Abhyanga, or oil self-massage, is a simple, economical, time-tested and comforting health practice we can do in our own home. From an Ayurvedic perspective, applying warm oil to the body is a way to give yourself some love, plus numerous additional benefits. Oiling your body on a regular basis:
- Improves physical strength and tolerance
- Relieves fatigue and anxiety
- Calms the nerves and mind
- Improves blood and lymph circulation
- Nourishes, tones, eases and revitalises tissues, joints and sense organs
- Improves skin hydration, tone, complexion, softness and touch
- Supports regular digestion, elimination and internal cleansing
- Helps to prevent headaches
- Induces deep sleep
- Delays ageing and promotes longevity; slows hair loss and greying
- Warms, hydrates and nourishes the intense cold, dry qualities of vata dosha
- Cools, nourishes, and guards against dryness of pitta dosha
- In cold, dry seasons warms and activates kapha dosha
The Basic Practice
The basic process of oil self-anointing is to apply warm oil systematically to the whole body, allow it to penetrate for 15 to 20 minutes, then wash the excess off under warm water using little or no soap. With practice the oiling process can take 5 minutes, but taking 10 to 15 minutes allows the oil to be worked in more thoroughly and stimulates more tissues and pressure points.
Choosing a Suitable Oil
In general, the best oil type and quantity depends on your dominant dosha(s), and takes into account the environment and season. In general:
- Vata types benefit from sesame oil, almond oil, or an herbal vata balancing oil such as Ashwagandha oil.
- Pitta types do best with coconut oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, or an herbal pitta balancing oil such as Brahmi.
- Kapha types can use sesame oil, mustard oil, or corn oil, a mix of these oils, or an herbal kapha balancing oil.
Prioritise oils that are fresh; extracted through cold-pressing (not heat and/or chemical methods); produced from organically-farmed plants; and ideally grown in your local area.
When to Perform Oil Self-Massage
In the daily routine, abhyanga is best performed in the morning after voiding the bowels, and before or after exercise. This stabilises vata dosha for the day.
Alternatively, night-time abhyanga helps to alleviate stress and is excellent for those who suffer from agitated sleep or insomnia.
Those with excessive nervous or dry conditions can perform oil massage both morning and night.
For vata dosha and dry pitta types, self-oil massage can be done daily, bi-weekly, weekly or seasonally, as required. Kapha types mainly benefit from oiling in cold, dry seasons.
Systematic Steps for Self-Oiling
Warm the Oil and Yourself
Before application, place a small bottle of oil in a cup of very warm water to gently heat it to a little warmer than body temperature. For preservation, a small glass bottle is best but can be slippery, and break if dropped. A squeeze bottle or container with pump-action nozzle can be useful. (To minimise oxidation, keep the large “source bottle” tightly shut and stored in a cool, dark place.)
Choose a warm room; use a heater if necessary. Place an old towel on cold or slippery floors.
Work from Extremities Inwards
Begin at the left leg, working up from the foot, calf, knee, thigh, hip, buttocks and around to the navel. Repeat for the right leg.
- Use long sweeping strokes along the limbs, and circular movements around joints.(Don’t apply oil to the soles of the feet. Massage the soles of the feet with sesame oil at night before bed.)
- Massage the left hand, wrist, working up to the elbow, upper arm and shoulder, then down over the neck, armpit, heart and breast to the trunk. Repeat on the right side.
- Massage the lower back and sides, towards the navel.
- Massage oil into the upper back and down towards the navel.
- Whenever possible, massage oil into the face, scalp and hair, and in and around the ears.
- Ayurveda considers the head, ears, legs and feet the most important targets.
- Lastly massage around the navel in a circular clockwise motion, and also inside.
Dress in old, warm, loose clothing. Wool or cotton is best as they are not so affected by oil. Wait for 15 to 20 minutes for the oil to be absorbed. Keep yourself warm and entertained with activities such as Yoga, walking or meditation.
Then bathe in warm water using as little soap as necessary. Wet heat dilates the skin’s pores and facilitates deep penetration. Use an old towel to dry off. Stay warm for at least another 15 minutes.
Cautions and Contraindications
Oil self-massage should NOT be performed if you’re suffering from: acute indigestion; a cold, flu, chills or fever; many inflammatory skin conditions or skin infections; severe diarrhoea or vomiting; high kapha dosha; high levels of bodily toxins; you have unidentified swollen or painful lumps; and immediately after panchakarma therapy.
Create a Simple, Caring Routine
While oiling, cultivate a gentle, loving attitude towards your body and the process. Make your movements slow, smooth, deliberate and caring.
To enjoy the benefits of regular abhyanga, establish a straightforward, enjoyable routine that is adapted to your unique constitution, current health balance, climate, season and lifestyle.