Massage is often considered a luxurious indulgence. But in fact, it is an important component of optimal health. The sister science of Yoga, Ayurveda is a holistic health system for everyday life. Abhyanga is the Sanskrit term used to describe Ayurvedic oil massage. Among other things, the oil bath is a traditional Ayurvedic home remedy recommended to reduce excess internal heat particularly in the joints, liver and skin. This heat may show up in the body-mind as impatience, irritability, stiffness in the joints, redness in the skin, insomnia and/or indigestion. Other benefits of Ayurvedic self-massage impart tone and vigor to the tissues of the body, stimulate the internal organs, increase circulation and decrease the effects of aging.
Ayurvedic teachings recommend a daily self-massage, which need only take 15 minutes. Pattabhi Jois, the Indian teacher who developed and popularized the Ashtanga Yoga method, recommended that students take an “oil bath” once per week on his or her day of rest. I have found it easiest to start this self-care ritual twice a month on the new and full moon day as these days are observed as rest days in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition.
In India, the oil bath is customarily taken with castor oil. Castor oil delivers the best results, but can be replaced by organic almond, sesame or coconut oil. You can purchase these oils at your local grocery or via a Ayurvedic lifestyle retailer such as Banyan Botanicals. Banyan Botanicals offers a variety of specialized oils to support individual constitutions or balance particular conditions.
Here is a simple self-massage routine offered by Dr. Claudia Welch. Try doing this routine in the morning for a vital day, or before bed for a more restful sleep:
- Put about a 1/2 cup of oil in a 4 oz. squeeze bottle (I prefer a glass bottle).
- Warm the oil by placing the bottle in a mug of hot water.
- Sit or stand comfortably in a warm room on a towel. Consider choosing a towel that is dedicated for this purpose because over time the oil accumulation will ruin the towel.
- Apply the oil to your entire body.
- Massage the oil into your entire body, beginning at your extremities and working toward the middle of your 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 five to twenty minutes, with love and patience.
- Every so often, 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 you have any current or chronic discomfort in your ears, don’t do this without the recommendation of your healthcare practitioner). When you massage your feet and toes, be sure you don’t slip.
- Enjoy a warm bath or shower. Minimize the use of soap, and use only where needed.
- Wash the shower/bath area. The shower floor will be very slippery and the drain may be clogged a bit. Scrub the shower area well to avoid slipping and pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain to keep it open.
- Rest over the next few hours, avoiding hard work, strong sun and swimming in or drinking cold water. Allow the body and mind to rest and rejuvenate for the coming week of practice, study, work and family life.
For the love of oil baths! ENJOY!!