Abhyanga should be resorted to daily. It wards off old age, exertion, and aggravation of vata.
Massage. When we hear that word, many of us picture a luxurious spa treatment reserved for special occasions. In Ayurveda, however, the practice of abhyanga (Ayurvedic massage with oil) is recommended daily. Fortunately, there is a more accessible alternative to professional massage therapy when it comes to enjoying the nourishing benefits of abhyanga every day—massaging yourself.
Oil massage may sound like a messy and complicated process best left to the spa, but once you’ve learned the basics, self-massage with oil starts to become second-nature and well worth the effort. In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of abhyanga, which oils to use, and how you can tailor your self-massage practice to balance each dosha. If you don’t yet know your own unique Ayurvedic body type and current state of balance, take our free dosha quiz to learn more about what type of massage will most benefit you.
In this article:
- Why Is Massage Recommended in Ayurveda?
- What Is Self-Massage?
- Benefits of Self-Massage
- Choosing the Right Ayurvedic Oil
- How to Do Abhyanga
- When Not to Do Abhyanga
- Cleaning and Plumbing Tips
The act of massage itself melts away tension and stress from the muscles. Ayurveda believes that these inherent Ayurvedic massage benefits are further enhanced with the addition of an Ayurvedic massage oil. Health benefits from implementing a daily oil rub into your morning or evening routine include:
- Musculoskeletal and nervous system health
- Proper circulation and lymph drainage
- Improved sleep patterns
- Softer, stronger skin
- Healthy vision
- Graceful aging
- Lustrous hair
- Firm, strong limbs
- Tone and vigor for the body’s tissues
- Increased longevity
- Nourishment for the whole body
In Sanskrit, the word sneha can be translated as both “oil” and “love.” So in Ayurveda, there is an inherent connection between enveloping the body in oil and enveloping it in 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 (dhatus).
Self-massage, just as its name suggests, is the act of massaging yourself. However, it is important to note that performing abhyanga on yourself is a more involved process than simply slathering some oil on your neck or back for a few minutes. (For something to address a specific muscle or joint in particular, you might consider applying Muscle Balm or Joint Balm a few times a day in addition to your abhyanga practice.)
Ayurveda recommends spending a minimum of fifteen minutes on self-massage each time you practice it, devoting love and attention to each of the tissue layers as you nourish them with a warm Ayurvedic oil.
Although receiving a massage from a professional massage therapist is sometimes advised, there is a lot to be gained by learning and practicing Ayurvedic self-massage techniques. With self-massage, the fantastic benefits of abhyanga become readily available to you in the comfort of your own home.
In fact, in a recent clinical trial studying the effects of self-massage, abhyanga proved to be an effective way to decrease stress levels, improve quality of sleep, and enhance one's overall quality of life.
Over time, self-massage becomes a regular act of self-love you can look forward to every day.
First of all, you may be wondering why to use oil in the first place, rather than a massage lotion. While lotion can be moisturizing, it is not as nourishing for the tissues and does not promote circulation in the same way that oil does.
Oil has long been recognized in Ayurveda as being the go-to substance for self-massage, not just for moisture but for one's overall wellbeing.
Ayurveda teaches us that like increases like and that opposites balance, so when it comes to choosing the right oil, your decision should take into account the doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha, and how the qualities of the doshas impact the following:
- Your current state of balance (vikriti). 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.
- Your Ayurvedic constitution (prakriti). If none of your doshas are currently out of balance, it is good to consider the dominant doshas in your constitution, or prakriti, to maintain balance. 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. This brings us to the next factor to keep in mind.
- Your environment. The doshas have an impact on the current season and weather. Fall through early winter is considered vata season, late winter through spring is considered kapha season, and pitta season occurs in the summertime. There are many steps you can take to maintain balance according to the seasons, and selecting a massage oil that will keep you in balance is one of them.
List of Ayurvedic Oils
Because there are so many different ways that the act of massaging with oil can support the body, mind, and spirit, we created an entire organic line of specialized herbal oil blends you can choose from. Using a plain carrier oil is also an option, but using herbal oils created for specific dosha-balancing intentions are especially good choices for full body self-massage.
Oils for Vata
The primary qualities of vata are dry, light, cool, rough, subtle, and mobile. Most of these qualities are opposite to those of oil, so there are quite a few oils that can help counteract vata’s qualities. Plain, untoasted Sesame Oil is considered the traditional abhyanga oil for vata dosha. (Ayurveda considers it to be “the king of oils,” in fact.) While it is fine to use an unrefined or refined version of this oil on its own, inherently warming nature makes it the perfect base oil for the following herbal oil blends.
Vata Massage Oil
Vata Massage Oil is an excellent abhyanga oil for vata, especially when the dosha is high or elevated. This oil is particularly grounding and calming. The synergistic blend of nine herbs, such as ashwagandha, bala, and shatavari, come together to offer their strengthening, nourishing, and revitalizing properties, enhancing the vata-pacifying qualities of the organic sesame and olive oils used as its base. This oil is the perfect choice for the fall and winter seasons, when vata is most likely to become imbalanced.
If your goal is to increase strength and stamina, Ashwagandha/Bala Oil may be the best choice for you. Ashwagandha and bala are both known for promoting strong, healthy muscles, and bring out the nourishing qualities of the organic sesame oil at this blend’s base. Thanks to its potential to help build healthy muscle mass, this herbal oil is often recommended to support an active lifestyle or to strengthen developing or weakened muscles.
Featuring over twenty Ayurvedic herbs, Mahanarayan Oil is traditionally used to support comfortable movement in the joints. If you warm the oil, 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 Oil Alternatives
For small, localized areas, ghee is deeply nourishing and hydrating, and it is especially suitable for dry skin. For a formula that adds in herbal support to promote radiant skin and natural beauty, consider using Beauty Balm. This replenishing formula uses ghee as a base, adding in herbal ingredients to support radiant natural beauty. It can be used as a skin cream, eye cream, lip balm, and general moisturizer for the whole body.
Oils for Pitta
The primary qualities of pitta are oily, sharp, hot, light, fleshy-smelling, spreading, and liquid. Traditionally, light, cooling oils have been considered best for balancing pitta, such as Sunflower Oil or Coconut Oil. Cooling effect aside, the addition of herbs can greatly enhance the pitta-pacifying properties of these oils, especially since the concept of oil and the pitta dosha share a number of qualities. The following are some of our favorite herbal oils for keeping the pitta dosha balanced.
Pitta Massage Oil
Pitta Massage Oil is an excellent choice if you have a little more heat in your system and would like to keep pitta balanced or would like cooling support during the summer season. It combines herbs like manjistha, brahmi/gotu kola, shatavari, guduchi, and licorice to cool, soothe, and relax the body and mind.
Infused with bhringaraj, known in Ayurveda as the “ruler of hair,” Bhringaraj Oil is a great choice for a relaxing scalp massage with added hair benefits.
We offer two varieties of this classic Ayurvedic oil. Also known as gotu kola, brahmi is considered to be one of the best Ayurvedic herbs for the mind. Try Brahmi Oil with Sesame if you want to retain some warmth, or Brahmi Oil with Coconut for maximum coolness.
Oils for Kapha
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. Oil combinations that feature heating, invigorating herbs and a lighter carrier oil are best advised for this dosha.
Kapha Massage Oil
A warming and revitalizing blend, Kapha Massage Oil includes herbs like punarnava, chitrak, calamus, and rosemary. Together, the herbs work together to create an energizing, activating, and mobilizing oil. It is a fantastic choice for the spring season or any time kapha is elevated.
Used with a more vigorous massage, this oil helps to stimulate circulation and lymphatic movement, bringing energy to the body and mind.
Sesame Oil, Almond Oil, or Corn Oil
These plain oils are considered warming and therefore good choices for kapha when used with a vigorous, energizing self-massage. If using Sesame Oil, opt for untoasted varieties that have a lighter scent. Our Refined Sesame Oil is an option you might consider.
Tridoshic Massage Oil
Daily Massage Oil is your tridoshic go-to oil for all doshas and can be used anytime, anywhere. It combines powerful Ayurvedic herbs like guduchi to soothe and rejuvenate, bala to strengthen, and arjuna and tulsi to invigorate, promote circulation, and support the lymphatic system. Brahmi/gotu kola and bhringaraj are added to further support and steady the mind.
Dusting Powders for Abhyanga—Optional
Dusting is an optional step to abhyanga, but some people find it to be highly beneficial. For vata and kapha individuals, 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.
Dusting powder best accents 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.
Taking the first steps to do a self-massage with oil may seem daunting, so if you’re trying it for the first time, choose a more leisurely day. Ayurveda recommends practicing abhyanga for a minimum of fifteen minutes in order for the effects of the oil to reach the seven dhatus, or tissue layers in the body.
Here is a wonderful self-massage routine offered by Dr. Claudia Welch that covers the key abhyanga massage steps. Try doing this routine in the morning for a vital day, or before bed for a more restful sleep.
- Put about 1/4–1/2 cup oil in an 8-ounce squeeze bottle.
- Place the bottle of oil in a pan of hot water until the oil is pleasantly warm. You can also try some alternative methods to heating massage oil if you’d prefer.
- 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 drafts.
- 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 outward in circular strokes. Oil applied to the head should be warm but not hot.
- Put a couple drops of warm Ear 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.
- Vata. Practicing abhyanga daily can be highly beneficial, even life-changing, for balancing vata. This dosha benefits from a warm oil massage in a warm environment. Avoid getting chilled afterwards.
- Pitta. Coolness is key. It is important to only gently heat the oil you choose for your abhyanga. Oil applied to the head should be cool in the summer and slightly warm in the winter.
- Kapha. It is usually best to use less oil for kapha abhyanga than for vata or pitta balancing self-massage practices, and use faster, more invigorating strokes.
Other Types of Self-Massage
Ancient Ayurvedic texts describe the benefits of massage for the whole body, but specifically outline the benefits of applying oil to the scalp, the ears, and the feet. Because Ayurveda considers the scalp, the ears, and the feet to be maps representing the whole body, massaging these areas can positively impact other bodily parts and systems.
Giving yourself a relaxing scalp massage (also known as murdha taila) is a deeply relaxing experience that has many benefits, including:
- Luxurious, thick, soft, and glossy hair
- Soothing and invigorating the sense organs
- Naturally and gently reducing facial wrinkles
If your hair tends to remain oily after a scalp massage, apply shampoo before getting your hair wet and wash your hair in the shower as you normally would. If your hair is on the drier side, feel free to leave the oil in for a conditioning effect or simply rinse well with warm water.
Due to their constant intake of sounds and stimuli, ears can become easily imbalanced by the vata dosha. Ear oiling (known in Sanskrit as karna pratisaranam) offers the following benefits:
- Balancing all three doshas (especially vata) in the ears for enhanced tranquility
- Promoting comfort in the neck and jaw muscles
- Helping the body produce and maintain a healthy amount of earwax
Our Ear Oil is a good choice when applying oil to the ears.
For a deeper grounding effect, you can try karna purana. This involves using more oil in each ear, about 3–6 drops, and resting with your head tilted for about 10 minutes before draining out the oil. Practice this monthly or as directed by an Ayurvedic practitioner.
Massaging your feet (a practice known traditionally as padaghata) can be a deeply relaxing experience, especially when performed along with a scalp massage at night before bed. Some of the benefits of foot massage include:
- Providing comfort to sore, aching feet
- Strengthening the feet
- Enhancing vision
- Balancing vata
- Promoting healthy local tissues, veins and ligaments
Face Massage with Marma Points
Massaging your face with oil can help relieve tension in the face and promote a healthy complexion. To take your self-care practice even further, consider paying attention to the marma points of your face when practicing abhyanga. Spending some extra time massaging the marma points of the face can help you maintain natural beauty in a healthy and rewarding way.
While it doesn't include the application of oil, it's worth mentioning the Ayurvedic practice of garshana, or dry brushing. This is an invigorating and enlivening practice that is most balancing for kapha dosha, and it can be combined with oil massage for a more extended self-care ritual.
While self-massage is beneficial for most people at most times, abhyanga is not always recommended.
Ayurvedic oil massage can be a safe and beneficial practice while trying to conceive. It is a great way to support healthy circulation and lymphatic flow, while gently cleansing and strengthening the tissues to prepare for a strong and healthy pregnancy. However, it is generally not recommended during pregnancy.
Abhyanga is also best avoided during the menstrual cycle, during times of great physical discomfort, or by those who have an acute illness or medical condition.
If any of these circumstances apply to you, please consult an Ayurvedic practitioner before trying abhyanga. If you’re curious as to why abhyanga is not recommended for these conditions, read our blog article about when not to do abhyanga.
While oil does wonders for the body, its slick texture makes it easy to spill. Oil can strain plumbing and cause the bathtub floor to get sticky. Here are some tips to address these problems.
- Tidy up after your self-massage. 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 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.
- Take care around slippery surfaces. 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.
- Clean your drain. 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.
Taking Care of Your Abhyanga Towels
Another unintended side effect of abhyanga is that the oil can cause towels or sheets to get rancid and ruined over time.
- Organize your towels. 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 eventually too, even with the best laundry techniques.
- Protect your bedding. 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.
Laundering Options for Oil Stains
- Make a DIY laundry detergent. 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.
- Use Lestoil. 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.
- Find a natural detergent. There are also environmentally-friendly detergents and cleaners on the market that may be quite effective.
- Replace your towels and sheets. If you can’t get all the oil out, you might plan to replace your sheets or towels about twice a year.
- Take care when drying towels. 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.
For more tips on how to keep your bathroom, towels, and bedding free from oil spills and stains, read our blog article about how to avoid an oily mess during self-massage. With enough practice, these extra steps will become second-nature, freeing up your mind to focus simply on the wonderful, luxurious daily massage benefits you’re giving yourself with abhyanga.