For people who have encountered abhyanga, the treatment might bring to mind an exquisite and exotic ritual with two massage therapists working in perfect union to perform a four-handed massage that coaxes the body into the deepest state of relaxation and renewal. This treatment can, no doubt, be a transformative experience, but abhyanga can be offered by one spa therapist or even given to yourself.
An ancient Ayurvedic text describes the benefits of abhyanaga this way: “Apply oil to the body on a daily basis. It is nourishing for the skin; pacifies the doshas, the subtle energies of the body that can get disrupted; relieves fatigue; and provides stamina, pleasure, and perfect sleep. It enhances the complexion and the luster of the skin, promotes longevity, and nourishes all parts of the body.”
Abhyanga can be received by people of all ages, from newborns to health-minded centurions of both sexes. Abhyanga for a baby is said to strengthen their growth and open marmas, vital energy points closed by the process of being born. For those who are middle-aged, abhyanga is great for warding off the stresses and strains of modern living and is especially fantastic for combating jet lag, building resilience, and improving rest quality. In a person’s later years, abhyanga eases the bones and helps to keep people flexible in mind and body as they mature and become the wise elders that guide others.
Abhyanga as a full-body skin care treatment has a few simple steps. Just like a facial, start by cleansing the skin. Some spas start with an herbal soak in a tub or shower, whereas others choose dry brushing or massage with raw silk gloves as an interesting way to begin the treatment and prime the skin. This initial cleansing is followed by these three easy steps:
1. Apply oil to the whole body, head-to-toe. Traditionally, the hair and scalp are included, but this is not practical unless there is a shower on site or clients are happy to return home in a towel turban.
2. Warm the client head-to-toe using one of the following options: steam tent, sauna, sun bath, hot herbal bath, or wrap and heat lamp.
3. Dust and polish the body with a warmed ubtan, a blend of flour, herbs, and flower petal powders.
Abhyanga is very much an oily business and, because the goal of the treatment is to nourish the skin, the quality and type of oil used is very important. Whenever possible, use cold-pressed, organic oils, as they are loaded with nutrients and contain fewer toxic residues. Sesame oil is the most widely used oil for abyanga and has the reputation of being quickly absorbed into the skin, travelling to lubricate the deepest part the joints in just 20 minutes. Other oils, such as sunflower, almond, jojoba, argan, coconut, olive, or mustard seed oils, may be used to good effect. These base oils may be matched to body type or quality of the season; for example, warming oils can be used for colder bodies and chilly seasons and cooling oils can be used to please and soothe hot skin or during summer months. In India, abhyanga oils are cooked herbal oils. In the west, the treatment uses herbal oils, but also aromatherapy blends. The oil is applied in the opposite direction of hair growth with repetitive strokes to allow as much oil as possible to penetrate the skin. Various massage strokes are sometimes used by those trained, but this repetitive oiling of the skin to improve its luster and promote the health of tissues that support the skin is definitely in the realm of aesthetics, too.
Next, warmth is applied to help the oil penetrate even more deeply, which is said to liquefy and transport toxins out of the skin and underlying tissues. An herbal steam tent or box is the most traditional method, but any means professionals have to keep the client’s skin really warm works. It might be as simple as a five-minute wrap in a heavy blanket.
The third step is one used less frequently, but is vital and takes the whole experience to the next level. Professionals can use a warmed ubtan powder to dust all over the client’s skin. The ubtan is then gently rubbed on the skin to polish it and improve circulation. The dry flowers and herbs in the ubtan act like tiny sponges soaking up the oil that is still sitting on the skin’s surface and even sucking oil from the pores, locking in the toxins that have traveled in the oil. The result is that the skin becomes amazingly soft and smooth and the body feels light, energized, deeply clean, and refreshed. The toxins are prevented from being reabsorbed so the client never feels heavy, dull, or achy after a treatment.
As the aesthetics industry has finally recognized the benefits of oil for the face, let’s go the distance and discover oil for full body skin care in the tradition of abhyanga.