Dinacharya Series # 4: Abhyanga The Ayurveda Self-Massage
Abhyanga Dinacharya : The Ayurveda Self-Massage
The human body is a work of art – the most complex system ever created. It is engineered in a magnificent way that it heals on its own most of the time. Yet, to maintain the efficiency of the system, a delicate yet systematic natural approach is imperative. Ayurveda suggests some very practical solutions for sustaining the healthy performance of the body as a part of the daily routine – Abhyanga, Utsadhana, and Vyayama. Read on to understand how the Ayurveda self-care regime Abhyanga redefines the concept of positive health and gives it a new dimension beyond the intake of medicines.
What is Abhyanga?
Imagine the 5 million touch receptors in your skin getting stimulated most delicately and soothingly. The thought itself is so relaxing and refreshing. A very simple yet sophisticated therapy that has curative, palliative, and hygienic aspects, Abhyanga or self-massage with oil is suggested to be practiced daily, in Ayurveda. A healthy person desirous of rejuvenating the body, mind, and spirit should invariably resort to Abhyanga every day, before bath.
Oil is known as ‘sneha’ in Ayurveda which is also a synonym for love and affection. So, Abhyanga can very well be perceived as the natural ability of the oil to affectionately embracing the body with its exquisite nature. An exotic self-care regimen that nourishes the body and mind alike, Abhyanga is the easiest way to understand and acknowledge your body perfectly.
Which oil to use in Abhyanga?
Abhyanga is always performed with an oil that is suitable for your skin and body type. We all are born with a unique constitution and require the appropriate products to be used internally as well as externally. It is advisable to understand your innate constitution and skin type to choose the best oil for you. An Ayurvedic practitioner can help you to select the most suitable oil for Abhyanga.
But what if you are not so sure about which oil to use? Try pure sesame oil. This is one oil that is considered best in Ayurveda and is suitable for all three doshas.
How to perform Abhyanga as a daily ritual?
As a therapeutic procedure, Abhyanga is usually done as a preparatory procedure for Panchakarma – it is a way of preparing the body to undergo rather difficult procedures like emesis, purgation, enema, etc. Performing Abhyanga daily is also a way of preparing your body to endure physical and mental hardships. But self-abhyanga is slightly different from therapeutic Abhyanga, the main difference being the positions. When Abhyanga is done therapeutically in a traditional manner, the masseurs will massage the body in 7 positions whereas self-abhyanga is done in a convenient sitting posture alone.
Suitable oil is taken in a vessel and made slightly warm by the double-boil method. This can be done by putting the oil in a smaller vessel & put it inside a boiling vessel of water. During summer, you can choose not to preheat the oil if that is comfortable. The oil should be made warm up to the desired temperature your body can tolerate. Start by applying a bit of oil on your soles and ear pinna. Then continue to apply on every part of the body slowly and generously. Make sure you cover all your joints and muscle groups. Once the oil is applied everywhere, start massaging gently with your palm in a linear manner, downwards. The joints and the abdomen require special attention and should be caressed circularly and not linear. The lymph nodes and co-lateral venous networks around the joints could benefit from this circular type of massage.
Nobody understands your body better than you. So investing your time in caressing your body in a natural way like Abhyanga is always worth it. You can indulge in self-massage for even 15 minutes to one hour, whatever is convenient for you. The purpose is to get the most out of each moment you spend taking care of your body.
Benefits of Abhyanga
Being mindful about the harmonious touch and every body part can give a whole new dimension to your self-massage ritual. The benefits that you receive from this daily regimen are far beyond physical. Abhyanga is the easiest way to soothe and nourish your body and mind alike. When you embrace yourself with love and oil, there is nothing but pure bliss and relaxation. The friction between your skin and palms generates heat and the rhythmic movement will promote the smooth flow of blood and lymph through the body. A smooth touch always positively affects the brain and nervous system and helps combat stress and tension.
Abhyanga performed in the direction of hair helps expel out the accumulated toxins from the tissues. It promotes the smooth functioning of the musculoskeletal system, relieves stiffness, pain, and heaviness of the body, and contributes to a feeling of lightness. Abhyanga is also an excellent way to smoothen the skin and maintain its natural complexion. The therapeutic effects of the herbs incorporated in the oil act on the layers of the skin and provide a never-before glow.
स्नेहाभ्यङ्गाद्यथा कुम्भश्चर्म स्नेहविमर्दनात्| भवत्युपाङ्गादक्षश्च दृढः क्लेशसहो यथा||
तथा शरीरमभ्यङ्गाद्दृढं सुत्वक् च जायते| प्रशान्तमारुताबाधं क्लेशव्यायामसंसहम्||
स्पर्शनेऽभ्यधिको वायुः स्पर्शनं च त्वगाश्रितम्| त्वच्यश्च परमभ्यङ्गस्तस्मात्तं शीलयेन्नरः||
(ch su 5/85-87)
Acharya Charaka goes on to explain the benefits of Abhyanga with a beautiful simile. He says, just like a pitcher by smearing with oil, a hide by soaking in oil, or an axle by lubricating with oil become firm, so does the human body when applied with oil. The skin becomes beautiful, Vata disorders are relieved, and tolerance to hardship and physical strain is enhanced. Vata predominates in the tactile sense faculty and this sense faculty resides in the skin. Massage is exceedingly beneficial to the skin. Therefore, a person should practice Abhyanga regularly.
Acharya Charaka describes 107 vital points (Marmas) of the body in the Sharira Sthana 6th chapter. Touching these vital points can have positive or negative effects on the body. When you apply a smooth pressure during Abhyanga, it will just be the right kind of stimulation for these marmas. Apart from benefiting the sense organs, this refreshingly smooth ritual also helps in promoting longevity, sound sleep, prevents diseases, and enhances appetite & digestion by boosting the digestive fire.
Contraindications and exceptions on Abhyanga
Now let’s admit it – every day is not the same. So, what if you were not able to do Abhyanga one day? Acharya Vaghbata in his classic Ashtanga Hridaya gives an alternate option – make sure you at least do Abhyanga on the head, ears, and soles. These are considered important organs for Abhyanga and hence massaging these areas can also be beneficial if not the entire body.
शिर: श्रवणपादेषु तं विशेषेण शीलयेत् ||
(AH Su 2nd chapter)
As always, Ayurveda does evaluate every aspect of health and advises the good and the bad appropriately. The ancient sages have significantly acknowledged the importance of a healthy body while performing procedures like Abhyanga. A sound body and mind can only experience and tolerate the true benefits of Abhyanga. Hence, Acharyas have listed out those people who have indigestion, acute fever, impaired digestive fire, over-nourished, those who have undergone Panchakarma therapy recently, and those with Kapha predominant disorders as unfit for daily Abhyanga. Once they recover from their illness, they can do the self-care regimen to maintain optimum health.
Self-care is a priority. When it is done most naturally in the traditional Ayurvedic manner, it becomes even more refreshing, rejuvenating, and therapeutic.
Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.