Experience Greater Health and a Calmer Mind through the Ancient Practice of Abhyanga, or How to do an Oily Self-MassageRead Now
Is anyone out there experiencing dry skin, achy joints, or tight muscles this winter? Or bouts of insomnia or moments of anxiety or forgetfulness?
Did you know that all of these conditions can be reduced through the regular application of oil to the body. This self massage technique is known as Abhyanga, and is really quite simple. Just grab some sesame oil, rub it into your skin before you shower, and viola... You're done!
Of course, waiting a few minutes for it to soak in before you shower helps. And for a more soothing experience, rubbing it in a little more as the warm water washes over you is nice. However you do it, anyone can begin to enjoy the numerous health benefits of this age old practice by starting today! Curious? Read on to learn more...
The age old practice of regularly applying oils to the body is called Abhyanga (think Red Tent). This lovely self-massage technique can be done by almost anyone and is known to create softer, more supple skin; a calmer nervous system; and, a more balanced disposition all around. It's simple to begin by using an oil from your kitchen shelf. If you like it, you may want to purchase a tailor-made and much more refined massage oil (plain or scented with lovely, healing essential oils) from me (click here to send me an email inquiry), or look for one online from numerous health care companies (see references below).
The History of an Oily Self Massage: This practice has been around a long time! Support for Abhyanga is found in ancient yoga texts dating back 5,000 years and is an important part of the practice of Ayurveda, which is the medical arm of yoga. In the Ayurvedic texts we find several verses describing the practice of massaging the body with oils to enhance health and wellbeing.
The Ashtanga Hrdayam says, in Sutrasthana II: 8-9 “Abhyanga should be resorted to daily. It wards off old age, exertion and aggravation of vata.”
In the Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthana V: 88-89 it says: “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.”
Ayurveda is a diet and wellness based practice that honors the seasons, the elements found in nature and our bodies, and the uniqueness of every individual human being. Depending on these variations and your specific dosha or constitution, you may choose a specific oil to warm or cool your body. In the majority of cases, Sesame Oil is the most highly recommended oil to use because of its penetrating action. Sesame Oil is especially useful in conditions of high Vata (ie: travel, cold weather, anxiety and/or just living in Colorado). It is useful for dry skin, muscle pain, spasms, muscle weakness or fatigue, arthritis, insomnia, and for daily massage. Sesame Oil is known to have properties that help purify the skin and combat free radicals that can cause premature wrinkling and aging of skin and it provides a nice lubrication for your hair. It even offers mild sun protection to the skin... In the case of elevated Pitta (exacerbated fire element in the body) an individual may want to use Almond or Sunflower Oil for massage instead, as the warming qualities of Sesame Oil may irritate the skin. Regardless of the oil you choose, please try to purchase an organic (chemical-free), cold-pressed oil whenever possible to reduce toxic exposure.
The Practice of Abhyanga: Or How to Apply Oils to the Body
· In winter time especially, it is nice to warm the oil you will use first. Place a small amount in a plastic squeeze bottle, or in a small bowl, and gently heat that in a pot of hot water or diffuser.
· When applying the oil to your body, you will want to sit or stand in a warm, draft free room (closing my bathroom door when the heater is on warms my bathroom nicely) and spread an old towel on the floor to catch spills. I use the same towel each time, and over time is has become quite oily (more on that below) so you might dedicate an old towel that you don’t mind ruining with accumulated oil and keep it out of your dryer.
· Begin by applying oil generously to your entire body. Some begin with the top of the head and work down. I tend to sit and begin with my feet, working up, always toward the heart.
· Massage the oil into your body with the palm of your hands, beginning at the extremities and working toward the heart. Use long strokes on the limbs and circular strokes on the joints. Use broad, clockwise, circular motions to massage your abdomen and chest.
· Spending a little more time with the belly and feet has huge benefits. For the belly, circle to the right along the outer edge of the abdomen, following the path of the large intestine. Begin in the lower right quadrant and move up on the right side of the abdomen; then across under the ribs; then down the left side. Next, gently circle in closer to the navel. Continue big circles from the right, up and around to the left, then down as you lovingly massage the area of the small intestine. Massaging the feet positively affects the entire body, and is an especially nice way to relax before bedtime.
· Adding oil to the nose and ears can be beneficial, as well. To do so, dip the tip of your little finger into the oil and apply to the nasal openings and the ear canal.
· It’s wonderful, at least once a week, to apply warm oil to the crown of your head. In this case, you’ll want to apply a shampoo to the oiled hair before getting it wet, rinse, and then shampoo at least once again to effectively remove the oil from the hair. Make sure to gently massage the oil through the entire scalp using slow, circular strokes. This can be refreshing and energizing.
· Please know that Abhyanga is an act of love and self-care, and take your time. Once you've applied oil to the whole body (I don’t do my head every time), you can continue massaging for 5-20 minutes in a loving and patient way. This is a great time to repeat your Sankalpa.
Now that I’m oiled, what should I do?
· There are a variety of positions on this question. Some believe that occasionally allowing the oil to soak in overnight is beneficial (place an old towel on your pillow and/ore sheets if you're worried about staining them and wear socks). Others counsel that the warm water of a shower or bath opens the pores of the skin so that the oil can move deeper into the tissues. They recommend applying oil 15-20 minutes before you shower so it can soak in, and using cool water to close the pores at the end before lightly toweling dry.
· When stepping into a warm bath or shower after oiling, please remember that your feet may be slippery. Take care, and perhaps rinse them first so you don’t slip as you continue to massage the rest of the body in the warm water. (I have heard that oil + warm water + friction = soap. It's all you need!)
· The warm water serves to open the pores of the skin so that the oil penetrates deeper into the body. Ending a shower with a moment of slightly cooler water will close the pores again, sealing the oil into the deeper layers of the skin. ENJOY!
· Finally, the towel you use to dry off will absorb some of the oil. It may be best to “hang dry” it when you do laundry so as not to contaminate your dryer. A small price to pay for enjoying what hopefully will become a rewarding and ultimately health giving practice for you.
I hope that you, too, will be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the Ancient Ones, making the practice of Abhyanga a nourishing and regular part of your self-care regime. I share it with you because I believe that you, like me, will find it to be a wonderful way to nourish and rejuvenate your body and calm your mind.
I invite you to let me know your experience by leaving a comment here, or emailing me privately!
Wishing you good health, a calm mind, and love in your heart.
Namaste. ~Sharon Harvey Alexander, E-RYT500
Yoga Therapist, Yoga Nidra Facilitator, and Wellness Coach
p.s. - see blog post on 2/14/2014 for details about various oils to use (scroll down from here)
p.s.s. - great websites for more info include: