Many people ask me, what is the difference between Abhyaṅga Warm Oil Massage and other techniques such as Swedish or Sports Massage? Western techniques tend to have a sole focus on treating the physical body, using a variety of effective techniques on the myofascial system. Here a lotion or ointment is used simply with the intent of lubrication for soft tissue manipulation; and potentially for relief of pain or inflammation, if the ointment is also infused with herbs.
Ayurveda teaches that a human being is not a solid, stable material structure but an ever changing dynamic collection of energy and intelligence in the larger field of energy and intelligence that is the universe. Abhyaṅga is the anointing of the body with oil. Often medicated with anywhere from 1 to 30+ herbs and usually warm, the oil is massaged into the entire body before bathing, with the intention to saturate the largest organ of the body (skin) with this relaxing external application of herbal medicine. There are numerous traditional formulations of medicated oils that can be beneficial for maintaining health and serve as important medicine for certain disorders.
In an Abhyaṅga massage, the focus of treatment is broadened to a complete holistic view of the unique individual; with the goal to import balance not only to the physical body, but also to the subtle energetic, mind and bliss bodies. This is done by first analysing one’s state of health using a traditional 8 limb assessment, including pulse and tongue diagnosis; followed by saturating the entire body with specialized oil(s) while using specific soothing strokes and marma points to promote balance.
Marma (plu- Marmāni) are vital energy points located at the surface of the body infused with prana life force, and permeated with consciousness; which expresses itself in lively, concentrated form at these points. Thus, they serve as a bridge or doorway between the body, mind and soul. They function diagnostically and therapeutically-to balance the mind, relieve pain, for preventative care and rejuvenation.
Abhyaṅga is encouraged as a life enhancing self massage technique incorporated into a daily routine appropriate for almost everyone. Additionally, Abhyaṅga is received as a sacred and relaxing healing treatment; from one or two therapists (yes, 4 hands at once!) as often as weekly, monthly or quarterly depending on one’s needs and resources. When receiving an Abhyaṅga, be open to being completely nude (don’t worry, you’ll be kept respectfully draped, of course!) and experiencing the abdominal organ, lymph and breast massage aspects, since this is one of the most unique and healing moments of the Abhyanga. Plus when do the breasts ever move, let alone get massaged? It’s vital to get the inherent stagnation of the breast tissue moving, especially if you have fibrocystic changes in the breast, you’ll notice how great this feels to have the vital life force cursing through your chest and it’s not as strange or invasive as it sounds, I promise!
The Sanskrit word sneha means both “oil” and “love,” and the effects of abhyaṅga are similar to the effect of being enveloped with love. Both experiences can give a deep feeling of safety, stability, warmth and comfort. Sneha–oil and love–is sukshma, or “subtle.” This allows sneha to pass through minute channels in the body and penetrate into deeper layers of tissue. These subtle but profound qualities are a major reason why this ancient treatment can be so incredibly transformational.
Ayurveda teaches that there are seven dhātus, or layers of tissue in the body. Each is successively more concentrated and life-giving. It is emphasized that for the effects of sneha to reach to the deepest layer, it should be massaged into the body for 800 matras, roughly 5 minutes. If we consider that the entire body needs this kind of attention, a 15 minute massage is a minimum amount of time, but ideally the oil should remain on the skin to soak for at least one muhurta, roughly 45 minutes.
Now, what’s special about receiving Abhyaṅga with me is that I not only love what I do (and each one of you!) and continue to study with Ayurveda physicians in Canada, US and India, to integrate true authenticity with Western standards; but as an RMT and Yoga teacher, I provide a unique transformational Abhyanga as I integrate Yoga Therapy, Turiya Therapy and clinical Remedial Massage techniques to create a customized treatment. You can read more about Turiya Therapy here but in brief Turiya translates from Sanskrit to transcendance and while in this Turiya state, we’re able to witness and release impressions in our conscious and subconscious mind, which denotes the transformation of our psycho-emotional causes of disease into spiritual wisdom, while relaxing the body and nervous system.
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. Charaka Samhita Vol. 1, V: 88-89.
Abhyaṅga should be resorted to daily, it wards off old age, exertion and aggravation of Vata. Hrdayam: Sutrasthana:II:8-9
(Outlined in: Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Ashtanga Hridayam)
BENEFITS OF APPLYING OIL TO THE BODY (ABHYANGA)
- Produces softness, strength and color to the body
- Decreases the effects of aging by regenerating tissue
- Balances and nourishes the microbiome on skin, aids skin conditions
- Increases longevity and energy
- Bestows good vision and clarity of mind
- Helps to reduce sympathetic nervous system firing and ease stress
- Eliminates toxins
- Nourishes the body and mind
- Benefits sleep patterns and quality of sleep
- Benefits and tones skin
- Strengthens the body’s tolerance and immunity
- Imparts a firmness to the limbs
- Imparts tone and vigor to the dhātus (tissues) of the body
- Stimulates the internal organs of the body, increasing circulation
- Pacifies Vāta and Pitta and Harmonizes Pitta
- Enhances fertility
- A wonderful way to heal after birth and helps to increase the mother’s milk supply and vital connection to her baby and herself.
BENEFITS OF APPLYING OIL TO THE SCALP (MURDHA TAILA/SHIROABHYANGA):
- Makes hair grow luxuriantly, thick, soft and glossy
- Soothes and invigorates the sense organs
- Removes facial wrinkles
BENEFITS OF APPLYING OIL TO THE EARS (KARNA PURANA/POORNA):
- Benefits disorders in the ear which are due to increased Vata
- Benefits stiff neck
- Benefits stiffness in the jaw
- Pacifying to nervous system
BENEFITS OF APPLYING OIL TO THE FEET (PADAGHATA/PADABHYANGA):
- Coarseness, stiffness, roughness, fatigue and numbness of the feet are alleviated
- Strength and firmness of the feet is attained
- Vision is enhanced
- Vata is pacified
- Sciatica is benefited
- Local veins and ligaments are benefited
WHEN OR HOW NOT TO DO ABHYAṄGA
- *Within an hour of eating
- *Over swollen, painful areas or masses on the body, without the knowledge and consent of your health-care practitioner
- *Over infected or broken skin
- *When there is high ama (toxicity, often indicated by a thick, white coating on the tongue), great physical discomfort, or acute illness. It is best to check with your Ayurvedic practitioner to see if you have any contraindications, before practicing abhyanga.
- *When you have acute illness, fever, chills, or flu
- *When you have acute indigestion, or directly after taking emetics or purgatives
- *When you have a medical condition, unless your health-care practitioner says it is okay to do abhyaṅga.
- *During the menstrual flow; this is because we want to allow the pranic energy apana to flow down and out as it naturally needs to at this time, instead of moving it around the body with massage. Some women don’t like to stop abhyaṅga during their flow. If you chose to do it during your flow, it is best to apply the oil gently, only using downward strokes and circular around the joints and for only about 5 minutes.
- *During pregnancy
Massaging sneha (oil) into the human organism imparts a tone and vigor to its root- principles (dhātus), in the same manner as water furnishes the roots of a tree or a plant with the necessary nutritive elements, and fosters its growth, when poured into the soil where it grows. The use of sneha at a bath causes the sneha to penetrate into the system through the mouths of the veins (siras) and the ducts (dhamanis) of the body, as also through the roots of the hair, and thus soothes and invigorates the body with its own essence.
Under the circumstances, massages and anointments of the body with oil or clarified butter should be prescribed by an intelligent person with due regard to one’s habit, congeniality and temperament and to the climate and the season of the year as well as to the preponderance of the deranged doṣa or doṣas in one’s physical constitution. Sushruta Samhita, Chikitsa Sthanam: XXIV:29-32
These sutras or passages make it clear that we should always consider our prakṛti (mind body constitution), vikṛti (current condition), our stage of life and our external environment in deciding which oils are best for us and how often we should perform or receive abhyaṅga. If you’re not sure what your vikṛti or prakṛti is and want to learn more about your constitution, you can see an Ayurvedic practitioner, such as myself for a comprehensive consultation. If that is not an available option for you, you can take the prakṛti or vikṛti tests on www.banyanbotanicals.com for help in evaluating your doṣas’ conditions.
It is recommended to follow a particular doṣa-pacifying abhyaṅga if that doṣa is currently high. For example, if you are frequently critical, angry, irritable,with penetrating, obsessive, even judgemental thoughts and at times you’re over analytical and reactive, and you feel hot and oily; than your vikṛti is likely high Pitta and using a Pitta pacifying oil for your abhyanga would be most beneficial. If no doṣa is currently out of balance, it is good to consider the dominant doṣa in your prakṛti constitution and your environment, including the current season and weather. For example, if you’re feeling healthy, but you know that Vata is your dominant doṣa, and the weather is cold, dry and windy during the rapid transition into fall in Alberta for example, than it’s likely best to choose Vata-pacifying oil.
At first Ayurveda can be confusing if you’re dual doshic, meaning you have more than one dominant doṣa in your prakṛti. But just remember, in this case, you’ll want to pacify the doṣas according to their predominant season. Same goes for being Tridoshic, which is more of a rare constitution with all 3 doṣas in equal quantity and quality. If you are a Pitta-Kapha combination, pacify Pitta during the warm summer weather and Kapha during the cool, moist late winter early spring weather. If you are a Pitta-Vata combination, pacify Pitta during the warm weather and Vata during the cold, dry fall and early winter weather. If you are a Vata-Kapha combination, pacify Vata during cold, dry, windy weather and during the change of seasons and pacify Kapha during cold or wet weather. It’s all about becoming less rigid, and more flexible in mind and body as we learn how to leverage these universal qualities that are mimicked within each of our personal constitutions.
More extensive guidelines for each doṣa are outlined below. In general, gently heat the oil for abhyanga. Oil applied to the head should be cool in the summer and slightly warm in the winter.
HOW TO PERFORM ABHYAṄGA
*Are you an RMT or looking to embrace the healer within? Jaisri (photo above) & I have co-created the most comprehensive professional ABHYAṄGA course, that’s the ONLY training to be approved by major Massage Therapy Associations for CEU’s in Canada. Stay tuned for upcoming dates and locations!*
VĀTA PACIFYING ABHYAṄGA
The primary qualities of Vāta are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile and erratic. As you see, quite literally all of these qualities are opposite to those of oil. This is why warm oil is especially good for pacifying Vāta. Also when we’re working with the skin, we’re working with Vata and the sense of touch and the organ of the skin is one of the main expressions of Vāta.
If Vāta is high, either in your prakṛti or vikṛti, doing abhyaṅga daily can be highly beneficial, even life-changing, as Vāta is restored to its normal condition. Just be sure to do the abhyaṅga in a warm, quiet place and avoid getting chilled afterwards.
What Oil is Best for Vāta?
Sesame is considered to be the “king of oils;” it is the preferred choice of oil for Vāta because it is inherently heating. If possible, use one that is organic and always use untoasted. Almond oil and mustard oil are also good choices because they are also heating. You may also consider using herbal oils designed to pacify Vāta, especially if Vāta is high in your vikṛti. The herbs that have are chosen for herbal oils enhance the Vāta-pacifying qualities of sesame oil. Vāta herbal massage oils can be use alone or diluted with sesame, almond or mustard oils.
For increasing strength and stamina Ashwagandha Oil or Ashwagandha/Bala Oils may be the best for you.
Mahanarayan Oil is made from over 30 Ayurvedic herbs and is traditionally used for joint and muscle pain or weakness. If you warm it, massage it into the affected joints or muscles and proceed with your regular abhyanga, it can be extremely beneficial. Following this with a warm bath with 1/3 cup each baking soda and ginger powder can enhance the effects even further.
Vāta Cleansing Powder
If cleansing powder does not irritate your skin try using one in the place of soap. You can use oat or chickpea flour, or use a formula especially for Vata, such as one containing dashamula and/or fenugreek. Make a paste with the dusting powder and water, and then gently apply a small amount to the body. Then simply rinse it off with the oil. This powder can also be mixed with a bit of olive oil and/or yogurt and applied to face as a mask.
PITTA PACIFYING ABHYAṄGA
The primary qualities of Pitta are: oily, sharp, hot, light, intense, fetid, spreading and fluid. Since Pitta and oil share a number of qualities it is ideal to use medicated herbal oil when you are trying to reduce Pitta symptoms (such as: skin irritations, rashes, itchiness) as the addition of herbs enhances the Pitta pacifying properties of the oil and reduces potential sensitivities, as Pitta individuals with prakṛti/vikṛti tend to have highly sensitive skin.
What Oil is Best for Pitta?
Pitta pacifying herbal infused oils are best for abhyanga. Applying Bhringraj Oil or Brahmi Oil to the scalp and soles of feet at bedtime may reduce Pitta and encourage sound sleep. If you don’t have medicated oils, use organic sunflower or cooling coconut oil for your abhyanga. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, you may wish to add some Neem Oil to whatever your basic abhyanga oil is, because it can help to reduce Pitta in the skin.
Pitta Cleansing Powder
If cleansing powder does not irritate your skin you may enjoy using chickpea or green mung flour or a specialized formula in the place of soap, for pitta one with neem, mitti (special clay), turmeric and/or fenugreek is especially beneficial. Make a paste with the flour or dusting powder and water, then gently apply a small amount to the body in the shower and simply rinse it off with the oil. This powder can also be mixed with a bit of castor oil, organic rose water, aloe vera and/or yogurt and applied to face as a mask.
KAPHA PACIFYING ABHYAṄGA
As the main qualities of Kapha are unctuous, oily, cool, heavy, slow, smooth, stable and dense; we can see kapha and oil share most qualities. Because like increases like, using oil, especially cool or cooling oil, may increase Kapha rather than decrease it. However, because oil has the ability to absorb the qualities of substances it is prepared with, appropriate herbal oils can decrease Kapha.
Often times the best type of massage for Kapha is udvartana, (a dry herb massage with soft, fragrant powders, like triphala, neem, manjistha or calamus powder). Vagbhata says;
“udvartana mitigates Kapha, liquefies the fat, produces stability of the body parts and excellence of the skin.” (AH: Sutrasthana:II:15) while Sushruta says; “udvartana reduces the fat and the aggravated Kapha of the system, smoothes and cleanses the skin and imparts a firmness to the limbs.” (SS, Chikitsa Sthana, XXIV:49)
Now, Sushruta also says, “Anointing the body (with oil, etc.) imparts a glossy softness to the skin, guards against the aggravation of Vata and Kapha, improves the color and strength and gives a tone to the root-principles (dhātus) [tissues] of the body.” (SS Chikitsa Sthana: XXIV:28)Therefore this shows that there indeed is benefit to be had for abhyanga for Kapha, when used appropriately.
What Oil is Best for Kapha?
Abhyaṅga with warming oils and only warm oil is ideal for Kapha. Therefore Kapha should never use coconut oil, but especially not in cool climates. While sesame, corn and mustard oils are all helpful because they are warming, medicated herbal oils are a better choice for Kapha, as they provide more Kapha pacifying properties to the oil, negating potential side effects for a Kapha individual. Kapha Massage Oil is a good choice for general use. Less oil is needed for Kapha abhyanga than for Vāta or Pitta.
Kapha Cleansing Powder
To enhance the positive effects of abhyaṅga for Kapha-types, vigorously rub an appropriate Kapha Cleansing Powder into the body before or after performing abhyaṅga, either while working in or rinsing off the oil. You can use chickpea flour or green mung flour but a mix of vaccha (calamus root) powder and chickpea is divine! This powder can also be mixed with a bit of castor or olive oil, organic rose water, and/or aloe vera and applied to face as a mask.
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. Charaka Samhita: Sutrasthanam: V: 88-89
- Abhyanga is meant to be done in the morning hours of the day; that are supportive of cleansing procedures, as this is when the body naturally has the urge to cleanse itself by evacuating wastes. Ideally its is done before but followed by nourishment (sattvic fresh food) and must be done on an empty stomach if one does choose to do this practice later in the day or before bed.
- Put about ½ cup oil in an 8 oz. heat proof squeeze bottle or other heat safe recipient with a lid (I’ve used mason jars many times-but a bottle makes for easy, mess free application every time). Make sure the oil is not rancid.
- Place the bottle of oil in a pan of hot water (or fancy electric massage oil warmer you can keep right in your baño or room where you apply you oil) until the oil is pleasantly warm.
- Sit or stand comfortably in a warm room, on a towel that you don’t mind ruining with oil accumulation. Make sure you’re protected from any wind and cold.
- Apply the oil to your entire body using long, slow downward moving strokes with lots of love and awareness.
- Contrary to many schools of Ayurveda in the West, I was taught that the focus shouldn’t be toward the heart, but the opposite. Massage the oil into your entire body, starting with the extremities but beginning at the chest and centre of the body, working towards the extremities. Use long, slow (even slower…) downward moving strokes on the limbs and circular strokes on the joints, returning to the centre of your body with long, quick upward strokes. Avoid too many upward strokes as the goal is to ground and anchor the pranic energy down.
- Massage the abdomen and chest in both small and broad, clockwise, circular motions. On the abdomen, follow the path of the large intestine; moving up on the right side of the abdomen, then across, then down on the left side. Massage the body lovingly for 5-20 minutes, with great respect, adoration and patience. Once the oil covers your body, wash your hands and either sit down on your oil towel, and oil robe if your home is cool, to enjoy meditation and pranayama or be very careful moving about your house (more below). A minimum amount of time to let the oil soak is 20 mins, but ideally one muhurta, roughly 45 minutes. Take deep diaphragmatic breaths and gently massage diaphragm on the exhale.
- Give a little extra time and attention to massaging the oil into your scalp, ears and feet, at least once a week. When you massage your feet, be sure to wash them before standing in shower or tub, so you don’t slip. Apply oil to the crown of your head (adhipati marma) and work slowly out from there in circular strokes. Oil applied to the head should be warm but not hot. Pro tip for washing the oil out of hair is to apply the shampoo directly onto the head before wetting the hair. Rub the oily soapy mess, then lather with a splash of water before rinsing and washing again. The shampoo grasps onto the oil better, before water gets involved!
- Put a couple drops of warm oil on the tip of your little finger or on a cotton ball and apply to the opening of the ear canal and to inside of the nostrils. You can even lay on your side and pour enough oil into your ear to fill it right up, massage the ear and jaw and allow it to soak for 5 mins on each side. This works wonders for relief of TMJD, sleep disturbance and neck tension. (If there is any current or chronic discomfort in the ears don’t do this without the recommendation of your health care practitioner)
- Enjoy a warm bath or shower.
- Ideally don’t use soap on the skin to rid the oil, rather a Vāta, Pitta or Kapha dusting powder can help rinse off the oil without drying out the skin. You can use a mild soap on the “strategic” areas.
- When you get out of the bath, pat the skin dry with a towel. Keep a special towel for drying off after your Abhyanga because it can eventually get ruined, due to the accumulation of oil.
- Put on a pair of cozy cotton or natural fiber socks or designated oil slippers to protect your space from the residual oil on your feet.
- Apply a doṣa-appropriate essential oil to your pulse points on your wrists and neck and a tad on centre of your chest to be circulated throughout vyana vayu (circulatory outward moving energy) and your aura (energetic field) throughout the day. An example: Tridoshic: Lavender or Peppermint Vata: Citrus or Cinnamon Pitta: Sandalwood or Rose Kapha: Sage or Eucalyptus
- Enjoy the rejuvenating feeling of your nervous system pacified and protected by a comforting blanket of love… aka sneha! 😉
PRACTICALITY COVERED IN OIL. WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THAT OIL?? LAUNDRY, CLEANING AND EVEN …PLUMBING TIPS!
Many people have aversion to abhyaṅga and never even start the practice or eventually quit due to a clean up and oiliness that can seem daunting if you don’t have some tricks up your sleeve. First thing, once the oil is on your body, wash your hands and either sit down or be very careful moving about your house. In a perfect world, we sit on our oil towel in our warm meditation space to do our pranayama, meditation and possibly spiritual reading, listening or watching while the oil soaks in. But in a hectic modern day world, if you must pack your lunch or cook breakfast, answer emails or tidy up- do so….carefully! Be mindful of what you touch or bump into while covered in oil, put on your oil socks and stay warm- put on a robe if you live in a cool climate and make sure where ever you sit you have your oil towel.
People shy away, professing they’ll feel oily all day, but this isn’t true, as long as you can have a warm bath or shower using the above directions and cleansing poweres if necessary after your oil has soaked in, follwed by a thorough pat dry with your designated oil towel. I’ve heard complaints of towels or sheets smelling, getting rancid or ruined, plumbing is getting clogged up, and the bathtub floor is gets slippery and sticky with oil accumulation. But for the life changing benefits found in this practice, it’s worthwhile to use the above directions to bathe after your massage and the following to clean up to persist to find a way around these set backs. Here are some tips that I’ve collected from personal experience, colleagues and teachers.
- Keep your oil linens separate; have one towel for sitting or standing on when you apply the oil and one that you use as your “oil towel” only for drying off after your shower. The first will get ruined the quickest. The second will, too, eventually, even with the best laundry techniques. Pro tips: Once the hot water has filled the wash basin-Add a can of Coca Cola (yup, you heard me! Cleaning blood off the highway and oil out of your linens is the only thing cola should be used for, amigos!) to the hot water and let the machine spin back and forth a bit to mix it good. Let soak for 20 mins. Then before starting the wash cycle- Add a few tablespoons each of scent free natural dish soap, white vinegar and baking soda into a “Febreeze” ball and pop it into the hot water to turn on wash cycle. This can be a volatile mixture when combined and could eat right through the pipes, as well as the oil, although when added to full basin of water, in the Febreeze” ball, the corrosive mixture will have stopped its destructive fizzing action by the time the washer drains. There are also some commercial Massage Therapy detergents available but they can be pricey and not all of them work great. This is one I like. If you can’t get all the oil out, you might plan to replace your sheets or towels about twice a year. Although it is ideal to practice abhyaṅga in the morning, some people (especially parents!) don’t have time then and prefer to do it in the evening before bed to wind down. If happen to be one of these people, wear a “special” set of natural fiber nightclothes for at least an hour after your shower, after your abhyanga. They will absorb most of the remaining oil on your skin. And, if you are leaving oil in your hair (which can help encourage sound sleep), put a towel over your pillow, to protect it.
- Keep a bottle of (organic) grease cutting dish soap in your shower or tub. When you are done washing, squirt some on the tub or shower floor and spread it around with your feet, sort of mopping up the floor, or you can even keep a scrub brush to lather it up good once in a while. Let the shower flow over it and wash everything down the drain. Doing this every time you wash after abhyaṅga prevents an accumulation of oil. If your balance isn’t good, the shower floor is slippery, or you fear you might slip, make sure that you hold on tight to something stable while you do this. Or get somebody else to do it or find a more suitable method to keep the floor clean. Please don’t slip and hurt yourself. That would contradict the benefits of this entire process.
- When you launder oily towels and linens, there is a literal risk of their catching fire if they’re too oily or too hot. If a towel is saturated in oil, it’s better to just throw it away. If you dry your oil linens in a dryer, it’s better to use low heat. Do not to leave oily towels in a hot car. I’ve heard of a few cases of oily linens being left in a car in the hot sun with the windows up, and the linens spontaneously combust! Causing fire damage to the inside of the vehicle!
- For the plumbing; bi-weekly or at least monthly- pour a little environmentally friendly drain cleaner down your drain. You can make your own with baking soda and vinegar, followed by boiling hot water. Although I have alternatively heard that cold water, mixed with a grease fighting dish soap that can dissolve in cold water, causes the oil to bead up and wash along the drain better than does hot water, which makes it remain liquefied and stick to the plumbing. I have yet to try this method, so I’ll have to experiment to see what works best and get back to you!