Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Oil Massage

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.
Charaka Samhita: Sutrasthana: V: 88-89

Abhyanga should be resorted to daily. It wards off old age, exertion and aggravation of vata.
Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana: II: 8-9

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

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

Ayurveda teaches that there are seven dhatus, 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 matras, roughly five minutes. If we consider that the entire body needs this kind of attention, a 15-minute massage is the suggested minimum amount of time.

Benefits of External Oleation

(Outlined in: Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Ashtanga Hrdayam, the great three Classical Ayurvedic Texts)

Benefits of applying oil to the body (abhyanga):

  • Imparts 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 dhatus (tissues) of the body
  • Stimulates the internal organs of the body, increasing circulation
  • Pacifies vata and pitta

Herbal oils specific to your constitution or current condition are especially good choices for full body massage. Specific oil recommendations for each dosha are listed in the dosha-specific abhyanga sections below.

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

  • Makes hair grow luxurious, thick, soft and glossy
  • Soothes and invigorates the sense organs
  • Helps reduce facial wrinkles

Bhringaraj Oil, Brahmi Oil, and Healthy Hair Oil are especially well suited for scalp massage.

Benefits of applying oil to the ears (karna puran):

  • Benefits disorders in and of the ear that are due to increased vata
  • Benefits stiff neck
  • Benefits stiffness in the jaw

Sesame Oil is a good choice when applying oil to the ears.

Benefits of applying oil to the feet (padaghata):

  • Alleviates coarseness, stiffness, roughness, fatigue and numbness of the feet
  • Feet become strong and firm
  • Enhances vision
  • Pacifies vata
  • Benefits local tissues, veins and ligaments

Bhringaraj Oil and Brahmi Oil are especially well suited for foot massage.

Massaging oil into the human organism imparts a tone and vigor to its tissues 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 oil at a bath causes the oil to penetrate into the system… 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 dosha or doshas in one’s physical constitution.
Sushruta Samhita, Chikitsa Sthanam: XXIV: 29-32

These passages make it clear that we should consider our prakriti (constitution), vikriti (current condition) and our external environment in deciding which oils are best for us and how often we should perform abhyanga. While abhyanga is beneficial for most people, there are some who should avoid it.

When NOT to Do Abhyanga

  • During the menstrual cycle
      Massage with deep pressure during the menstrual cycle is not advised in Ayurveda, as it can initiate a release of ama (toxins) from deep tissues at a time when the body is already a bit taxed. Some women don’t like to stop abhyanga during their cycle because they have very dry skin. If you choose to do it during your cycle, it is best to apply the oil gently and for only about 5 minutes.
  • During pregnancy
      The reasoning is similar here. It is not a good idea to stimulate any sort of detox process during pregnancy. This precaution protects the growing embryo and fetus against any unnecessary exposure to ama.
  • Over swollen, painful areas or masses on the body
      (Or do so only with the knowledge and consent of your health-care practitioner).
  • Over infected or broken skin
  • When there is high ama or great physical discomfort
      A thick, white coating on the tongue often indicates high levels of ama.
  • During any sort of acute illness such as fever, chills, flu, or acute indigestion
  • Directly after taking emetics or purgatives
  • When you have a medical condition
      (Unless your health-care practitioner says it is okay to do abhyanga).

You should not experience any uncomfortable effects with or from abhyanga. In the unlikely case that you do experience some, if you are not sure whether you should be doing abhyanga, or if you don’t know which oil to use, it is important to consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner.

Provided you do not have any of the above contraindications for abhyanga, it is time to learn which oils would be best for you. Ayurveda teaches us that like increases like and that opposites balance, so this decision should take into account the qualities influencing your constitution, your current condition, and the season.

First it is good to consider your vikriti – or current condition. If you currently have a dosha that is high, it is beneficial to follow a dosha-pacifying abhyanga for that dosha. For example, if you are nervous, anxious, and you feel cold and dry, vata is likely to be high in your vikriti and using a vata pacifying oil for your abhyanga would be most beneficial. If you are not sure of your current condition, you can take the vikriti test.

If none of your doshas are currently out of balance, it is good to consider the dominant doshas in your prakriti – or personal constitution – and your environment, including the current season and weather. For example, if you are feeling healthy and pitta is your dominant dosha, and if the weather is hot and humid (which tends to aggravate pitta) it would generally be best to choose a pitta pacifying oil. If you don’t know your Ayurvedic constitution, you can take the prakriti test.

If you have more than one dominant dosha in your prakriti, you will want to pacify doshas according to season. For example, if you have a pitta-kapha combination, it is generally best to pacify pitta during warm weather and kapha during cooler weather. If you are a pitta-vata combination, pacify pitta during warm weather, and vata in cooler weather, and during the change of seasons. If you are a vata-kapha combination, pacify vata during cold and dry weather and during the change of seasons, and pacify kapha during cold and wet weather. More extensive guidelines for each dosha are outlined below.

Vata Pacifying Abhyanga

The primary qualities of vata 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 vata.

If your vata is high, either in your prakriti or vikriti, doing abhyanga daily can be highly beneficial, even life-changing, as vata is restored to its normal condition. Just be sure to do abhyanga in a warm place, and avoid getting chilled afterwards.

Types of Oil That Are Best for Vata

Sesame Oil is considered to be the “king of oils;” it is the preferred choice of oil for vata because it is inherently warming. If possible, use one that is organic and untoasted. Almond Oil is also a good choice because it is warming. You may also consider using Vata Massage Oil, especially if vata is high in your Vikriti. The herbs in this oil enhance the vata pacifying qualities of sesame oil. Vata massage oil can be used alone or diluted with sesame or almond oil.

For increasing strength and stamina Ashwagandha/Bala Oils may be the best for you.

Mahanarayan Oil is made from over 20 Ayurvedic herbs and is traditionally used to support comfortable movement in the joints. 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.

Vata Dusting Powder – Optional

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

Pitta Pacifying Abhyanga

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 herbal oil when you are trying to balance pitta. The addition of herbs enhances the pitta pacifying properties of the oil.

Types of Oil That Are Best for Pitta

Pitta pacifying herbal oils, such as Pitta Massage Oil, are best for abhyanga. 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 herbal oils, use Sunflower Oil or Coconut Oil for your abhyanga. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, you may wish to add some Neem Oil to whatever you use for your basic abhyanga oil; it is said to reduce pitta in the skin.

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

Pitta Dusting Powder – Optional

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

Kapha Pacifying Abhyanga

The main qualities of kapha are oily, 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 actually decrease kapha.

Sometimes the best massage for kapha is udvartana, massaging the body with soft, fragrant powders, like Organic Calamus Powder. The Ayurvedic sage Vagbhatta says udvartana “mitigates kapha, liquefies the fat, produces stability of the body parts and excellence of the skin” (Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana: II: 15). Sushruta, another Ayurvedic luminary of the past, writes that udvartana, “reduces the fat and the aggravated kapha of the system, smoothes and cleanses the skin and imparts a firmness to the limbs” (Sushruta Samhita, Cikitsasthana, XXIV: 49).

Sushruta also says, “Anointing the body with oils imparts a glossy softness to the skin, guards against the aggravation of vata and kapha, improves the color and strength and gives a tone to the root-principles (dhatus) [tissues] of the body” (Sushruta Cikitsasthana: XXIV: 28).

Types of Oil That Are Best for Kapha

Abhyanga with warm oil is best for kapha. While Sesame Oil, Almond Oil, olive oil and corn oil are all warming, herbal oils such as Kapha Massage Oil are a superior choice for kapha, as the herbs impart more kapha pacifying properties to the oil. (If you are using Sesame Oil, opt for untoasted sesame oil; toasted varieties are more expensive and have a very strong natural scent). It is usually best to use less oil for kapha abhyanga than for vata or pitta.

Kapha Dusting Powder – Optional

To accent the positive effects of abhyanga for kapha-types, vigorously rub an appropriate kapha dusting powder into the body before or after performing abhyanga, either while working in or rinsing off the oil. You can use chickpea flour, but organic Calamus Powder (vacha) is also nice.

Abhyanga Routine

  • Put about ¼-½ 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 are protected from any wind.
  • Apply oil generously to your entire body.
  • Massage the oil into your body, beginning at the extremities and working toward the middle of your 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 vata, 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.
  • When you get out of the bath, towel dry. Keep a special towel for drying off after your abhyanga because it will 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.
  • Applying a high quality essential oil to your wrists and neck can further support balance. If you are not familiar with which essential oils are balancing for each dosha, try rose or mitti for vata, rose or khus for pitta, and hina or myrrh for kapha.
  • Enjoy.

Laundry, Cleaning, and Plumbing Tips

Doing abhyanga can cause towels or sheets to get rancid and ruined, can strain plumbing, and cause the bathtub floor to get sticky. Here are some tips to address these problems.

  • Pour a little environmentally friendly drain cleanser down your drain once a month. Cold water, used with soap that can dissolve in cold water, may cause the oil to bead up and wash along the drain better than hot water, which liquefies the oil, making it more likely to stick to the plumbing.
  • 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.
  • Some laundering options:
    • Add a few tablespoons each of vinegar and baking soda to the hot water, once it has filled the washing machine. When combined, they can be a volatile mixture and eat through pipes, as well as oil. Added at the start of the wash cycle, though, this potentially corrosive mixture will be diluted and safe for plumbing by the time the washer drains.
    • It is also possible to wash the towels with one tablespoon of Lestoil and no other laundry detergent and to spot-clean oily clothes by rubbing Lestoil into the spot and wash later.
    • There are also environmentally-friendly detergents and cleaners on the market that may be quite effective.
    • If you can’t get all the oil out, you might plan to replace your sheets or towels about twice a year.
  • Oily towels and linens are at risk of catching fire if they become too hot. If a towel is very oily, even after it is washed, it’s better to throw it away or hang dry. If you use a clothes dryer, it’s better to use low heat. Do not leave oily towels in a hot car.
  • Although it is ideal to practice abhyanga 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 cotton (or other natural fiber) nightclothes for at least an hour after showering. 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 abhyanga 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 health-giving purpose of this practice.

Copyright

The above information was written by Dr. Claudia Welch and edited by Melody Mischke for the exclusive use of Banyan Botanicals. The information is protected by copyright and may not be reprinted without the written permission of Dr. Claudia Welch and Banyan Botanicals. More about Dr. Claudia Welch