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There’s nothing like a hug from a loved one (human or animal) to settle the body and mind in times of distress. Hugs are powerful medicine for a host of reasons, but in Ayurveda we also look at the power of touch from an elemental and doshic perspective. The sense of touch is connected to the air element, one of the two constituents of the wily and mischievous vata dosha (the other being space, which is connected to the sense of hearing). It’s through touch, then, that we can find immense relief from the frazzled nerves, scattered thoughts, difficulty sleeping, irregular digestion and appetite, and other common symptoms of excess vata dosha.
Touch can come in many forms, though, and some are more desirable—or accessible—than others. Enter abhyanga, one of Ayurveda’s most treasured self-care rituals that provides near instant soothing to a vata-distrubed body, mind, or spirit. (A synonym is snehana, the word for oil that also translates to “love.”) Abhyanga is a practice of self-massage with oil, which combines the calming sense of touch with the heavy, oily, slow, soft, and dense qualities of oil to counter the instability of too much air. According to the classic text Caraka Saṁhitā, “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” (Caraka Saṁhitā Sū 5/88–99).
Achieving these superlative qualities requires very little in terms of resources: All you need is your own two hands, good-quality oil, and time. Rather than needing to book an appointment for a massage that requires travel, expense, and for some the vulnerability of laying in a dark room on a table with a stranger, abhyanga is an intimate and safe experience that’s accessible whenever and wherever you are. And while having someone else massage you certainly has its benefits, self-massage supports a more compassionate relationship with our body, a better understanding of its terrain and its tendencies, and a feeling of empowerment as we heal ourselves with our own hands.
To practice, lay down a towel on the floor in a warm bathroom to sit on; don’t use your favorite towel, since it will probably get some oil on it. It’s ideal to warm your oil before massaging, which you can do by placing the bottle or jar in a bowl with boiling water for a few minutes. (If you can’t warm it for some reason, or it’s already warm outside, just make sure it’s room temperature.) Apply ½ to 1 cup of oil all over the body, from feet to head, spending 5 or so minutes on each major body part. Use long strokes over the limbs and clockwise circular motions over the joints, chest, sacrum, hips, and belly; apply very gentle pressure to the muscles, since this is less deep-tissue work and more about coating the body with a feeling of safety and nourishment. Make sure to include your neck, ears, and head, using your fingers to work the oil into your scalp more so than oiling your hair.
Let the oil soak into your whole body for 5 to 10 minutes, then (carefully) step into the shower and rinse off the oil with hot water—without soap. The oil acts as a cleanser to remove any dirt and oil from the skin, while leaving behind some of that softening moisture. Another lovely ritual is to take a warm bath or sit in a steam sauna post-oiling, which will further penetrate the oil through the tissues and support relaxation. You can enhance your abhyanga experience by lighting candles or incense, listening to calming music, and decorating your space with serene items like flowers and crystals—things that will provide ease to the other four senses, too.
While it’d be amazing to take an hour or so a day for self-massage, our reality does not always afford us the time and space for these longer “deluxe” (as I like to call them) abhyangas. If you can find the time for the full ritual once a week or once a month (or tie them to the lunar calendar), that’s great. But you can also do quickie versions daily, with less oil and less time, before you shower in the morning or at night. You may also find that you are more interested in abhyanga during fall and winter (which is also vata season), and less interested in the warmer months—listen to your instincts about how often to use oil and how much. If you need touch but don’t want oil, a great alternative (and supplement) to abhyanga is self-massage without oil, which can be the same practice as above or using tools like massage balls or foam rollers.
While abhyanga is generally safe for everyone, it should be avoided in some cases of imbalance—including when you’re sick, the first three days of your period, and pregnancy.
To find the oil that’s right for you, use the guide below.
- Dry, cold skin, vata constitution or imbalance, or fall season: Sesame, jojoba, or almond oil
- Damp, cold skin, kapha constitution or imbalance, or spring season: Sesame, mustard, or almond oil
- Hot, oily skin, pitta constitution or imbalance, or summer season: Coconut, sunflower, or olive oil
- Balanced oil for all skin types
- Calming oil for sleep
Regular abhyanga will not only support your nerves, but can also support healthy digestion and elimination, sleep, complexion and overall body tone, and menstruation. It is proof that powerful nourishment does not need to come from food alone, and that the glow of longevity, resilience, and a harmonized spirit is quite literally in your hands.