Abhyanga: Oil Massage for Health

Ayurveda recommends several health practices that clean and nourish the physical body in order to maintain balance. Abhyanga, also called oiling, is self-massage with an oil chosen to support balance for an individual's constitution.

The practice of abhyanga is an anointing with oil; it's a sacred practice that's more like meditation than simply moisturizing your skin. In fact, the Sanskrit word for oil, sneha, is also the word for love. Oil massage is a practice of taking time to show your body love, appreciation and kindness.

Many benefits are given for the practice, including improved blood flow, reduced pain and inflammation, reduced stress and anxiety and feelings of having more energy or vitality.

The process is simple, and takes ten to fifteen minutes for a full massage. Using oil warmed for a moment in your hand, you begin at the crown of the head and work your way down to your feet. I recommend a weekly full-body massage, and perhaps a daily massage if you have "trouble areas," places that tend to hold tension or pain.

Choosing an Oil

Different oils are recommended for each constitution, and for each vikruti (the way in which you may be out of balance). The following oils are fairly easy to find in most supermarkets and may already be in your pantry. Look for organic, unrefined options if possible.

Sesame oil is preferred for vata constitution, as it has a warming quality that is very soothing and a light nutty scent that stabilizes the movement-oriented temperament of vata. Choose untoasted sesame oil, organic if possible.

Sesame oil is also preferred for kapha, for the same warming quality. However, it is recommended to use less oil for kapha, and to precede oiling with dry-brushing or gently rubbing skin with a washcloth to perk up slow-moving kapha.

For pitta, sunflower or coconut oil have a softening, cooling affect that can temper the fiery nature of pitta. For pitta types especially, it's important to take time to enjoy the process of abhyanga, and using oils naturally scented with herbs or essential oils can be helpful.

Some Tips for Successful Oiling:

Plan to use an older towel that you don't mind getting oil on. Oils can stain fabric, and over time, the oil residue in the fabric will likely become rancid and you may need to discard the towel or reduce it to "rag" status.

Also, if you shower or take a bath after applying the oils, your tub will be slippery. Be safe. Have something to hold on to if falling is a concern, and clean your tub shortly after your massage so you or other family members don't slip.

Before you begin oiling, choose a day and time of day when you will not feel rushed or be interrupted. Abhyanga is traditionally practiced as part of a morning routine, but many people enjoy it as an evening ritual to prepare for sleep. Choose a time that fits your personal schedule best. And make sure your space is clean and uncluttered, perhaps with music, candles or pleasant scents if that helps you feel relaxed.

When you're ready to begin, here's the sequence for abhyanga oil massage:

1. Pour a small amount of oil in your palm and allow it to warm. As it warms, you might focus on your breath or say a mantra or short word of gratitude.

2. Begin with the scalp.* Apply the oil to the crown of your head and use gentle circular motions to move the oil across your entire scalp. Then apply the oil to your temples, outer ears, and the base of your skull, working across and down the neck.

3. Apply a small amount of oil to your face, avoiding your eyes. Work in upward, outward moving circles across your forehead, cheeks, jaw, nose and chin.

4. Work the oil across your shoulders and chest in the same broad circles, then down your arms, to your wrists, hands and fingers, moving in long strokes down the arms and circular motions around each joint. Then work back up again the shoulders and chest.

5. Apply the oil to your abdomen and back, using large, gentle circular motions.

6. Then work down your hips and buttocks and down each leg all the way to your toes, the same way you did your arms, and work back up again to your hips.

7. At this point, you might like to sit on your towel and apply oil to the soles of your feet.

8. Take a warm bath or shower. Avoid using soap if possible, so your skin has more time to absorb the oil. Use a towel to dry off and remove excess oil. For your hair, you can choose to shampoo immediately after your oil treatment, or leave the oils on your scalp overnight (cover your pillow with an old towel if you do) and wash in the morning.

* If oiling your scalp is not for you, that's OK! The first several times I used oil, I skipped the scalp part, because I didn't want my hair to feel gross. Once I tried it, I loved how healthy my hair and scalp felt (after a thorough shampoo), and I look forward to my next "treatment." But it's not for everybody.

The entire process takes me about fifteen minutes, and I like to soak in the tub for about fifteen minutes afterward as well. Oil massage has become part of a weekly ritual for Sunday evenings, and sends me into deeply restorative sleep that night (which helps get the week off to a smooth, easy start).

May this be a fruitful practice for you as well!