Abhyanga: Cover Yourself with Love
5:20 min read
Massage, the path to health
One of the most beautiful and relaxing practices of Ayurveda is Abhyanga. This is the act of self-anointing and massaging with warm oil, which holds a tremendous amount of benefits, besides being a delightful practice.
The word Abhyanga is derived from two Sanskrit words, Abhi (glow) and Anga (limb). Not so coincidentally, the word for oil in Sanskrit, Sneha, means love. So, when practicing Abhyanga, you are not just covering yourself in oil, but also with love, both of which Ayurveda believes are essential to our existence.
Adding Abhyanga to your Dinacharya (or daily routine) is a great idea. This practice only takes about 15 minutes, and it’s one of the foundations of an Ayurvedic lifestyle. It’s also a fantastic way to slow down and add more mindful practices into your days. Furthermore, it gives you the chance to spend a few moments with your body to contemplate it, love it, accept it, and thank it for all it does for you.
Abhyanga is not just about obtaining a more supple and soft skin. Its benefits range from helping regulate digestion by stimulating the internal organs, to decreasing the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) released by the body. When practiced correctly and regularly, Abhyanga carries tons of other benefits for many systems in your body:
- Nervous system. Not only does it help unwind after a long day, but the recurring release of oxytocin (the hormone associated with love) that occurs when massaging the several layers of tissue helps soothe the nervous system and better your mood.
- Vascular system. The methodical massaging of the body induces a healthier and stronger blood flow.
- Musculoskeletal system. It can alleviate mild injuries and pains from strenuous muscular work. It improves muscle tone in the arms and legs.
- Moreover, it can help the lubrication of the joints as well as their mobility.
- Lymphatic system. Done correctly, Abhyanga helps speed up the elimination of toxins by improving the flow of lymph.
- Integumentary system. The scalp becomes healthier as its own sebum is protected, leading to healthier and better-looking hair. The skin finds nourishment and youthfulness, and it also improves its elasticity and becomes more resilient to dryness and environmental harshness.
“Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine have long regarded the skin, our largest organ, to be a vital part of our immune system. Modern science informs us that these millennia-old wisdoms were correct. We have billions of beneficial microbes on our skin. In the symbiotic human-microbe relationship, sebum (the oil our skin naturally produces) and applied oils feed the microbes and the microbes in turn boost our immune response and help protect the skin from non-beneficial microbes. When we keep our skin well-moisturized with natural, organic oils, we are keeping our microbial allies happy and healthy, and they in turn help to keep us healthy as well.” (Klinzing-Le, 2020)
Before you get started
To perform Abhyanga, you need to assess your Prakruti (natural constitution) and Vikruti (current state of Dosha imbalance) and choose an appropriate oil for you. Take into account that the weather you live in can also significantly impact the state of your Vikruti, especially your skin.
Oils for Vata
If your skin is more on the dry side, or you are a Vata type, the qualities that will help you are oily, heavy and hot; which allows for plenty of warming oils to be available. You can use sesame, olive, avocado or almond oil. You can also use Ghee for specific areas that may be very dry. Remember to massage with slow strokes and light pressure.
Oils for Pitta
If your skin is sensitive or you are a Pitta type, the qualities that will help you are light and cold. Opt for relaxing, neutral (or cooling) oils such as olive, castor, sunflower, or coconut oil. You can also substitute oil for Ghee. Remember to massage with slow strokes and moderate pressure.
Oils for Kapha
If your skin is a bit oily or you are a Kapha type, the qualities that will help you are hot, light, and mobile. Try either neutral or cooling oils like mustard, sesame, almond, flaxseed, canola, safflower, jojoba, or corn. Remember to use as little oil as possible and massage with fast and deep strokes.
Before you begin your Abhyanga, make sure you have all the necessary supplies, so you don’t have to stop mid-practice nor risk stepping on a slippery surface once you are oiled-up.
You will need a couple of towels, which we suggest you only use for Abhyanga, as they will be spoiled before your normal-use towels due to the excess oil they will absorb. You will also need your special oil and a container to place it in hot or warm water, if needed.
- Set up your space. Make sure you are in a warm room with no air currents. Place one towel on the floor so you don’t slip while using your oil. You can do your massage sitting or standing up, depending on what you find more comfortable.
- Warm your oil, if needed. Place your oil container in your water receptacle and leave it in for a few minutes, depending on the temperature you want.
- Remove your clothes and accessories when you are ready to begin; remember to test your oil’s temperature on your wrist first.
- Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and focus on the now. Slowly open your eyes.
- Begin by pouring your oil on the crown of your head. Ayurveda does recommend the massaging of the head and neck in slow, circular motions. Still, you can skip this step if you don’t want to oil your hair and scalp as your daily routine may not always allow it, for it takes a bit longer to wash off (mainly from the hair).
- If you are going to massage your face, do so in circular, upward motions. Don’t forget your ears!
- Move on to your body, always from the extremities to the center, and right to left.
- For the arms and legs, use long strokes. Use circular strokes for the joints. For the abdomen and chest, go with wide clockwise motions.
- Finish off with your feet. Massage them mindfully in a way you find to your liking. You might need a bit of extra pressure in this area. Take your time to figure out what works for you.
Ayurvedic Ancient Wisdom
Ayurveda suggests you sit for about 10 minutes to allow the oil to sink further into your skin. You can relax, meditate a little, or just focus on your breathing. If you don’t have a lot of time, you can take a couple of deep breaths and then jump into the shower.
Whether you take your time after Abhyanga or not, remember to enjoy your time with yourself. When you are ready, take a warm bath or shower. Don’t use any harsh soaps, or avoid soap altogether to boost the benefits of your Abhyanga oil. Blot dry when coming out of the shower and stay warm.
Remember that Abhyanga is not recommended all the time; certain moments might not be suitable, such as:
- When there is excess Ama (or toxicity) in the body
- If you are suffering from severe gastrointestinal issues
- Right after a meal
- When there is an excess in Kapha
- If you have a fever or the chills
- During pregnancy
- While menstruating
- After having a Basti (Ayurvedic enema) performed
You should always check with your doctor and a certified Ayurvedic practitioner if this practice is possible for you, especially if you have any medical conditions.
Don’t forget to pause and soak in the experience that is Abhyanga, a millenary tradition that is meant to nourish your body, mind, and spirit. We suggest you finish off your Abhyanga practice by adding a soothing and nourishing facial ritual to ensure a complete experience and, of course, to help you feel amazing in your own skin.
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