ShivaShakti Blog

The Art of Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Self-Massage

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“The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much even if subjected to injury 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 Vol. 1, V: 88-89


The word for oil in Sanskrit, Sneha, also means Love. Snehana is an Ayurvedic oil massage and the term, Abhyanga refers to massaging one’s own self. Internal and external oleation in Ayurveda, the natural healing system of India, are believed to have a similar effect to being filled with love. Both Snehana (receiving an Ayurvedic massage from a therapist) and Abhyanga are very important practices in Ayurveda. Abhyanga is suggested as a daily practice for most people due to it’s incredible healing properties. In most cases abhyanga pacifies vata and pitta and bring harmony to kapha.

Not only is Abhyanga deeply relaxing (who can’t use a little more relaxation?!), it also is very nourishing to our bodily tissues and helps to remove toxins from the body. When we massage our bodies, the oil penetrates through our skin to soften toxins stored in our joints, muscles and organs. When toxins are loosened up through oleation, they can travel freely through the circulatory system to the GI tract, where they can be released from the body. Toxins left to build up in the joints and muscles cause stiffness, soreness and inflammation and over time can lead to imbalances such as arthritis. The cleansing and nourishing benefits of abhyanga increase longevity and decrease the effects of aging. Self- massage is deeply nurturing and loving. In a world where stress is commonplace, it’s often rare for people to think of a daily self-care practice. Abhyanga is excellent for reducing the effects of stress on the nervous system and grounding the mind and body. This in turn supports balanced sleep patterns, strengthens immunity and brings vitality to the internal organs and dhatus (bodily tissues). Practicing abhyanga before leaving the house in the morning is an excellent way to center yourself for the day. However doing abhyanga at night is also a great way to wind down from the day and ground yourself before going to sleep.

You may be wondering who has time for this “said” daily massage when your schedule is jam-packed. I can hear you thinking “sure, some relaxation sounds great, but who has this kind of time?” Abhyanga doesn’t need to be a long drawn-out process. It can take as little as 10 minutes if that’s all you have, or if you find yourself with some extra time on a weekend, you can treat yourself to a 20-30 minute self-massage. Abhyanga can be done before taking a shower in the morning/evening. You can oil your body (instructions below) and then take a shower without soap, which serves to wash off any excess oil (so it won’t leave a residue on your clothes), but still moisturizes and nourishes the skin. You can oil yourself after the shower, but be prepared for some of the oil to get onto whatever clothing you put on after. If you can create the time you can make the oleation process really luxurious with some soft music or a candle, increasing the healing benefits.

As the mother of an almost-two year old much of my time is spent toddler-chasing and my allotment for abhyanga has been greatly reduced from what it once was pre-parenthood. Nevertheless, I still find time for this practice as the benefits are too great to go without. I warm up a bottle of oil and sit with my daughter on a towel on the bathroom floor. We pass a squeeze bottle of warm oil back and forth while massaging our bodies. She loves calling out the name of a limb, “Arm, arm ‘ssage, ‘ssage” (her version of “massage”) and then we oil that part, moving around the body this way. We then shower off and move on with our day.

What You’ll Need:
An old cotton towel, pot of very warm water, paper towels
1/4-1/2 cup of massage oil suited to your dosha. If you’re not sure which dosha you are, you can try this dosha quiz (these quizzes won’t always provide you with your true constitutional analysis), meet with an Ayurvedic practitioner, or simply use a tridoshic oil that is okay for all doshas.
Vata Dosha: sesame oil base
Pitta Dosha: coconut or sunflower oil base (only use coconut oil during warm months, as it’s too cooling in a cold climate during the winter months.)
Kapha Dosha: sesame or mustard oil base

Some Ayurvedic companies offer oil blends with doshic balancing herbs added to one of the base oils listed above. If you’re interested in purchasing one of these blends, you can check out Banyan Botanicals or Sarada USA. Both have tridoshic oils as well. You can also find the pure base oils at your local grocery store. Go for organic whenever possible.

1) Use a generous amount of oil (1/4-1/2 cup) for each massage.  Warm the oil by putting the jar of oil in hot water for 5 minutes or so before you start the massage. The oil should be warm when applied to your body.
2) Choose a warm spot to do the massage. You can put your old towel on a chair in the bathroom and sit down for the massage to get comfy.
3) Pour some oil onto your palm and start by massaging your abdomen in a clockwise manner (supporting the flow of elimination in the colon.)
4) Follow by massaging the entire chest and as much of your back, shoulders and neck as possible.
5) Massage your limbs with long strokes and circle around your joints.  Focus on “loving up” any trouble spots in your body.
6) Massage the face, head, and around the ears last.  Put a little oil in your ears and nose.
7) If massaging your scalp, apply oil to the crown of the head and work it well into the scalp using your fingertips to massage the entire scalp.
8) Relax and let the oil soak in for at least 5 minutes (or up to 30 min.)  Take your time and do not rush.
9) If following with a warm bath or shower, be careful not to slip. It is not necessary to use soap on your skin, but using a mild shampoo for the hair is fine. It is best to apply the shampoo directly to the oiled hair before wetting, which will help cut the oil before you add water to the scalp. You may need to wash the hair twice to remove all of the oil.
10) Pat your skin with your oil towel or just air dry.

Note: Over time your “oil towel” will become stained and eventually oil-saturated. Washing it is fine, but oil towels should not be dried as they can be a fire hazard.  Hang the towel to dry and discard after a few months.

Enjoy the healing benefits of abhyanga!


About the Author:

Aiyana Athenian is Co-founder of the ShivaShakti School of Yoga. She has been teaching yoga and practicing massage and bodywork for more than a decade. Aiyana is an Ayurvedic Practitioner (NAMA) and works with clients both online and in person when at her home base in Maine. She lives a life dedicated to the paths of Yoga and Ayurveda and loves sharing this healing wisdom with others.
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