Written by Rachel Stermer
Like a steady stream of warm oil, this article fluidly connects last article Oil is Love with the practice of Abhyanga, or full body oil massage. The indications for practicing Abhyanga on oneself or receiving an oil massage from a therapist or loved one are many. Doshically speaking, Vata, which is often at the root cause of all imbalances, is pacified through the external application of warm oil. Additionally, pain, which is always an indication of the presence of aggravated Vata, is alleviated by the practice of Abhyanga. Applying oil to the body as both a preventative and maintenance measure, keeps the joints mobile, tissues soft, and strong, prevents the body from dehydrating, increases cellular intelligence via the stimulation of touch receptors, enhances immunity, and calms the nervous system. There is a long list of benefits to frequently oiling the body and the costs are few; all you need is oil and some willing hands! This makes Abhyanga a wonderfully supportive addition to a daily routine and a particularly important practice to implement in seasonal transitions, when Vata is inherently high.
As a brief review, the qualities of oil, in general, are heavy, oily, soft, slow, penetrating, and subtle. These qualities balance the space and air elements of the body providing a sense of calm and grounding to the system. However, the qualities of different oils vary based on the substances they derive from, making certain ones particularly supportive to each dosha. For example, Sesame oil is very warm and penetrating in nature. This oil is recommended for both Vata and Kapha, Prakrit and Vikriti. However, if Kapha is particularly heavy, a lighter, warming oil like Mustard or Corn could be more beneficial. Pitta is supported with the application of Coconut or Sunflower oil, both cooling in nature. In cases of certain conditions like pain and arthritis, medicated oils like Mahanarayan, which contains warming herbal substances, is indicated for Abhyanga. The varieties of oil that are included in the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia are almost as vast as the indications and are specifically potentized for all sorts of doshic disorders. There are herbal oils that effectively target specific areas with medicines that have an affinity for these parts of the body. For example, Bhringaraja ( Eclipta alba) oil is traditionally applied to the scalp to calm and cool the mind, balances Pitta, and is also indicated in case of hair loss. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all the wonderful herbal oils Ayurveda uses and their corresponding ailments. The point is that oil as a medicinal substance, either on its own, or combined with herbs, is highly effective when applied to the body as Abhyanga.
After picking an oil, it is important that you warm it up before applying to the body. This is because warm oil more easily penetrates through the layers of the skin to reach the nerve endings, where the medicinal effect ultimately is experienced. If the oil is not warm, it will clog the channels (srotas). Clogged channels is a root cause of the creation of Ama ( toxic, metabolic waste) and impaired Agni ( our digestive capacity). We warm the oil to support our body to receive this medicinal substance, as well as strengthen the body’s capacity to receive all substances. Measure about 4-6 oz of oil ( depending on the size of your body) into your warming device, which can be as simple as a saucepan. The oil will heat in less than a minute, depending on your stove’s strength, so take care not to burn or overheart it. Then, set an old towel down in your warm bathroom and lovingly, with a meditative touch, apply the oil to your body from head to toe, taking as much time as you need to massage all areas. Give special attention to the head and feet. The head and feet contain many important energetic points that are like control centers for the rest of the body. Thus, attending to these areas exponentially increases the power of an oil massage. Massage your extremities working towards the heart and against the grain of the hair. Circle your joints with oil and rub vigorously. Creating heat and friction with your touch allows the oil to penetrate more deeply. Be sure to work all areas, including your abdomen, chest, and armpits; these are places lymph easily stagnates and another aim of this massage is to move that energy. This is why a vigorous pace when applying the oil is particularly important.
Some authorities say that working up a sweat while you massage yourself is particularly therapeutic, as it indicates that your channels are dilated which allows toxins to release, especially from Meda Dhatu. However, if you are not yet sweating, a few other methods to induce perspiration are recommended. First, you can wrap yourself in an old towel and stand outside under the sun, if conditions are right. It is not recommended to do this if it is cold outside, as exposure to cold is detrimental in an oiled state. Secondly, you can steam up your bathroom with a hot shower running, though water is a precious resource to conserve. If you are lucky enough to have a steam tent or sauna, sitting with the oil on until a sweat is broken is very beneficial.
It is recommended you keep the oil on for about 15 minutes. When you are ready to shower, first wipe off the bottoms of your feet! This is very important and, perhaps, one of the only hazards of this practice is slipping so be mindful that you have removed the oil from your feet before you enter the shower. If you have oiled your head, first suds your scalp with shampoo before wetting your head with water which will remove the oil with ease. Then, use water to remove the oil from your body, not soap, as soap is drying and counteracts much of the healing benefit of the oil. You can use soap for your genitals and underarms.
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Beware that your shower floor will also be slippery and use a bit of degreasing soap to clean it and your drain. The towels you use to catch the oil and to dry off will also need to be washed separately from other items as they are now, and forever will be, oily linens. Oil is almost like another element and has a very unique silent, spreading quality so do ensure that you clean and inform anyone you share a bathroom with that this is part of your practice.
Abhyanga is not only a self administered practice but can be done for you by a trained therapist. In this type of setting, the massage can be performed by one or sometimes two people and specifically works with the directional flow of the vayus and the lymphatic system’s drainage. Abhyanga therapists also include Marma points (energetic centers of the body that stimulate healing, see previous blog article) and intend to quiet the mind through rhythmic, flowing strokes. This type of Abhyanga is at the foundation of Panchakarma. The patient receives daily daily oil massage along with therapeutic sweating and Shirodhara to facilitate the cleansing process.
Do not practice Abhyanga in case of acute illness, flu, fever, diarrhea and during menstruation. It’s also important monitor one’s level of Ama in relation to Abhyanga. Check to see what kind of coating is covering the tongue. If it is very thick, that indicates there is too much toxicity in the system already and that Agni won’t be able to digest the oil. In this case, skip Abhyanga and start Dipan / Pachan practices guided by your Ayurvedic practitioner.
The journey into Abhyanga is a deep and revealing one that addresses the multidimensionality of a human being. While the practice is simple, there are nuances and profound benefits that enhance an already health oriented lifestyle and also contribute greatly to rejuvenation from disease processes. May you experience all the bliss, love and healing that oil massage has to offer!
From the Ayurvedic perspective, food is paramount to all efforts made in healing the body, mind, and spirit. Proper nutrition is the building block upon which all other methods of treatment stand and is foundational for disease prevention and health maintenance.