Written by Rachel Stermer
Namaste dear readers of Agni Ayurveda’s blog, I am reporting live from Maharashtra, India! I am here studying Panchakarma, the traditional Ayurvedic method of cleansing, for two months with Dr. Vasant Lad, one of the primary propagators of Ayurveda in the west. It is incredibly rich to study Ayurveda in the land where this ancient medicine first emerged and also witness the many ways that Ayurvedic practices are simply integrated into the present day lifestyle and culture of India. For example, before and after meals, different herbs and seeds are offered to aid with digestion. Room temperature or hot water is served with meals and chai breaks, with plenty of sweet spices, are a necessary part of every day. These are just a few of the ways Ayurveda is practiced in daily life here. Being in India is a welcome reminder to slow down and synchronize my actions with nature, as many people here still live in a rhythm that is deeply connected to the earth. My neighbors here are busy milking and herding cows, gathering fresh, green herbs for food and medicine, and rising each day before the sun.
However, people all over the planet, including India, are indeed suffering from various ailments, afflictions of the body or mind. It is the goal of Ayurveda to offer alleviation of that suffering by means of bringing balance to the system through substances of opposite qualities. Through diet, herbal protocols, cleansing processes, and lifestyle practices, Ayurvedic medicine offers a way out of the imbalance and into health.
One of the fullest spectrum medicinal substances that Ayurveda utilizes to pacify all three dosha, remove ama, (toxins) and, in turn, kindle agni (digestive capacity) so that prasanna, (contentedness) will prevail in the body, mind and spirit, is oil.
Those who are familiar with Ayurveda know that oil is an important medicinal substance used both internally and externally to pacify the three doshas as well as lubricate and purify the bodily channels, known as srotas. Oil can be taken internally, for example, in the form of ghee in amounts that pacify the doshas and aid in digestion. When larger amounts of ghee are taken internally in preparation for panchakarma, the dosha become “excited” or elevated in the body and thus ready to dislodge and be expelled from the deeper tissues.
One of the meanings of sneha (oil) in Sanskrit is Love. Anytime oil is applied to the body or taken internally, the body feels the physical manifestation of love, which is the essence of truly caring for one’s vessel. Oil is a substance that is grounding, healing, nourishing, and provides a sense of safety and protection, like a mother’s love. When we imbibe oily substances such as ghee or foods rich in nourishing fats, our bodies burn brightly with fuel that kindles the inner flame of Agni, our digestive capacity. Consuming healthy fats like ghee also imbue the body with a sense of groundedness by pacifying Vata dosha and supporting the earth and water elements in our bodies. Vata, comprised of space and ether, can cause a feeling of restlessness, anxiety, ungroundedness, poor memory, and fear. Consuming ghee and other healthy oils/fats, maintains our bodily Kapha, the dosha that gives support, lubrication, groundedness, and feelings of compassion and calm. Although Pitta is oily in nature, this dosha is also balanced when offered the appropriate oily substances, such as cooling oils like coconut and ghee. The fire of Pitta burns bright with the offering of oil, maintaining Tejas, cellular intelligence and subtle wisdom capacity.
The indications for the external application of oil in the Ayurvedic literature are vast and highly enticing to those who are interested in longevity and optimal health. Charak Samhita makes a great case for daily oil massage (abhyanga): “The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much, even if subjected to accidental injuries or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts, and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age.”
Charak speaks to the life supporting and regenerative capacities of external application of oil and the exponential benefits when done daily. Oil massage, known as Abhyanga, is an excellent way to relieve exhaustion, stress, increase flexibility, and restore balance. Coupled with its unparalleled ability to calm the nervous system is the benefit of strengthened immunity and good Ojas (protective power and auric field). Circling back to the connection between oil and love, doing self massage with oil can become a meditative practice of caring for the body as a temple. Self massage stimulates touch receptors to receive both the oil which nourishes the nervous system and also delivers a sense of loving care. Abhyanga is just one of the oily practices part of the Ayurvedic repertoire and also plays a distinctive role in both shamana ( palliative measures) and shodhana ( cleansing practices).
If there is no time for a daily oil massage, the classic texts say that one should at least apply oil to the soles of the feet and the scalp. This is a faster way to show the body you care and seal in some of the love that oil has to offer. With the changing of seasons and natural increase of Vata at this transitional time, remember that oil is here to support you with loving care. Simply add ghee to your foods, increase healthy fats in your diet, and make some space in your daily routine to apply oil to your body so that, as Charak says, you’ll be strong, charming and least effected by old age!
Stay tuned for our next India inspired piece which will delve deeper into the practice of Abhyanga, the benefits, and how you can try it at home!
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