As the wind whips up and sniffle season sneaks in, Ayurveda recommends preparing our bodies for the drier, colder weather of autumn and winter. Abhyanga, or oil massage, becomes more important than ever at this time of year.

As part of a daily routine, abhyanga can offer pretty wonderful benefits. It cleanses and nourishes the skin (our biggest organ of elimination!) and helps to regulate the doshas and move excess dosha back into the digestive system.

Ayurveda credits abhyanga with slowing aging and with pacifying vata symptoms and diseases including joint pain, anxiety, insomnia and constipation (to name just a few).

This may seem like an incredible list of claims. Really, though, there are so many things going on in the practice of abhyanga, the sum total amounts to some pretty extraordinary results.

 

So, first of all, what exactly is abhyanga?

Abhyanga (Ab-hee-anga) is the practice of applying oil all over the body. It can be as simple as that: applying the oil. An effective practice of abhyanga could take 5-7 minutes. Of course if you have the time, massaging the oil into your skin distributes it more evenly, improves circulation and feels great. As you become accustomed to the practice, you may notice regions of the body calling for more time. A good rule of thumb: take as long as necessary to actually connect with the sensation of your hands on your skin in each area. (If you find it particularly difficult to connect with your sensations, try to add dry-brushing in before the oil application at least once a week.)

If you have the time, hang out all oily and nekkid for up to about 45 minutes or so after applying the oil (not much longer than that) and then rinse off with warm water. If you want to up the soothing effect of the practice, combine it with bucket-bathing, rather than beating that pampered skin with a high-pressure shower.

This practice is done before bathing and on an empty stomach. Ideally this means once the sun has risen, but before bath and breakfast. Before dinner may work better for some.

Abhyanga nourishes us best when the sun shines in the sky. This means during daylight hours, of course, but also only on days when clouds do not obscure the sun. In the autumn and winter, most of us can practice abhyanga up to 4 or 5 days a week. If you have skin issues or problems with sluggishness, depression or congestion, you may want to check in with an ayurveda practitioner to learn how and when to best make use of this practice.

What makes abhyanga so darn healing?

Therapeutic touch by itself nourishes and heals us deeply. From a western perspective, it increases our oxytocin production and improves circulation. And as good as it feels to have someone else rub us in the right ways, taking time to give ourselves a massage improves our relationship with our body and deepens our relationship to our own sensuality (and, therefore, our ability to really be in our life).

When we use organic oils for abhyanga (sometimes with essential oils added) we improve the skin’s ability to pass toxins out of the pores, increase circulation and bolster immunity. The thin layer of oil left on the skin after abhyanga and bath acts as an extra layer of protection.

massagebaby
Abhyanga forms an essential part of a post-partum routine. It helps mama’s body rediscover its integrity and strength.

It is also an incredible way for a mama or papa to bond with a new babe and it helps little ones to fully “arrive” into their bodies. It awakens connection to sensation and encourages the proper flow of energy through the channels of the body.

 

What kind of oil should I use?

Traditionally Ayurveda recommends using untoasted sesame oil. Its thick, nourishing quality very effectively reduces vata disturbances in the body and mind and its warming quality can keep it from being too kapha provoking (as long as there isn’t already some excess heaviness and dampness lurking).

However, being so heavy and warming, it may not be the best oil for everyone. I like to use organic coconut or olive oil for my (mostly pitta) self and for my son. Olive oil has a long history of use in body care in many parts of the world. Sunflower oil may also work well. If you are in a region where there is some oil production, the local oil may be best for you (ie. olive oil in the mediterranean).

Choose organic, of course. You don’t want to put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.

You can boost the beneficial effects of abhyanga with the addition of some essential oils. Frankincense oil has some incredible anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory qualities. A couple drops of it added to oil will make most skin-types happy. Sandalwood, rose and lavender will also work for most everyone. For those who tend towards lung-issues in the winter, eucalyptus oil added to an abhyanga blend can help to protect against illness.

(Floracopeia, has an incredible array of essential oils and some nice blends. I also think they are very conscientious about their oil production.)

You can also buy oils that have been especially formulated for your constitution, or make you own. This is done by cooking the herbs into the oil. I will write more on this in a later post.

Got my oil, what do I do?

  1. If it’s not already, put your oil in a glass jar or bottle. This way, when you prepare to do abhyanga, you can place the oil container into a hot water bath in the sink or in a pot. Allow the oil to become warm, but not uncomfortably hot. If possible, make the bathroom warm—a space heater can be very helpful in the winter.
  2. Take a small amount of oil in your palm and rub the hands together. Bring your hands to your belly and rub the palms in circles over your abdomen, clockwise (from right to left under your ribs, down on the left side, across from left to right at the bottom and then up on the right side). This pattern reinforces the healthy movement of peristalsis in your intestines.
  3. Work your way up the neck, across the chest and upper back (as much as you can reach it), down the upper side of the arms and up the underside of the arms. Massage in circles around your breasts.
  4. Reach around and massage the lower back making circles over the sacrum.
  5. Rub vigorously down the outside of the legs and the feet and then up the inside line of the legs and inner thighs.
  6. If you have time, massage over the joints of the arms and legs in circles.
  7. Hang out like this for a bit, allowing the skin to take in as much oil as it likes. It is really helpful if your bathroom is warm. It’s great if your pores can open up and sweat a tiny bit before you rinse the oil off of your skin. I like to fold up a towel to sit on and do a little bit of light, seated yoga or meditation. Anything you can do to connect with your sensation at this point will really deepen the benefit of abhyanga.
  8. Bathe using very little or no soap. The water will remove all but a thin layer of oil from the skin. Pat the skin dry with a towel after bathing and allow the skin to absorb as much oil as it wants to.
  9. Go forth and enjoy your day with a deeper sense of embodiment and resilience.

 

 

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