This is part of a 12-part series on using Ayurveda lifestyle and dietary habits to support your New Year intentions and overall health and well-being. Make one change a month to embrace a healthier you!
“Oleation therapy is the best remedy for alleviating vata – the most important among all the doshas.” Caraka Samhita
One of my client’s favorite recommendations is the self oil massage called Abhyanga, which means means loving hands. This application of nourishing oils to support the skin, doshas, and lymph and nervous systems is a cornerstone of the daily Ayurvedic practices.
One of the first results my clients notice is how great their skin feels. In our culture, we are used to putting on lotions and potions which often have many chemicals and products that don’t truly nourish the tissues. Switching to oil truly protects and rejuvenates the skin from dryness, cracking and roughness, giving your skin a new level of softness and health. Oil massage additionally supports the removal of excess fat from the skin, creates firmness to the limbs, and gives tone and vigor to the tissues.
But the benefits of this simple practice are more than skin deep.
Specific oils are recommended to individuals at different times based on their core constitution, the season, and any current imbalances they might be experiencing. This daily practice balances or harmonizes all three doshas, especially the vata dosha, the internal energy which is the root behind many imbalances and symptoms in the body and mind.
Each oil – sesame, almond, sunflower, coconut – has different energetic properties that balance the different doshas. Using such a simple base oil is effective for skin care, to caretake your core energetics, and to support the nervous system. For deeper results, herbalized oils are utilized. The herbs are cooked into the oil before being strained, feeding the benefits of herbs to your entire body via the skin, your largest organ.
The vata dosha governs the nervous system and its movement. Vata by nature is cold, dry, light and constantly fluctuating or moving. Oils by nature are heavy and oily which counter the light and dry nature of vata and support grounding the nervous system. In your busy world, the nervous system is overtaxed and the oil self massages provide an excellent remedy for today’s modern stresses, decrease the effects of aging, and support the regulation of sleep. Who couldn’t use a little more of those benefits!
Like any massage, abhyanga also works with the circulatory and lymph system. Regular self massage helps to flush toxins and wastes out, circulates vital nutrients to the tissues and cells to promote overall health and longevity, and stimulates the internal organs. Just like you exercise your muscles, you want to manually exercise your organs and tissues.
How to do Abhyanga
- Warm the oil recommended by your practitioner in its container in the bathroom sink or in a pot/cup of hot water. This takes just about 3-5 minutes if the bottle is small. If you have a copper warming bowl, you can also use this to warm your oil which adds a lovely spa-like beauty to the process. Do not microwave the oil. The oil should be pleasantly warm to the touch.
- You will be applying a small amount (about 2-4 Tbsp depending on the body size) of warm oil to your entire body. Massage the oil into your entire body, beginning with the extremities of the arms and legs and working toward the middle of the body. Use long strokes on the long bones and circular movements around your joints – which will be your tendency as it follows the natural contours of the body. Massage the abdomen and chest in broad, clockwise circular motions. Ideally give yourself this loving massage for 5-20 minutes. Once a week give a little extra attention to your scalp and feet. After massaging the feet, be sure to wash them before getting in the shower so you don’t slip.
- Let the oil feed your skin and tissues. Leave the oil on for at least 5 minutes and ideally 20-60 minutes. The longer you can leave it on, the better. I like to put my oil on in the morning then go do my daily yoga and meditation, but you could do your morning cooking, clean up the kitchen, or any other activity while the oil sits. If you are going to do other activities, have a set of “oil clothes” that you wear and wash a couple times a week. These clothes will retain some of the oil feel and smell even with regular washing so you want to use older clothes. I am on my second set of oil clothes, having thrown out my first ones after about 2 years.
- Take a warm, leisurely bath or shower after the allotted time. The shower after the oil often initially confuses my clients who are used to applying lotion or product after showering. In this case, the warm water opens the skin pores to draw in more of the oil and gently washes off the excess oil. Use gentle soap under the arms and in the groin area and simply rinse off the rest of the body. If you do body brushing before the oil massage, you will have removed superficial dirt and dead skin cells and do not need to use soap, which is drying, every day. It is good if a little oil remains. If you feel too oily, dry chickpea flour can be rubbed on the body in the shower to help remove the excess oil.
- Towel dry with a dedicated abhyanga towel. I say “dedicated” as this towel may accumulate oil and retain some oil odor, similar to the oil clothes but not as much. As such, you do not want your towel to be your favorite, expensive one unless you’re choosing to add that gift to your self-nurturing!
When not to do abhyanga – there are times when you should not do this massage:
- Over swollen, painful areas or masses without first talking to your practitioner
- Over infected or broken skin
- When you have acute fever, chills or flu
- When you have acute indigestion or directly after taking purgatives or emetics, usually as part of a cleanse
- During the menstrual cycle (can do very lightly and only for about 5 minutes) or pregnancy
Tips to Deal with Oil Accumulation
- Have 2 abhyanga towels: one to sit on while doing your massage and the other to use when first getting out of the shower. I personally do not sit while doing my massage so I only use one towel coming out of the shower. If you are more comfortable sitting for the massage, a second towel is nice.
- Adding a few tablespoons each of baking soda and vinegar to your oil towel and clothing load after the water is in will help remove the excess oil. You want to make sure to do this with water otherwise the volatile mix could eat damage the inside of your washer and/or your plumbing.
- Keep a bottle of dish detergent in your shower or tub. When you’re done washing off, squirt a little on the floor and rub it around then let the shower water wash it down the drain. Doing this each time helps prevent accumulation of oil.
- Though the traditional abhyanga recommends using 4-8 oz. of oil, modern plumbing has a hard time processing that quantity. I have my clients use a smaller amount like 2-4 Tbsp.
Short and Sweet Options
- Though it is ideal to massage the body for 5 minutes and leave the oil on for at least 20 minutes, even a short massage with less soaking time will help. In a pinch, oiling and massaging just the feet will ground the nervous system.
- Though doing abhyanga is the morning is ideal, if that doesn’t fit your schedule, the evening is another option which can be part of a soothing bedtime routine that supports issues such as restless sleep or insomnia.
- Though this isn’t applicable for sesame or herbalized oils, you can use coconut (for pitta needs) or almond oil after the shower while the skin is still slightly damp and leave the oil on. These oils are lighter and have a gentle odor that won’t penetrate into your clothes.
©2015, Jamie Durner, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner & Wellness Educator at Ayurveda Wellness in Brookfield, WI