. It is nice to wear loose fitting, natural materials after abhyanga. Enjoy the feeling of nourished mind and body, and prepare for deep sleep.
When NOT to do Self-Massage
While self-massage is beneficial for almost all people, there are certain circumstances when it is not recommended, or should be treated with caution. During pregnancy abhyanga is not encouraged. Whilst some may find the massage soothing, some mothers may find the stimulation and heat problematic, so it is best to be cautious. Similarly, women are not recommended to self-massage during menstruation. Abhyanga should be avoided if you are experiencing any sort of acute illness, great physical discomfort or a medical condition. If you are unsure it is always best to consult your doctor or an ayurvedic practitioner.