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Self-Love with Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Massage

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Self-Love with Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Massage

Self-massage with warm oil is a fabulous way to soothe the nervous system and calm vata dosha. It is especially beneficial when vata is out of balance, as it helps to calm feelings of anxiety, worry, fear, loneliness, and insecurity.


woman in a white towel

My Own Experience with Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Massage

When I was first introduced to Ayurveda and the practice of abhyanga, I thought, "What do you want me to do? Smear oil all over my body? Yuck!"


After giving it a try, I became quite faithful in applying the oil daily as a morning routine. The effects were staggering. It helped to settle long-term anxiety that had been lurking in me, perhaps since childhood. It fostered self-love. If I did strenuous activities, oiling my body would refresh me and soothe the muscles so that they no longer hurt. I was only in my early 40s at that point but had some joint issues due to broken bones. The joint pain disappeared.


Abhyanga became a daily practice that would see me through huge upheavals in my life and support me during times of relationship break-up, changes in living situations, a strained relationship with my son, and extensive travel. I don't know how I would have survived those years without this amazing practice.


Jump ahead a few years to when I had a traumatic experience, which I call "my best trauma ever"!


Let me begin by saying that I'm okay and was really lucky to escape this experience with just a few scrapes and bruises, but was otherwise physically fine. I was out walking and was attacked by a young man. Basically, he eventually just grabbed me and dropped me into a creek bed, then ran away. I was incredibly lucky.

woman in a pink towel

Nonetheless, I was shaken by the experience but was able to keep calm and lean on my Ayurvedic practices. The kind police officer who answered my call took me home for a cup of warm, spiced milk before taking me to the station. I gave my statement, then went home and oiled my body. I called a friend and invited her out for lunch so I could have good company and eat warm, moist food that I knew would support my nervous system.


The abhyanga, Ayurvedic massage, definitely gave me a feeling of self-love that day.


While it's an experience that I will never forget, it feels like a blip in my life rather than a major crisis. Before I started the practice of abhyanga, any small crisis that I had felt huge and took up residence in my nervous system. This was a new experience for me to be calm in the face of adversity.


I fully believe that the daily practice of oiling my body was the reason that I came out of this ordeal without the trauma of this experience lodging in my body.


The Carak Samhita, an ancient Ayurvedic text, states that with abhyanga "vata disorders are relieved, and tolerance to hardship and physical strain is enhanced"1, which is how I think it helped me survive and thrive after "my best trauma ever."


How does Abhyanga work?

Read on to learn what the ancient texts of Ayurveda say about abhyanga and read some modern research on this practice. Then at the end of this post, there is a description of how to do abhyanga for yourself.


Ancient Texts

Caraka Samhita


oil dripping from a bottle onto a hand

"One who has got his head daily well oleated [oiled] alleviates head-ache, premature graying, and alopecia (hair loss), while strengthening the cranial bones significantly. Hair roots become stronger, senses become clearer, the facial skin becomes smoother and the person gets sound sleep and happiness.

By filling the ears with oil daily, there will be no ear diseases of the vata type, no stiffness of the neck or jaws, no difficulty in hearing and reduced chances of deafness.

Just as a pitcher by smearing with oil, a hide by soaking in oil or an axle by lubricating with oil become firm, so does the human body when oleated with oil. The skin becomes beautiful, vata disorders are relieved, and tolerance to hardship and physical strain is enhanced. Vayu predominates in the tactile sense faculty and the tactile sense faculty resides in the skin. Massage is exceedingly beneficial to the skin. Therefore, a person should practice it regularly. A person’s body accustomed to oil massage is not liable to be afflicted with injury due to external trauma or strenuous physical exertion. A person, by applying daily oil massage, becomes smooth and plump, strong and good looking, while slowing his aging process. [81-89]"


"The roughness, stiffness, dryness, fatigue and numbness of feet are alleviated by massaging the legs. The legs attain gentleness, strength, firmness, the eyes attain brightness, and the vata is pacified. Foot massage also prevents grudhrasi (sciatica), fissures in the feet, contraction of the muscles, and blood vessels of legs. [90-92]"1


Ashtanga Hridayam

In the Ashtanga Hridayam, in Sutrasthana chapter 2, dinacharya, or daily routines are discussed.

"Abhyañga (oil-massage and bath) should be resorted to daily, it wards off old age, exertion and (aggravation of vāta); bestows good vision, nourishment to the body, longlife, good sleep, good and strong (healthy) skin. It should be done specifically to the head, ears and feet.

It should be avoided by persons suffering from aggravation of kapha, who have (just) undergone purification therapies (like emesis, purgations, etc.) and who are suffering from indigestion. 8-9.

Notes: Abhyañga is anointing the head and body with medicated oil, massaging them mildly and then taking bath with warm water. It is very beneficial not only for the healthy but also for persons suffering from disorders of the nervous system etc."2



Sneha

oil in a clear bottle with flowers in the background

While the Ayurvedic texts don't specifically say that abhyanga, Ayurvedic massage, is a practice of self-love, there is a Sanskrit word that is used in the Ayurvedic texts which points us in this direction. Sneha means "oil". It also means "love". The daily oiling of the body is a practice of self-love. For people who don't receive a lot of physical touch from others, this practice can help fill that void of experiencing touch from others and increase the feeling of self-love.




Modern Research on Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Massage

According to a study performed by NIH (National Institute of Health), massage helped individuals in acute care settings experience a reduction in physical pain as well as psychological distress. The study also indicated a relationship between "pain, relaxation, sleep, emotions, recovery, and finally, the healing process."3


Hair thickness, in this study on Research Gate, was shown to increase with head massage.4 Ayurvedic head massage was specifically studied, the result being that parasympathetic nerve activity (the rest and digest part of the nervous system) increased during the head massage and slowly decreased after the head massage was completed.5 This will help to reduce anxiety and worry. Another study indicates that oiling the massaging the scalp daily for an extended period of time can reduce hair loss.


Foot massage has been proven to help reduce pain in patients in ICUs.7


How to create self-love with abhyanga: Ayurvedic massage


oil being applied to a foot

Steps

  1. Prepare the bathroom or another warm, comfortable, draft-free room in the house by placing an old towel on the floor and over the toilet seat or chair. Use as many old towels as you need to keep the oil from spreading in your bathroom.

  2. Pour the oil you need into a small glass bottle. Store your main bottle in a cool, dry place.

  3. Place the small glass bottle in a mug of hot water for 5 minutes or until the oil heats up to a comfortable temperature. It should be very warm when applying it to the body to help pacify the cold quality of vata. Some people find that the hot water from the tap is warm enough to use in the mug, others need to heat the water in an electric kettle or on the stove. Please don't heat the oil directly on the stove as this can be dangerous.

  4. Apply oil to the crown of the head, the ears, and the face. You’ll read in different sources the best place to start applying the oil based on one’s constitution. The most important thing is to get the oil onto your body, so if this is confusing to you, start wherever your intuition leads you. The head is always a lovely place to begin.

  5. Use long strokes on the long bones of the body and circles on the joints. Massage the abdomen in a clockwise direction to follow the direction the waste moves in the colon.

  6. Traditional Ayurvedic doctors say to massage yourself for 45 minutes. This is awesome if you have that much time! If not, take as long as you can to complete this daily routine. Follow the rhythm of your breath. The more time one can take applying the oil and massaging the body, the more relaxing and Vāta pacifying the practice will be. If your daily morning routine doesn’t allow for a long self-massage, consider a few times a week when you may be able to dedicate more time to this practice. If mornings are too busy, the evening or the transition time between work and home life also works.

  7. The more oil that you use, the more it will pacify vata. Just smearing some oil on the skin after a shower doesn't really work in the same way as applying a generous amount of oil and massaging it into the skin.

  8. Relax for a few minutes with the oil on the skin. A set of old "oil clothes" can be donned after oiling to allow the oil to penetrate for a longer period of time. Wash these separately from other clothes (*see the note below). You may want to take this time to meditate or do a yoga nidra practice.

  9. If you have access to a steam room, sitting in the steam room helps the oil to absorb into the skin.

  10. Traditionally, this warm oil massage is recommended before showering or bathing because the heat and steam of the shower or bath will help the oil to penetrate. People with a lot of Pitta and/or Kapha in their constitution may even enjoy using a natural soap to wash the oil off. People with a lot of Vāta in their constitution, or who have dry skin, may like to rinse with warm water to remove the excess oil and use soap in the important places.

  11. Pat dry with a towel.


hands massaging each other

Some extra tips:

  • Three great sources for purchasing oil:

    • Kottakkal--They carry herb-infused oils specific to imbalances. These oils are rich, traditional blends that have been used in India for many years.

    • Banyan Botanicals--They carry herb-infused oils specific to the doshas, and plain base oils without herbs. As an example to help you choose, if you have a vata imbalance or vata in your constitution, you may want to choose the Vata Massage Oil.

    • Athreya--Another great company that I have started using with my clients. Their oils are produced in India using traditional preparations.

  • Wash any clothing or linens that come in contact with oil separately from the rest of the laundry.

  • Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda and Oxyclean Free are two laundry products that can be added with detergent to a load of laundry to help remove oil from clothing.

  • Use caution in the shower/tub to prevent slips if you have oil on your feet. Maybe put down an old towel or rubber mat while showering.

  • Dish liquid can be kept in the shower to be used to wash excess oil from the floor after showering to prevent slipping.

  • Drain pipe maintenance. To prevent a buildup of oil in your drain pipes, a solution of baking soda and vinegar can periodically be administered. You can read more about this here.

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1. Contributors. Main Page. In: Deole Y.S.., Basisht G., eds. Charak Samhita New Edition. 1st ed. Jamnagar, Ind: CSRTSDC; 2020. http://www.carakasamhitaonline.com/index.php?title=Main_Page&oldid=35892. Accessed Date Aug, 17 2023.

2. Murthy, Prof. K. R. Srikantha. Astanga Hrdayam. 5th ed., vol. 1, Krishnadas Academy, 2001. p. 24.

3. Adams R, White B, Beckett C. The effects of massage therapy on pain management in the acute care setting. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2010;3(1):4-11.

4. Koyama T, Kobayashi K, Hama T, Murakami K, Ogawa R. Standardized Scalp Massage Results in Increased Hair Thickness by Inducing Stretching Forces to Dermal Papilla Cells in the Subcutaneous Tissue. Eplasty. 2016;16: e8.

5. Murota M, Iwawaki Y, Uebaba K, Yamamoto Y, Takishita Y, Harada K, Shibata A, Narumoto J, Fukui K. Physical and Psychological Effects of Head Treatment in the Supine Position Using Specialized Ayurveda-Based Techniques. J Altern Complement Med. 2016 Jul;22(7):526-32. doi: 10.1089/acm.2015.0388. Epub 2016 May 10. PMID: 27163344; PMCID: PMC4939366.

6. English RS Jr, Barazesh JM. Self-Assessments of Standardized Scalp Massages for Androgenic Alopecia: Survey Results. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2019 Mar;9(1):167-178. doi: 10.1007/s13555-019-0281-6. Epub 2019 Jan 22. PMID: 30671883; PMCID: PMC6380978.

7. Momeni M, Arab M, Dehghan M, Ahmadinejad M. The Effect of Foot Massage on Pain of the Intensive Care Patients: A Parallel Randomized Single-Blind Controlled Trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2020 Jun 13;2020:3450853. doi: 10.1155/2020/3450853. PMID: 32617105; PMCID: PMC7306861.



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