6 Tips For Practicing Abhyanga, Aka Ayurvedic Self Massage
Oh man, you guys are going to have to tell me if you get sick of hearing about Ayurveda, k? After the weeklong retreat I just went on, I have little else on the brain. I learned lots of interesting bits and bobs about this ancient practice of truly preventitive healthcare—and ever the envangelist, I probably won’t shut up about it for some time still.
Siobhan and I have both been talking abhyanga lately, the practice of self massage with body-balancing oils. The wonderful Claudia Welch considers it a key prescription for hormone (and life) balance. But we—and some of you—have expressed a bit of a nagging concern over whether we’re doing it right. Do I just rub-a-dub in warm oil and call it abhyanga? Am I getting the benefits? Probably, yes, just taking the time to (lovingly) massage your body with oil is going to do plenty of good—but there’s more to it than that and I have some practical tips for the whole oil-stains-stuff conundrum too.
On the retreat I received a four-handed abhyanga which, as you may have guessed, involved not one, but two massage therapists (and enough oil to deep fry me). If you’ve never had one of these treatments, I suggest you put it on your bucket list. I get regular massages, but having my feet massaged at the same time as my shoulders? An unmatched joy.
Most of us would have to dig quite a bit to find one of these treatments in our respective cities—suggestions anyone?—so the DIY approach is the more practical option for the day to day. Here are some of my personal tips, and a few things I learned from the pros. It helps to know your dosha, which you can figure out here.
1. Do it in the bath if you have one. Just a bit of practical advice, really, because people get concerned about the mess of oil and such. The bath works great: I just lay a towel down (no water of course) and get to work. I use a lot of oil, but not so much that the towel ends up covered or anything. Still, don’t use the towel your mom got you for Christmas.
2. Warm your oil in a pot of almost-boiling water, and then use that water to shave if you want. I usually pour some oil in a measuring cup, or metal cup with a handle (careful though, the heat transmits quickly with those), and set it in a pot of super-hot, almost boiling water to let it warm. Then I take both the cup of oil and the pot of water to the bath. I use the oil for abhyanga, but then if I want to shave my legs with the oil (as many of us do in these parts), instead of running the tap, I use the super hot water to clean the razor. This was inspired by Krystal’s Morning Routine, where she advised to use super hot water when shaving with coconut oil, to get the oil out of the razor.
3. Try a different touch depending on your dosha type, or current state of mind. The basic method is to start at your feet, using long vertical strokes on your limbs/muscles, and small circular rubbing around the joints. So circlecircle ankles, strokestroke shins and calfs, circlecircle knees etc. I’ll get to the tummy in a moment. But when I received the treatment I was surprised at how vigorous some of those strokes were! Here’s what I learned, depending on your dosha and/or state of mind, change up the stroke. Feeling super anxious or ticked off? Go nice and slow. Feeling groggy and lethargic or cold? Get a little more vigorous and really warm up those limbs and joints. Logical enough, I’d just never thought about it.
4. Choose the right oil for your dosha, or just the season. Because Ayurveda is predicated on the notion that “like increases like,” it’s important to choose an oil that counterbalances your natural state. If you’re a warmer-bodied pitta, coconut oil is recommended for its cooling properties. Whereas if you’re a vata, heavier oils like almond and sesame are where it’s at. In all the texts I’ve read corn oil is recommended for the calmer, slower kapa types. But because that doesn’t sound pleasant, I’d suggest that kaphas choose one of the vata or pitta oils (depending on which is more dominant for them) and then add a bit of orange essential oil to it—this is very good for invigorating kaphas. Consider the season too. Example: Cooling coconut can be good for all the doshas in the heat of summer, and so on.
5. Follow your colon when you massage your stomach. That means up the right side, across and down the left in a counterclockwise direction. Ayurveda is very big on elimination. Enough said.
6. Make it a ritual. My bathroom is pretty dark in the morning, so I light a few candles, burn a little sage and try to get a bit Cleopatra-godessy about the whole thing. Like most women, I struggle with loving my body just as it is. I also work a lot, and generally indulge my more masculine/yang side. So abyhanga, for me, is a time to reconnect to that female energy and be nice to my body instead of telling it crappy things about how it looks and feels.
Aside from all the mental/spiritual benefits of this practice, it also happens to be wonderful for the skin and circulation. Have you tried it? What does it look like for you?