If you have ever consulted with an Ayurvedic Practitioner, chances are that they recommended abhyanga to you. Abhyangas are a prized therapy in Ayurvedic Medicine and can be received from a massage therapist or self-administered. Christine Tykeson, fellow Ayurvedic Practitioner and Massage Therapist in Lompoc, CA, has been doing extensive research into the use of Sesame oil and Ayurvedic Body Therapies and shared her insights with me recently.
What exactly is an abhyanga?
Basically, abhyanga is applying warm oil to the body. Sometimes, people refer to it as a massage, but that is not exactly correct as the purpose of a massage is to manually manipulate the muscles while an abhyanga has a very different purpose which is to get the oil into the body through the skin. Oil is used in an ordinary massage to reduce friction, to provide “glide” when working the muscles. But with an abhyanga the oil is the main point of the massage.
How is this done?
Traditionally two therapists apply and work the oil into the body, working in unison in a synchronistic pattern with their strokes. It is also possible to have one therapist doing an abhyanga, although that is less traditional, but it still has a wonderful effect.
Tell me more about Abhyanga, why is it so important?
One of the principle uses of abhyanga is to pacify Vata dosha (the air/ether humour in the body). Managing Vata dosha is a big part of maintaining balance in the body for everyone. Vata is the dosha which moves everything. It is not possible for one to move into imbalance without the aid of Vata dosha and keeping it in balance is a major key to health according to Ayurveda.
Principally Vata qualities are mobile, drying and cold. Oils are generally warming, unctuous, moistening and lubricating. They have very nourishing, nurturing qualities that calm and relax the Vata nervous and active tendencies. Some oils, like coconut oil and ghee can be more cooling and are best for hot Pitta dosha. But generally all oils have this heavy, luxurious and nourishing quality that is very comforting especially to pacify Vata imbalances which are very prevalent in our stressful, active world and, especially at this time of year, in the fall and early winter (Vata season), when the qualities of Vata are high and people are feeling dry and stressed.
What are the benefits of Abhyanga besides pacifying Vata dosha?
Abhyanga relaxes and nourishes the nervous system, stimulates the agni (metabolic fire) of all the tissues in the body, stimulates circulation of blood and lymph, tones and softens the skin and underlying tissues, makes the body strong and flexible. One small benefit which can make a big difference is that you can completely eradicate ever having dry winter skin again, an important concern this time of year. I haven’t had winter skin since I began a regular practice of abhyanga almost 10 years ago. That alone is definitely worth it. But there are many good reasons to do this practice. Ayurvedic oils are one of the best, most natural things you can put on your skin.
Does the technique in applying self-abhyanga matter or is it just a matter of applying oil?
Classically, abhyanga is a vigorous massage. When I do an abhyanga massage on a client I usually break out in a sweat, as it is so active. The idea is to warm the skin and drive the oil into the body.
In an ideal world, for a self-administered abhyanga, you would take long strokes on the long bones and circular strokes around the joints- at least 20 times is a good amount of strokes for each part of the body.
All that being said, the most important thing is to get some oil onto and into the skin regularly. If you can get some oil on in 5 minutes before or after your shower every day, that is much better than not doing abhyanga at all and will have a wonderful effect on your health.
Certain factors will improve the results. Warmth helps-warm oil or warm skin or both will help the oil penetrate better. You can warm the oil easily in a hot water bath. I like to pour it in a metal portion cup or small metal bowl and sit that in a bowl of hot water. It warms fairly quickly.
Friction also helps-the more friction the better the absorption. Certain places in the body are more absorbent. The soles of the feet are very absorbent and also, as the feet are one of the areas where a lot of nerves end, rubbing oil on the feet affects the nervous system profoundly. Also rubbing the ears or the head with oil will affect the nervous system in a very good way.
The most important thing, though, is to do it and to enjoy it.
Christine Tykeson is an Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist who practices in Lompoc, CA. She specializes in Ayurvedic body therapies and has done research in preparation for a literature review of both modern and traditional information regarding transdermal therapies in Ayurvedic body therapies particularly that which pertains to the use of sesame oil. For more on Christine:
Kathy Gehlken is an Ayurvedic Practitioner, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Massage Practitioner and Wellness Coach in the San Francisco Bay Area.She has studied Modern Nutritional Science, Ayurveda—the health science of India—and a variety of massage modalities…Ayurvedic, Swedish, Deep Tissue and Reiki. Learn more at www.kathygehlken.com
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