Abhyanga (pronounced Abbey Unger – as in younger) is a Sanskrit word. Abhy means "to rub" and anga means "limbs". Abhyanga is, just as it says, rubbing oil into the skin from head to toe. Fundamentally it is as simple as that. There are many translations of the word beyond this purely literal one, some more engaging than others. Here are a brief collection from the one found in a classic texts to something you might find in a spa menu.
Often this technique is presented beautifully in the spa, almost like a therapeutic dance performed by one or multiple massage therapists using a wide variety of exotic herbal or essential oils. But like many Ayurvedic techniques, it is just as beneficial, if not more, to do at home for yourself on a regular basis. After all, the therapeutic basis of the treatment comes primarily from oiling the skin. The instructions for home care Abhyanga are simple. Use the oil directly from the bottle. In cooler weather, or when you want the oil to penetrate the skin more quickly, warm the oil so it is comfortable to the touch. Work the oil in thoroughly around all the joints and use firm friction over the long bones of the arms and legs. The goal is to cover every inch of the skin and push as much oil into the body as will be absorbed in 20 minutes. Rest and allow the oil to penetrate, apply an ubtan (herbal dusting powder), and shower. It is better not to use soap and you will then find body lotion unnecessary.
Abhyanga has been practiced for thousands of years in India as the primary technique to support health, beauty and longevity. Traditionally, it was a family affair with each generation participating. Women would massage themselves and one another; mothers would massage their babies and husbands; husbands would massage their wives. Oil was applied and rest was taken while wrapped up warm or laying in the sun. Sometimes an herbal powder would be dusted on the body. Mud and herbs could be applied in a fine paste before a bath or shower. Various powders are sold as various types of "ubtans" today.
Oils to Use
We are also lucky to many wonderful organic herbal, essential oil blends or simple base oils available in most spas and whole food stores. The main oil of choice is cold pressed organic sesame oil. Coconut or sunflower can be used in hot weather or mustard oil when it is really cold.
Specialized herbal and essential oil blends are available that match different body types. They often go by their Ayurvedic names: VATA (blends for the slender, more nervous individual or the frequent traveler), PITTA (blends for the active, type "A" personality), and KAPHA (blends for the curvy, more easygoing characters). A blend made with pomegranate rind and fragranced with a traditional scent of amber is available to beautify the breasts and mahanarayana oil (an oil containing many different Indian herbs) to ease joint and muscle pain. Like with all cosmetic selections you can go more basic or really high end, but in the end the story is the same. You have to follow the routine to see the results. The more often you do Abhyanga for yourself, the quicker you will see and feel the difference. Many people do it daily, while others do it one to three times a week. You can do it at any time. It is also particularly helpful to offset jetlag.
How Self-Abhyanga Benefits Your Body
Even if you practice self-abhyanga once a week, you will gradually see beneficial changes that might include any of the following:
- Your body feels trimmer, firmer and stronger; ideal weight is more easily achieved.
- Your skin becomes even in tone, smells fragrant, looks well hydrated with fewer or less deep lines and wrinkles and feels soft and pleasing to the touch.
- Your joints move more easily and no longer click or pop. You feel more flexible, more energetic and have less pain or stiffness.
- You can work harder and exercise longer without fatigue, stress or discomfort.
- Your body is more resistant to injury and strenuous physical work; the body heals faster.
- Your posture is better, movement more confident and younger looking.
- Your immune, nervous and digestive systems become stronger.
- Your body flushes out toxins more thoroughly and more regularly.
- All your senses are clearer.
- Your circulation is improved.
- Your hair grows stronger.
How Self-Abhyanga Benefits Your Mind
Looking great is wonderful but feeling great is an even bigger plus. You may experience positive changes in mood even before you see a younger looking body.
- Your mind feels a sense of comfort, which produces a state of relaxed or restful alertness and openness.
- You have a better quality of sleep, fall asleep easier and get back to sleep after waking more easily.
- You feel clearer about your life purpose and have better self-esteem.
- You feel less anxious.
- Emotionally you feel more balanced and generally happier.
- You feel more connected, less isolates or lonely.
How does a simple oil massage achieve so much? The answer is the quality and properties of the oil. These results are not achievable with synthetic oils or even organic lotions. Oils, especially sesame oil, are capable of penetrating the skin and muscle tissue, as well as getting to the deepest articulating surfaces of the joints and inner lining of the digestive tract in just 20 minutes. If herbal or essential oils are part of the blend, they literally hitch a ride and travel into the body with the oil. Oil in the joints works just like oiling a rusty gate; it makes all movements smoother, less heat is produced, has less inflammation and greater ease of motion. In the digestive tract oil, lines the gut like oil lining a cake pan and allows toxins and wastes to flow out both more freely and more thoroughly. Any engineer will tell you an engine that is well greased and runs clean is going look and feel good for a long time. Your body works in just the same way!
Though this process is gentle and pleasurable, the effects run deep and for this reason the precautions should be taken seriously. Do not give yourself or others Abhyanga:
- Over swollen, painful areas or masses on the body, without the knowledge and consent of your healthcare practitioner.Over rheumatoid arthritic joints, unless you are using medicated herbal or aromatherapy oils therapeutically designed for this condition. Plain oil of any kind can aggravate the condition.
- Over infected or broken skin and definitely not over stitches or tender skin after a peel.
- When there is high toxicity in the body. This is indicated by a thick, white coating on the tongue, great physical discomfort, bad body odor or acute illness such as acute fever, chills or flu.
- During acute indigestion – abdominal pain of gas or directly after taking laxative.
- During the menstrual cycle. Some women do not like to stop Self-Abhyanga during their cycle. If you chose to do it during your cycle, it is best to only apply the oil gently and for only about five minutes. This is a natural time of cleansing and not a time to give the body even more work to do.
- During pregnancy, with the exception of oil on the belly to help prevent stretch marks.
- When you have a serious medical condition and do not have the permission of your healthcare provider.
At Home Treatment
Abhyanga is by nature an oily business. Without planning it can quickly feel too messy to do with the regularity needed for the best results. Originally, Self-Abhyanga would have been done in a garden or marble bath house designed for the job. In the modern world, it is more likely you will be in the bathroom. Here are a few tips we have learned to keep the cleanup just as quick and easy as the massage itself:
- Keep one towel for sitting on when you apply the oil and one that you use only for drying off after your shower. Better these are old towels as they will get oily and without professional laundry service they will gradually be spoiled.
- After you have rinsed off, put a generous squirt of dish soap on the tub or shower floor. Use a floor mop as you let the shower flow over it and wash everything down the drain. This will help keep your drains clear. Use an environmentally friendly drain cleaner once a month if you do Self- Abhyanga daily.
- If you find that more often the time for Self-Abhyanga is in the evening, wear a special set of natural fiber nightclothes for at least an hour after your shower. It seems like there are always little oily nooks that escape the shower and towel. If you choose to leave your hair oily overnight, cover your pillow with a plastic bag and towel.
- Oily towels should be dried outside or on low heat. There have been cases where oily linens have caught fire, so use the drier only when home and awake.
A certified Ayurvedic Lifestyle Counselor, Melanie Sachs' skill as a healer and teacher have made her sought after by some of the world's leading spas and schools of beauty. Her book, Ayurvedic Beauty Care (Lotus Light Publications), is considered a must for those interested in the expanding field of natural and conscious beauty and body care. Sachs is dedicated to bringing the timeless wisdom of Ayurveda to the West. She has especially focused her attention on the needs of women in these times when traditional female roles are expanding. Although certainly exciting, such changes in women's roles and activity create additional stresses and demands, for which Ayurveda offers nurturing, supportive solutions.