WHY SELF-MASSAGE (ABHYANGA) IS PART OF MY WEEKLY ROUTINE
As well as my daily routine — tongue scraping, oil pulling and other nurturing Ayurvedic rituals, I perform a self-Abhyanga, the Sanskrit term for a massage using warm oil, at least once a week. This habit is not only lovely but also incredibly grounding, preventing and easing anxiety, insomnia and other aches and pains you may be experiencing. Although it might sound time-consuming and maybe tedious, the benefits of self-massage are well worth the time and effort, and considered a tonic or medicine for the body, mind and spirit in Ayurveda.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF OIL?
Carefully obtained from plants, oils, which are extremely nourishing, have been coveted throughout the centuries. Anointing with oil has a long history throughout the world, as far back as Ancient Egyptian times, when oil was thought to have both spiritual and physical properties, and was used to recognise someone as a leader — whether that was a Pharaoh or a husband. The practice is found in many other traditions and regions, including Greek mythology, indigenous Australia, certain East African communities, as well as Buddhism, Hinduism and, as many of us know, Christianity. In many of these cultures, anointing was thought to have healing properties, including in Ayurveda — more on that below.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF SELF-MASSAGE?
Taking the time for yourself to perform Abhyanga is an act of love, a way to respect your mind, body and spirit, and treat them with the care they deserve. It is also a way to keep yourself in optimal health and balance, via the skin, which Ayurveda recognises as a major organ and vehicle to reach our internal organs. The skin is both a protective shield and a gateway to nourishing our bodies through our pores.
Self-massage brings you back in balance, whatever you’re experiencing. It increases circulation, stimulates organ function, helps your body detox and improves sleep. It also has many other potential benefits, such as slowing aging, nourishing your skin or preventing injury. It’s one of the most effective ways to calm modern life-induced anxiety, as well as leaving your skin looking smooth and radiant.
Much like tongue scraping, Abhyanga self oil massage is also a great way to regularly check in with your body and get to know yourself, keeping an eye on changes, understanding your natural rhythms — especially for ovulating women. It’s the perfect time to notice any new moles and do breast checks. Abhyanga is a supportive way of seeing yourself with all your senses rather than through the often critical way we consider ourselves in the mirror or through photos.
WHAT OILS SHOULD YOU USE?
One of my favourites places to source oil is Maharishi Ayurveda, a website where they have a large spectrum of specially selected oils and preparations. My main choice is the Vata massage oil, a sesame-based oil blended with Vata-balancing herbs and spices, for taming my usually very dominant Vata Dosha. This is an excellent oil for anyone living a fast-paced life, flying a lot or always on the move, or who’s around screens, artificial light and/or loud music/noise a lot — all of which aggravate Vata. Knowing your mind-body type (usually one or dominant 2 Doshas) means you can not only understand what foods and lifestyle choices suit this constitution best but what you can use in your day-to-day to feel your best. Using an oil specifically catered to your dominant Dosha can be a very good idea to bring you into balance — and keep you there. For Vata, use warming oils such as (untoasted) sesame or almond oil. For Pitta, opt for more cooling oils such as coconut or sunflower oil. For Kapha, use sesame oil only occasionally, or perform dry massage (Udvartana) instead.
Having said this, a default recommendation for anyone travelling, working in a busy environment and in a high-stimuli or stressful job would be to do a Vata oil massage at least once a fortnight in order to ground yourself.
HOW DO YOU DO IT?
For oil massage (Abhyanga)
To make life easier, avoid excess packaging and make this practice affordable, try purchasing a large bottle of your chosen oil, then decant some into a smaller bottle (like this 150-ml one) to use for each massage.
Start by warming your oil — it should always be warmed, in order to offset the cold and dry properties of Vata, as well as help to relax the body and make the oil better able to penetrate the skin: place the bottle within a larger vessel of hot water. I fill a mug halfway with water from the kettle and then place my smaller bottle within it.
While it heats, prepare everything else. I choose a warm room, usually the bathroom. Lay down an old towel over your bathroom mat (so that you’re not disturbed by the cold floor) and make the room as relaxing and comfortable as possible, turning the main lights off and just using daylight or low-level lighting. I like to put music on sometimes as well.
Once the oil is warm, apply some onto the top of your head directly onto the scalp if you’re doing full-body massage to let it absorb, then start from the feet up, using broad strokes, for about 10-20 minutes. The most important tip is to enjoy this and not treat it like a chore! Afterwards, wrap up in an old dressing gown and relax for up to 40 minutes, then rinse the oil off with warm water and a flannel in the shower. There’s no need to apply body lotion or body oil afterwards as the skin will be nourished. It’s important to remove the excess oil as this will pull out the toxins that were released from your body during the massage.
I try to do this a few times a week — more if it’s a stressful time or I’m doing lots of travelling, or if I’m doing a cleanse and reset. It’s also important to treat yourself to self-massage to transition from season to season. In the autumn, Vata season, you can do it up to once a day to restore balance to your mind-body.
For powder massage (Udvartana)
For Kapha imbalances or for performing early in the morning, powder massage (Udvartana) is a lovely stimulating alternative to Abhyanga. Udvartana calls for a special powder like this one, more like a body scrub, to be worked into the body after your oil. Then you either have a steam bath afterwards to remove the oil and powder, as well as the toxins, or you can use hot pads instead followed by a shower to rinse off.
DO I HAVE TO PERFORM ABHYANGA MYSELF?
Although performing self-massage is much easier than you think, and a more convenient and affordable way of treating yourself to Abhyanga (or Udvartana) on a regular basis, you can also seek professional treatment at an Ayurvedic spa (check out the Resources page for some of my favourite addresses). The traditional treatment is carried out by two therapists to make the massage even more effective. Fast, long sweeping movements are used with a good amount of pressure. The traditional oil smells quite pungent, more like food since it’s packed with powerful herbs and spices rather than an essential oil blend that we might be more used to. You might also find more westernised spas offering versions of the above — while they might not be the truly authentic experience, I think you’ll agree, most of us will experience benefits from treating ourselves to a massage.
Check out these links to find out more about self-massage: