Updated: May 3
I grew up in a household where massages were at least a weekly routine. Celebrations, especially our biggest- the Festival of Lights, Diwali began with a warm oil massage- head to toe. It was Abhyanga but in south-India it was always referred to as an Oil-bath. Traditionally in India, a bath was and is had by pouring water over the head while sitting/standing- so an oil bath was when you literally poured oil over the head and the body.
I am not yet sure how this ritual got lost while transitioning through life but I am most definitely glad it is part of a regular routine again.
I have many fond memories of this ritual.
For these weekend oil baths, I would look forward to my dad’s “Come, I ll give you a good head massage!!”. My brother and me would take turns sitting in front of my dad while he gave us the most relaxing and enjoyable head massage for the next 15 to 20 minutes. We had to keep the oil on for about 30 mins to an hour.
While waiting, we would get everything ready, get into the shower and then massage the entire body with oil - again taking our time…strong yet gentle upward strokes all over the body. We kept it on for about 15-20mins and then washed it all off, using herbs and water.
We would come out of the bath feeling squeaky clean, refreshed, warm and literally renewed!
Diwali, was special for a different reason. The entire extended family would get together at my grandmother’s house or alternatively she would visit us to celebrate the festival. The celebration would begin with my grandmother anointing three drops of warm sesame oil on our heads with a gentle massage. The previous night she would remind us repetitively that we needed to wake up at 4 am and get dressed in new clothes – all before sunrise!
The oil bath is termed holy because it is considered as sacred as bathing in the river Ganges. Hence locally it is referred to as the ‘Ganga-snanam’.
Symbolically, an oil bath implies new beginnings by removing egos, fights, self-esteem and jealousy.
So with those fond memories in mind, here is a simple guide to performing an Abhayanga.
It is ideal if you can commit to an Abhyanga everyday, like a meditative routine, for fifteen minutes. Play some soothing morning music and you have the perfect beginning to the day! Like I have mentioned in my earlier post, it is time you make for yourself and starting off the day with a calm and quiet sets a great tone to help you take on whatever the day throws at you. If this is not yet possible, a minimum of two days a week is recommended.
Put about ½ cup oil in a container. Make sure the oil is not rancid.
Place that container in a pan of hot water until the oil is pleasantly warm.
Sit or stand comfortably in a warm room, on a towel that you don’t mind ruining with oil accumulation. Make sure you’re protected from any wind.
Apply the oil to your entire body.
Massage the oil into your entire body, beginning at the extremities and working toward the middle of the body. Use long strokes on the limbs and circular strokes on the joints. Massage the abdomen and chest in broad, clockwise, circular motions. On the abdomen, follow the path of the large intestine; moving up on the right side of the abdomen, then across, then down on the left side. Massage the body for 5-20 minutes, with love and patience.
This gives the skin time to absorb the goodness of the oils in and ensures you aren’ t dripping and slipping in the oil!
Give a little extra time and attention to massaging the oil into your scalp, ears and feet.
Apply oil to the crown of your head and work slowly out from there in circular strokes. Oil applied to the head should be warm but not hot. Put a couple drops of warm oil on the tip of your little finger or on a cotton ball and apply to the opening of the ear canal. (If there is any current or chronic discomfort in the ears don’t do this without the recommendation of your health care practitioner). After you massage your feet, be sure to wash them first when you shower, so you don’t slip.
Enjoy a warm bath or shower. You can use a mild soap. Be careful to wash your feet first. When you get out of the bath, towel dry. Keep a special towel for drying off after your Abhyanga because it can eventually stained due to the accumulation of oil.
Put on a pair of cotton socks to protect your environment from the residual oil on your feet.
On days when a full body abhyanga is not possible, try massaging just your feet with oil for a few minutes, taking slow deep breathes as you do so, and then put on socks and start your day. We have over 7000 nerve endings in each foot, and massaging the feet alone will sooth your nervous system and still offer healing benefits to the brain.
Abhyanga is best avoided,
· Over swollen, painful areas or masses on the body, without the knowledge and consent of your health-care practitioner
· Over infected or broken skin
· When you know you have toxins in the body,are in great physical discomfort, or have an acute illness. It is best to check with your Ayurvedic practitioner to see if you have any contraindications, before practicing abhyanga.
· When you have acute fever, chills, or flu
· When you have acute indigestion, or directly after taking emetics or purgatives
· During the menstrual cycle. Some women don’t like to stop abhyaṅga during their cycle. If you chose to do it during your cycle, it is best to only apply the oil gently and for only about 5 minutes.
· During pregnancy
Best Oils to Use
Science shows that about 65 percent of every substance you put on your skin is absorbed into the bloodstream. Ayurveda suggests not putting anything on your skin that you wouldn’t eat. So you can feel good about putting coconut oil on your skin.
Sesame Seed Oil: Traditionally in Ayurveda, this is the most popular oil to use for Abhyanga. An ideal choice for children as well with its multitude of health benefits.
As you might already know, Vitamin E is one of the most powerful moisturizing agents for the skin. It is also very vital because Vitamin E is not synthesized by the body. Dietary intake is the only way of receiving this vitamin and a very limited amount therefore is delivered to the skin. Further, studies reveal that in this case, a topical application on Vitamin E is far more effective than ingesting it.
Sesame Seed oil is naturally very rich in Vitamin E and one cup of it delivers almost 15% of the daily value you need. So it only makes sense to use this nutrient dense oil for a regular Abhyanga. Most dosha oils have a sesame seed oil base (except generally the ones of the Pitta Dosha)- but if you’re unsure of your dosha, want something to use on children (its all we use all our childhood) this is an ideal starter oil that cannot go wrong.
It is anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and has antioxidant properties. It is a warming oil and one I would definitely recommend for the cooler days of autumn, winter and spring. In addition it can be used as an oil-pulling rinse and to cook with as well.
While buying sesame seed oil, please make sure you buy cold pressed oil made from untoasted sesame seeds to achieve the maximum benefit. Sesame oil is known to have a lot of adulteration, so I would strongly recommend not buying the cheapest oil you find.
We make our own Sesame seed oil at Earthen Living for this very purpose. You can buy some of it here.
Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is fundamentally cooling to the system and best for late spring and summer, as well as individuals with excess heat in the system. You can also combine coconut and sesame seed oil if you find the fragrance of sesame oil too overpowering or you think it is too viscous to your liking. Combining the two gives a little warmth to the oil which I personally favour during a massage. It will also stop the coconut oil from coagulating each time the weather gets a bit cooler. Coconut oil is rich in Vitamin E and is an antioxidant as well.
A good oil to keep on hand as it is excellent to use on the hair as well and to cook with.
Dosha Balancing Oils: If you know your Dosha, you can use the dosha balancing oils as per your need. You may have to change the oil depending on the imbalance at a specific time, your environment or the weather, so it would be good to have with you more than one oil handy.
Most Vata and Kapha oils are based on a sesame seed oil with added herbs and ingredients. Since the Pitta dosha needs to be balanced primarily by cooling, these oils tend to be based in coconut oil.
Here are a few ingredients that you can look for while looking to balance your dosha
Vata Balancing Oil: This is also an oil to use when your skin is feeling excessively dry and thirsty or you feel discomfort in the joints or muscle/general fatigue.
Sesame seed oil forms a very good base to balance Vata. Another good addition is
Bala: The name of this herb literally means ”strength” and is great for toning muscles, calming the nerves and for strengthening and energizing the body. his herb is a great addition to have for Vata disorders. This also works very well for a head massage helping you feel calm and grounded.
You can also look for oils that contain Ashwagandha or Shatavari as an alternative.
Alternative Oils to use: Almond Oil, Olive Oil or Clarified butter(Ghee)
Pitta Balancing Oil: Coconut oil is an ideal base for pitta balancing. Or when your skin is more prone to rashes, eczema, you have hot flushes or have in general been prone to more irritable mood swings, prone to thinning or greying of hair.
Other ingredients you can look for to balance pitta are Bringaraj, Manjistha, Guduchi, Aloe, Liquorice..cooling herbs that help soothe and relax particularly in warmer environments.
Alternatives: Sunflower Oil
Kapha Balancing Oil: You may want a warming, invirogating oil is preferred. Sesame seed oil base. Look for warming spices like Mustard, cinnamon and ginger in your oils that stimulate and invigorate the senses. Kapha is naturally slow, sluggish, steady and accumulated Kapha becomes excessively sleepy, dull, stiff and slow. Herbs like ashwagandha are energizing yet calming.
A kapha balancing oil is a good choice in the winters or in cold/ damp environments.
Depending on the weather, you could use the Vata and the Kapha oils alternatively in the winters.
Alternative Oils: Almond, Sunflower, Mustard Oils
If you would like to take a look at the Earthen Living range of oils, you can shop here.
Other practicalities while practicing an Abhyanga at home:
If you ve been to an Ayurvedic spa before or had a traditional head massage, you know the aroma of traditional oils is quite different to the Spa oils and products we are used to. So, if it does take you some time to develop a nose to the fragrance, remind yourself of the reason you are using them and the benefits you are receiving from them :)
Keep at least two towels separately for this purpose. Herbal oils can stain quickly. They do wash away with a detergent but it is best kept separate to your other towels. If you don t mind some of the oil staying on the surface of the skin and get the feeling of being better moisturized that way, and you are doing the massage at night you may want to also keep a special set of night clothes, incase some of that oil has not been absorbed completely.
Use a natural detergent for your towels if you are using them against your skin regularly.Be mentally prepared to change your towels every few months.
If you don t mind some of the oil staying on the surface of the skin and get the feeling of being better moisturised that way, and you are doing the massage at night you may want to also keep a special set of night clothes, incase some of that oil has not been absorbed completely
Make the time for your massage. Keep the oil on for a good 20-30 mins to allow it to get absorbed by the skin. Use only a mild soap to wash away some of the greasiness you feel but not to wash away the goodness of the oil! Keeping the oil on for the entire length of time also makes sure you have less oil to wipe off later!
Start with a little oil at a time, see how you feel and then slowly increase the amount. You are looking to use a minimum of 25ml of oil to get some benefits of the oil as well.
Clean your drains on a weekly basis to avoid any potential clogging with the oils.
Enjoy your Abhyanga!