Guide to Practicing Abhyanga

Updated: May 3, 2020

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.


ABHYAṄGA ROUTINE


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 breat