Abhyanga: The Practice Of Ayurvedic Self-Massage

My, what times. We are witnessing the Kaili Yuga, my friends - the prophesized era of warfare, Monsanto, and yes, Donald J. Trump. In a time of confusion and illusion, the tendency -- and the trap -- is to feel powerless.

Oh beating hearts, we are anything but powerless.

If there’s anything this election has taught us, it is that our power comes from within. Transformation, too -- be it societal, cultural, or global -- unfolds from within.  For this reason, radical self-care is revolutionary, literally transforming the inner and outer worlds together. Today I’d like to share a radical self-care practice of monumental power, pleasure, and purpose... it is the ancient practice of abhyanga.

What’s abhyanga?

I’m glad you asked.

Abhyanga is sacred self massage. It’s the Ayurvedic practice of anointing the entire body in warm oil. And it’s incredible.

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the culture of India has been one of oil massage. From the very day of birth infants receive regular oil massage to balance, cleanse, and nourish the doshas (or elemental energies) of their unfurling bodies. As they grow older and stronger, they begin to nourish their elders in the very same way. Throughout the entire lifespan (for all that can afford it), oil massage holds a central role in fostering happiness, beauty, resilience, and health.

Today, abhyanga remains paramount to traditional Indian medical (panchakarma) treatments and absolutely foundational to Ayurvedic healing and self-care in general. Based on ancient Vedic texts, emerging science, and a rich history of clinical application, abhyanga may be one of the quickest, most delightful ways to (re)build vitality, navigate the seasons, and paint a grayscale life wildly vibrant.

"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: 88-8

Ancient Ayurvedic Text

Regardless of season, Ayurveda proclaims that rising early to self-oil massage is essential for health and, for many reasons, including to attune to the circadian rhythm, to settle and focus the mind, and to breathe in the rich prana that the early morning offers.

When I do tell folks that my days begin with smothering my entire body in freshly warmed oil (and it's not exactly my opening line on a first date), they might be taken aback a bit but, really, they get it. Most empathetically appreciate just what kind of effect morning oil massage has on the day.

Remember when you were but a wee tot, and you awoke not anxious, frustrated, nor depressed, but stoked? And I mean . . . stoked. Maybe it was for video games or cartoons, or to go play with a friend, or to color or draw, or to romp around in the woods. Whatever it was, if you were like me and had a mostly worry-free childhood, you awoke in radical "YES!": giddy, ecstatic, happy.

For me, consistent abhyanga cultivates my radical "YES!" Almost every single day, I rise excited to awaken my body to heal, play and to, well, just enjoy myself. It sets the rhythm of my day and the tone of my life. In addition to the myriad health (and dare I say beauty) benefits, I am truly worlds more confident, loving, and playful than when I first started. I love abhyanga, and abhyanga loves me.

Abhyanga: How To

Let's get down to business.

Set up an abhyanga station that includes a towel placed over a sitting cushion, a small crock pot pre-loaded with sesame oil, and a mirror (abhyanga is the ultimate self-confidence boost . . . you'll want a mirror).

If you really wanna do it right, consider incense, candles, a speaker prepped with morning grooves, and -- best yet -- an electric kettle, some tea, and a mug.. Breathe in peace for a couple of minutes. No matter the dark dreams or dread for the day, cinnamon-dandelion tea will quickly awaken your dormant joy for the treat to come.

Now, there's all sorts of "proper" Ayurvedic techniques for abhyanga. And they're great. But what really unlocks abhyanga’s potential is that you delight in its inherent sensuality. Let yourself go there! With every cell of your being. And really feel the precious gift that you're freely giving to yourself.

For a while I did morning self massage as if it was just "another obligation," another bullet point on the "to do" list, and that energy limited the experience to but a fraction of what it could’ve been. Don't fall into that trap. Breathe deeply. Gaze into your own eyes as you receive your own gift. Let "look how much I love myself" be the energy behind every stroke. Breathe deeply, and let abhyanga be all that it may be.

Massage for 10-20 minutes, (watch the eyes) and let sit 10-30 minutes, if you can. This is a great time to stimulate acupuncture points or direct the flow of energetic meridians within your own body. All of your channels will be open and a-flowin’. Listen deeply: what does my body need? If you have a sadhana, or spiritual practice, this is the optimal window! Try meditation, qigong, chanting or gentle yoga (just don't slip!).  

Let it sit! This absorption window allows the body's largest and most exposed organ to deeply absorb the oil for maximum effect. Sesame oil permeates the skin particularly well; it goes deep, and can even reach and repair intestinal lining.  After, shower with soap, (Dr. Bronner's or another natural soap is best) and feel long-held toxins release from your body, for good.

Abhyanga Benefits

After showering, you'll feel and see a glow about you. Others will notice it, too. Worried you'll be too oily? That's why you shower!  You'll find that even if you're a naturally well-oiled sapien, self-oil massage has a regulatory effect on the oil secretion of the skin.  For instance, even though I'm a largely oily dude (with a strong pitta dosha), abhyanga leaves me in the "Goldilocks glow" - just right.

Though the early morning is abhyanga’s optimal window of most benefit, it is always available. Having an especially stressful day? Post-work abhyanga is worlds more rewarding than Netflix and beer. Wanna sleep like a baby? Try a vedic secret: a little sesame oil on the crown, belly, and feet. Anytime you use a fair amount of oil, you really will want to shower after and rid your body of all of the toxins that the oil absorbs.

Totally tridoshic, abhyanga is fabulous for all, regardless of season. That said, it's especially helpful for vata types, who suffer from anxiety, coldness, dryness, and a general ungroundedness and lack of energetic containment . . . imbalances that abhyanga quickly corrects.

Ancient writings and paintings reveal that humans have for millennia utilized medicinal plant oils for healing, pleasure, and ritual. At the deepest level, medicinal body oils - and particularly sesame, which is rather thick and warming - returns us to the comfort of infancy. I imagine the embryo was not a dry, cold life. But oily, warm, contained… a place of all-pervading peace. If we were especially fortunate, our parents might've even oil massaged our infant selves to help us relax, sleep, or simply because they loved us and knew it felt good.  

During abhyanga, one's energy and physical bodies feels totally contained in the oceanic balm of oil. Post abhyanga, one feels born again: innocent and clean. Open and strong. Relaxed, while ready-to-roll.

Want to play with different oils? Though sesame oil is typically great for all doshas, it's especially helpful for balancing vata. Pitta can use coconut or sunflower, and kapha can use mustard. If you are not merely one dosha (like most of us), oil mixtures are great. Just pay attention to the doshic quality of the season. For instance, in the high heat of Summer, I use 1 : 1 mixture of coconut : sesame to cool. In the fall, winter, or even spring, I prefer the warming-grounding quality of sesame alone. Experiment.

You're right that a massage oil habit isn't exactly cheap, but it's not a budget-buster either. It’s certainly worth every drop. An intelligent way to purchase is in bulk, perhaps sharing the bounty with a friend. I recommend Banyan Botanicals Ashwagandha-Bala (vitality power-herbs) Sesame Oil, which can be purchased here: https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/ashwagandha-bala-oil/

The benefits of Abhyanga are as vast as they are deep. Indeed, Abhyanga:

  1. Nourishes the entire body—decreases the effects of aging
  2. Imparts muscle tone and vigor to the dhatus (tissues) of the body
  3. Imparts a firmness to the limbs
  4. Lubricates the joints
  5. Increases circulation
  6. Stimulates the internal organs of the body
  7. Assists in elimination of impurities from the body
  8. Moves the lymph, aiding in detoxification
  9. Increases stamina
  10. Calms the nerves
  11. Benefits sleep—better, deeper sleep
  12. Enhances vision
  13. Makes hair (scalp) grow luxuriantly, thick, soft and glossy
  14. Softens and smoothens skin; wrinkles are reduced and disappear
  15. Pacifies vata and pitta

from The Chopra Center

Contraindications are few, including:

– severe levels of toxins

– very low agni [digestive ability]

– [severe] obesity, edema, ascites

– food poisoning, nausea or vomiting

– acute infection

From Healthy Ayurveda

Though Ayurveda is grounded in millennia of clinical investigation, modern science is just catching up. In 2011, a pilot study found that abhyanga significantly lessened subjective stress levels of both men and women. Heart rates significantly calmed, too. In my experience, stress level is the single most reliable indicator of one’s health, or lack thereof. Truly, the answer to, “How’s your health?” lives in the question, “how’s your stress?”

Again, Ayurveda’s been privy to the poison of stress for quite some time, and it’s never been more clear to modern science. In the last decade alone, western science has uncovered that stress is the root of many -- if not most -- modern dis-eases. It’s rather scary stuff. The research shows that stress literally unravels our telomere (DNA) helixes and compromises our very cellular integrity. But not to worry! Ancient Vedic rishis (sages) knew best: it just takes a little intelligent self-care each morning to smooth out stress’s kinks. Ayurveda’s practical wisdom lives in its simplicity: that if we feel good every day as early and as often as we can, we create the conditions where only health and well-being may bloom.

This is why abhyanga is dynamic, both healing and protective. It’s particularly helpful during seasonal, lifestyle, or even electoral (hem hem) transitions when the body is especially fragile and vulnerable to discomfort and dis-ease. Abhyanga helps to calm fight and flight, reminding the body with each smooth stroke, that "It's okay." No matter what’s going on around you, it’s okay.

Perhaps most profoundly, abhyanga is a powerful sadhana, or spiritual practice, that reminds every inch of our beings that we are absolutely divine. As sacred souls already-perfect (with room for improvement), abhyanga inspires us to reclaim our self-acceptance, self-worth and self-love.

In self-massage abhyanga, there is no limit to our pleasure and bliss; you might even want to set a timer so you can get on with your day! In truth, abhyanga defines "the higher octave of hedonism": that that which truly feels good truly is good. During abhyanga, we remember that our precious souls are worth the absolute highest health and happiness. Regardless of what energies our life may lack, abhyanga empowers us to be the source of our own supply.

The not-so-secret to Ayurveda, and to health in general?  Routine. For a moment, consider how your quality of life would differ if you started tomorrow with morning abhyanga. Consider the quality of your life after a month of morning abhyanga. A year? Though your soul will rejoice for even a single morning of abhyanga -- and if that's your only window, do take it -- life rewards a skillfully fine-tuned dinacharya (schedule), whose every element supports our highest health and evolution.

At 21, my belly broke down. The health crisis was traumatic. The recovery, a miracle. I cannot overstate how valuable abhyanga was in healing my intestinal lining, revitalizing my adrenals, and detoxifying my organs. Perhaps most importantly, abhyanga taught me to be gentle with myself, and that self-compassion is the first  -- and perhaps most important -- step for self-healing.

Perhaps you’ve noticed -- this human experience is just nuts. We’re all going through so much on this hurtling space-rock, and doing the very best that we can. In times of hardship, abhyanga taught me to love myself more, not less.

“Love is oily, soft, and gentle.”

– Dr. Vasant Lad

In the Kali Yuga, and who couldn’t use a little more love? A great teaching lives in the Sanskrit word sneha, which means both "to oil" and "to love”. It really is that simple. Indeed, compassionate self-touch is the very gateway into the field of Love itself. And in a world so tragically estranged from its own tenderness, to cultivate a quality of heart is nothing short of revolutionary. Radical. Remember the Buddha’s counsel,

“Hatred never ends by hatred but by Love alone is healed.

This is the ancient and eternal law.”

Each morning, I rise with the sun and the sweet scent of sesame, and make each stroke a radical prayer for peace. With fierce determination and ruthless compassion, I let the balm of love smooth and clear all obstacles standing in the way of Love. To me, this is the way of the Vedic warrior.

To oil is to Love. And to Love is to protest all that is not-yet Love. Don’t underestimate the tremendous power of your own self-care! Not even for a moment. Our power lives in our freedom to heal. The inner work is the outer work, and your healing is our healing. In the mirror, again and again: Thank you. I forgive you. I love you. Feel it ripple. Namaste.