Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Oil Massage

Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Oil Massage

by Dr. Claudia Welch

Note: You can find organic doṣa-pacifying oils listed in this article at Banyan Botanicals and other places. Good to check that they are made with organic herbs that are harvested in a sustainable way. We do not get commissions for naming Banyan Botanicals.

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.–Caraka Saṃhitā: Sūtrasthāna: V: 88-89.

Abhyaṅga should be resorted to daily, it wards off old age, exertion and aggravation of vāta. –Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam: Sūtrasthāna:II:8-9

Abhyaṅga is the anointing of the body with oil. Often medicated and usually warm, the oil is massaged into the entire body before bathing. It can be beneficial for maintaining health and used as a medicine for certain disorders. Abhyaṅga can be incorporated into a routine appropriate for almost everyone.

The Sanskrit word sneha means both “oil” and “love,” and the effects of abhyaṅga are similar to the effect of saturation with love. Both experiences can give a deep feeling of stability, warmth and comfort. Sneha–oil and love–is sūkṣma, or “subtle.” This allows sneha to pass through minute channels in the body and penetrate deep layers of tissue.

Ayurveda teaches that there are seven dhātus, or layers of tissue in the body. Each is successively more concentrated and life-giving. It is taught that for the effects of sneha to reach to the deepest layer, it should be massaged into the body for 800 mātras, roughly five minutes. If we consider that the entire body needs this kind of attention, a 15-minute massage is a minimum amount of time.

Benefits of External Oleation

(Outlined in: Caraka Saṃhitā, Suśruta Saṃhitā and Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam)
Benefits of applying oil to the body (abhyaṅga):

  • Produces softness, strength and color to the body
  • Decreases the effects of aging
  • Bestows good vision
  • Nourishes the body
  • Increases longevity
  • Benefits sleep patterns
  • Benefits skin
  • Strengthens the body’s tolerance
  • 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 kapha

Benefits of applying oil to the scalp (Murdha taila):

  • 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 puran):

  • Benefits disorders in the ear which are due to increased vāta
  • Benefits stiff neck
  • Benefits stiffness in the jaw

Benefits of applying oil to the feet (Padaghata):

  • Coarseness, stiffness, roughness, fatigue and numbness of the feet are alleviated
  • Strength and firmness of the feet is attained
  • Vision is enhanced
  • Vāta is pacified
  • Sciatica is benefited
  • Local veins and ligaments are benefited

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. Suśruta Saṃhitā: Cikitsāsthāna: XXIV:29-32

These passages make it clear that we should consider our prakṛti (constitution), vikṛti (current condition) and our external environment in deciding which oils are best for us and how often we should perform abhyaṅga.

.It is beneficial to follow a particular doṣa-pacifying abhyaṅga if that doṣa is currently high. For example, if you are nervous, anxious, your heart is racing, and you feel cold and dry, your vikṛti is likely high vāta and using a vāta pacifying oil for your abhyaṅga would be most beneficial. If no doṣa is currently out of balance, it is good to consider the dominant doṣa in your prakṛti and your environment, including the current season and weather. For example, if you are feeling healthy, but you know that Pitta is your dominant doṣa, and the weather is hot and humid, it would probably be best to choose Pitta-pacifying oil. If you are not sure what your vikṛti or prakṛti is, you can see an Ayurvedic practitioner. 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).

If you have more than one dominant doṣas in your prakṛti, you will want to pacify doṣas according to season. If you are a pitta-kapha combination, pacify Pitta during the warm weather and kapha during the cold weather. If you are a pitta-vāta combination, pacify Pitta during the warm weather and vāta during the cold weather. If you are a vāta-kapha combination, pacify vāta during cold or dry weather and during the change of seasons and pacify kapha during cold or wet weather. More extensive guidelines for each doṣa are outlined below.

Vāta Pacifying Abhyaṅga

The primary qualities of vāta are dry, light, cool, rough, subtle and mobile. Most of these qualities are opposite to those of oil. This is why warm oil is especially good for pacifying 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 place and avoid getting chilled afterwards.

Types of Oil That Are 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 warming. If possible, use one that is organic and untoasted. Almond oil and mustard oil are also good choices because they too are warming. 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 pain or weakness. If you warm it, massage it into the affected joints or muscles and proceed with your regular abhyanga, it can be fabulously beneficial. Following this with a warm bath with 1/3 cup each baking soda and ginger powder (provided there is no skin irritation) can enhance the effects even further.

Vāta Dusting Powder:

If dusting powder does not irritate your skin try using one in the place of soap. You can use chickpea flour, or use a formula especially for vāta. Make a paste with the dusting powder and water, and then gently apply a small amount to the body. Once it dries into a paste, you can allow it to rinse off with the oil.

Pitta Pacifying Abhyaṅga

The primary qualities of pitta are: oily, sharp, hot, light, fleshy-smelling, spreading and liquid. Since pitta and oil share a number of qualities it is ideal to use herbally-medicated oil when you are trying to reduce pitta symptoms (such as: skin irritations, rashes, itchiness). The addition of herbs enhances the pitta pacifying properties of the oil and mitigates the possibly pitta increasing ones.

Types of Oil That Are Best for Pitta:

Pitta pacifying herbal infused oils are best for abhyanga, because the qualities of oil are very similar to the qualities of pitta and, since Ayurveda teaches us that like increases like, even inherently cooling oils could increase other of pitta’s qualities, thereby increasing pitta. Good thing there is a loophole here: oil is said to have the special property of taking on the qualities of substances –including herbs–with which it is cooked. So, cooking oils with pitta pacifying herbs can change the qualities of the oil sufficiently to not only balance the natural qualities of the oil but to even render the oil pitta pacifying.  Applying Bhringaraj 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, it is recommended to use the cooling sunflower or coconut oil for abhyaṅga. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, you may wish to add some Neem oil to whatever your basic abhyaṅga oil is, because it is said to reduce pitta in the skin.

In general, gently heat the oil for abhyaṅga. Oil applied to the head should be cool in the summer and slightly warm in the winter.

Pitta Dusting Powder:

If dusting powder does not irritate your skin you may enjoy using chickpea flour or a specialized dusting formula in the place of soap. Make a paste with the flour or dusting powder and water, then gently apply a small amount to the body in the shower and let it rinse off with the oil.

Kapha Pacifying Abhyaṅga

The main qualities of kapha are unctuous, cool, heavy, slow, smooth, soft and static. Kapha and oil share most qualities. Because like increases like, using oil, especially cool 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.

Sometimes the best massage for kapha is udvartana, (massaging the body with soft, fragrant powders, like calamus powder). Vāgbhaṭa says udvartana “mitigates kapha, liquefies the fat, produces stability of the body parts and excellence of the skin.” (AH: Sūtrasthāna :II:15) Suśruta says udvartana, “reduces the fat and the aggravated kapha of the system, smoothes and cleanses the skin and imparts a firmness to the limbs.” (Suśruta Saṃhitā: Cikitsāsthāna: XXIV:49)

Suśruta also says, “Anointing the body (with oil, etc.) imparts a glossy softness to the skin, guards against the aggravation of vāta and kapha, improves the color and strength and gives a tone to the root-principles (dhātus) [tissues] of the body.” (Suśruta Saṃhitā: Cikitsāsthāna: XXIV:28) This lets us know that there is benefit to be had for abhyaṅga for kapha, if used appropriately.

Types of Oil That Are Best for Kapha:

Abhyaṅga with warm oil is best for kapha. While sesame, corn and mustard oils are all helpful because they are warming, herbal oils are a better choice for kapha, as they add more kapha pacifying properties to the oil, for the same reasons we saw above that cooking oil with pitta pacifying herbs can render oil pitta pacifying.  (If you are using sesame oil, opt for untoasted sesame oil; toasted is more expensive and has a very strong natural scent). Less oil is needed for kapha abhyaṅga than for vāta or pitta.

Kapha Dusting Powder:

To accent the positive effects of abhyaṅga for kapha-types, vigorously rub an appropriate kapha-pacifying dusting powder into the body before or after performing abhyaṅga, either while working in or rinsing off the oil. You can use chickpea flour, but vaccha (calamus) powder is also nice if you can find it.

Abhyaṅga Routine

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. Caraka Saṃhitā: Sūtrasthāna: V: 88-89

  • Put about ½ cup oil in an 8 oz. squeeze bottle. Make sure the oil is not rancid.
  • Place the bottle of oil in a pan of hot water 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.
  • Apply the oil to your entire body.
  • Massage the oil into your entire body, beginning at the extremities and working toward the middle of the body. Use long strokes on the limbs and circular strokes on the joints.
  • Massage the abdomen and chest in 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 for 5-20 minutes, with love and patience.
  • Give a little extra time and attention to massaging the oil into your scalp, ears and feet, at least once a week. 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. 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. (If there is any current or chronic discomfort in the ears don’t do this without the recommendation of your health care practitioner).
  • When you massage your feet, be sure to wash them first when you shower, so you don’t slip.
  • Enjoy a warm bath or shower.
  • 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.
  • Be careful to wash your feet first and to be careful not to slip in the tub.
  • When you get out of the bath, towel dry. Keep a special towel for drying off after your abhyaṅga because it can eventually get ruined, due to the accumulation of oil.
  • Put on a pair of cotton socks (organic, if you can find them) to protect your environment from the residual oil on your feet.
  • Apply a doṣa-appropriate essential oil to your wrists and neck.
  • Enjoy.

(Note: The rest of this article is an excerpt taken directly from Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, by Dr. Claudia Welch)

When or How Not to Do Abhyaṅga

  • 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 abhyaṅga.
  • When you have acute 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 cycle. Some women don’t like to stop abhyaṅga during their cycle. If you chose to do it during your cycle, it is best to only apply the oil gently and for only about 5 minutes.
  • During pregnancy

Laundry, Cleaning, and Plumbing Tips

Some people eventually stop doing abhyaṅga because they report that their towels or sheets are getting rancid and ruined, their plumbing is getting clogged up, and their bathtub floor is getting sticky with oil accumulation. Others persist and try to find a way around these problems. One of my patients reported that her towels were getting ruined. I asked her if she’d stopped doing abhyaṅga because of this. She laughed and said, “Hey— ruin my towels or ruin my life? It’s not a choice.” If you’d rather not do either, try these tips: Keep one towel for sitting on when you apply the oil and one that you use 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. I asked Susan, a massage therapist friend, what she does to keep her sheets clean. She adds a few tablespoons each of vinegar and baking soda to the hot water, once it has filled the wash basin. She told me that this can be a volatile mixture when combined and can eat right through the pipes, as well as the oil. When added to laundry water, though, the corrosive mixture will have stopped its destructive fizzing action by the time the washer drains. There are also some commercial products that Susan tried, which she read about in Massage Magazine. They worked, but she didn’t care for the smell. 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 don’t have time then and prefer to do it in the evening before bed to calm themselves down. If you turn out 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 got oil in your hair, put a towel over your pillow, to protect it.

Keep a bottle of dish detergent 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. 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 is poor, 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 another way to keep the floor clean. Please don’t slip and hurt yourself. That would defeat the purpose.

When you launder oily towels and linens, there is a risk of their catching fire if they are too oily or too hot. If a towel is very oily, it’s better to throw it away. If you dry these fabrics in a dryer, it’s better to use low heat. Do not to leave oily towels in a hot car. I actually know someone who was laundering a lot of oily sheets and towels for a spa, left the hot linens in his car in the hot sun in his car with the windows up, and the linens spontaneously combusted, causing fire damage to the inside of his car.

Pour a little environmentally friendly drain cleanser down your drain once a month. I have been told that cold water, used with 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 stay liquefied and stick to the plumbing. I have not tried this, but it is worth investigation.

©Dr. Claudia Welch November 2001. If you want more information on Ayurveda, or support resources for spas, please see: http://satyaayurveda.org


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