Massage has historically not been my thing. I have gotten a professional massage about twice in my life, and I hated it. They did it too hard (despite constant pleas to ease up) and talked to me the whole time, so I had to engage instead of relax. I have sharp words for anyone who comes up behind me to rub my shoulders, including my husband. So I felt a bit underwhelmed at the idea of an oil self-massage. I had to throw out all preconceived massage notions and go with it, and boy was I pleasantly surprised.
Daily oil self-massage (abhyanga) is the cornerstone of self-care in Ayurveda. It has a myriad of benefits and is what completely sold me on Ayurveda. When I do it, I feel the self-love. I feel deeply cared for and nourished. And my dry skin is transformed. If I do it consistently for a week, I look in the mirror at a different person.
Our skin isn’t just our skin. It provides a barrier to the outside world, shielding us from bacteria and toxins. Current science is starting to recognize that the skin is actually a major immunologic and hormonal/endocrine organ (Sharma & Clark, 2009).
Abhyanga promotes softness and luster of the skin, lubricates and rejuvenates our muscles, tissues, and joints, and increases our flexibility. Stimulating our tissues flushes toxins out of the body. It makes us strong and slows down the aging process. Oil massage “works by soothing the two master systems of the body, the nervous system and the endocrine system” (Chopra, 2000, p. 250). It increases energy flow, improves digestion and helps us release stress and emotions. Regular abhyanga promotes peace of mind, relieves insomnia, and is a great way to start or end the day relaxed and happy.
Also my cellulite becomes markedly less bumpy. Need I say more?
Abhyanga is especially powerful for those of us with a predominantly vata constitution, or if vata is out of balance. Many (most?) people have some vata imbalance, even if it is not a dominant dosha. This is especially true in the fall and winter months when everything is dried out and chilly.
Anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes can be taken to do abhyanga. The best case scenario is to sit in a warmed bathroom (I use a space heater), do the massage, then relax, drink tea, meditate, space out, whatever, for 20 minutes, then get in a shower or bath. On a busy day, I just slap some oil on while showering.
The consensus seems to be that the best oil to use is sesame oil, (organic). It is rich in vitamins (A,B and E) and minerals (iron, calcium, magnesium, copper, silicic acid, and phosphorus). Sesame oil works well for all three doshas and contains antioxidants (linoleic acid, alpha-linoleic acid, and lecithin) that feed the body via the skin. Sesame oil is amazing because it’s chemical structure allows it to penetrate surfaces very well. It can really absorb into the skin.
People with pitta constitution, especially in hot climates and summertime, can use coconut oil, which is cooling to the body. Olive oil is a fine choice if sesame doesn’t agree or irritates the skin. Per Deepak Chopra (2000), vata types do best with sesame or almond oil, pittas with olive or coconut oil, and kaphas do well with sesame or sunflower.
I also like Banyan Botanicals oils – they have a different preparation for each dosha that contains herbs (I’m not affiliated with them but I think they rock). Fancy is not required however; oil can be picked up at the grocery store.
How to Perform Oil Massage
A word of caution: Oil is extremely slippery, so care must be taken not to slip and fall! One way to minimize slipperiness is to put a towel right in the shower or tub to stand on and let it get soaking wet.
- Curing the oil promotes absorption. Heat oil on LOW to 212-220 degrees (use cooking thermometer) and do not leave it unattended for even one second; remove from stove as soon as it’s at the right temperature. Please exercise extreme caution because of the flammable nature of oil. I have yet to do this step, but have included it for completeness; do not store oil in the refrigerator but rather in a cool, dark place.
- Put about 1/4 cup oil into a cup and place the cup into a larger bowl. Heat about 2 cups of water in the microwave and put it in the bowl, cover the bowl with a plate or a towel and allow to heat up for about 10 minutes.
- Start the massage by placing a small amount of oil on the head (I skip this if I am not going to wash my hair, although the head massage is an important part of it). Massage using the palm of the hand and the flat surface of the fingers rather than the fingertips. Use a circular motion, and spend the most time here as “the scalp has vital points (marmas) which connect and influence the rest of the body” (Sharma & Clark, 2012, pg. 202).
- Massage face and ears, more gently than the head – the gentle massage to the ears and temple is especially good for settling vata (Chopra, 2000, pg 251), so give them some extra time.
- Get more oil (whenever needed), massage the front and back of the neck and the upper back.
- Massage arms vigorously using long, back and forth motions over the length of the arms and circular motions over the shoulders and elbows
- Next, massage the chest and stomach – not as vigorously. Use a circular motion over the chest/breasts and a straight motion right under the chest and over the breastbone. At the abdomen, again use a circular motion and go clockwise (this is the direction the large intestine moves in).
- Massage the back and spine in a vigorous up and down motion (as much as is reachable).
- Vigorously massage the legs the same way the arms were done – up and down with a circular motion at the knees and ankles.
- Massage the feet. The feet are an important area too, as they also have marma points that connect to the rest of the body, so spend extra time pampering those tootsies.
- Sit and relax for 10-20 minutes to let the oil soak in (a space heater is good to use to keep warm), then bathe or shower.
- It’s considered beneficial to leave a thin coating of oil on the skin, so when bathing, use warm, not hot, water and just soap up the pits, etc. Use a mild soap that won’t strip the skin of it’s oils
I have a challenge getting my massage in as the bathroom I use for abhyanga directly abuts our bedroom, which is now baby’s bedroom, and I have woken him up on more than one occasion. So I continue to search for a work-around. I have had to run in and attempt to comfort him while covered in oil. This was not a good situation. But finding a way to fit it into our day can literally be life-changing.
No time for the whole shebang? A mini-massage can be done in a couple of minutes. Every source I peruse tells me that a little massage is better than none at all. The most important parts are the head and the feet, so sit at the side if the tub, take a couple of tablespoons of oil and rub it into the scalp. Massage the forehead from side to side and the temples in a circular motion and gently rub the ears. Massage the front and back of the neck. Take another tablespoon or so of oil and do the feet. Work the toes and briskly rub the tops and soles of the feet. Take a couple of minutes to relax, then shower as usual. Be very careful not to slip! My Ayurvedic practitioner recommended that I do my whole body while in the shower quickly on days I don’t have time, and it takes about 2 minutes.
Don’t do abhyanga when menstruating or if ill with a fever
The only downside to abhyanga is that it’s messy and slippery. Extreme caution and awareness must be used lest one slip and fall. No matter how carefully it is done, oil will be splashed. We have two bathrooms and I have one dedicated to just abhyanga. Covering the floor with a plastic sheet or towel helps, or sitting in the tub while doing it.
My husband is regularly disgusted by the state of that tub. The oil causes everything to stick, so shaving legs is ill-advised or it will coat your tub. The hair from my head also gets everywhere. I use baking soda and vinegar to clean it (not often enough, hence the disgust – cleaning regularly would eliminate the issue), and then and I pour boiling water in the tub and down the drain. It is well worth the mess.
Any towels used for abhyanga must be dedicated to this purpose only, as they will get oily. I use old towels and have to throw them out about every three months, depending on how much abhyanga has been happening. Anytime I am at a thrift store I look for towels – I can find them for about $3 each. Wash those towels separately or anything washed with it will get oily. I also have an abhyanga wardrobe, worn post-bath because I tend to still be oily. I do use a large amount of oil, so smaller amounts will yield a less oily body if you have to get dressed and go out right away.
My husband and I bought a massage table for the purpose of abhyanga-ing each other. Have we done this yet? No. That durn baby (and everything else) consumes much time. I’ll keep you posted on when we begin. For now, some longer self-massages interspersed with the oil slap-on is my best ditch effort.
Chopra, Deepak (2000). Perfect Health. Three Rivers Press, New York. McIntyre, Anne (2012). The Ayurveda Bible. Firefly Books, New York. Sharma, Hari & Clark, Christohper (2012). Ayurvedic Healing. Singing Dragon, London & Philadelphia.