Ayurveda, the most ancient of healing arts, would say it is because we are basically in a spin with little to no stillness at the core of our being. This spin breaks the connection between mind and body so we are left feeling clueless about how to help ourselves and our bodies cannot heal or – at the very least – maintain well. That being the case, how do we find this inner calm? In Ayurveda the answer is simple, delightful, and luxurious – oil massage. Oil massage is part of snehana, lubricating the body inside and out. Apart most usually called abhyanga.
Abhyanga (whether given to ourselves as self-massage or received from one, two, or more therapists) is a fantastic way to reconnect with our body, mind, and deepest inner being. All the great Ayurvedic physicians agree that oil massage has tremendous benefits, having the potential to promote longevity – improving both quality and length of life. This is why oil, and plenty of, is such an important element in most Ayurvedic spa treatments. Abyhyanga literally means rubbing the limbs. It also has been translated as touching with love. My teacher, Dr. Vasant Lad, says, "Love is oily." Indeed, it is the oil that makes the connection between the hands giving the massage and the body receiving the massage. The very medium through which loving intention is transmitted. But oil can also be like liquid fire, pure calorific energy that can banish cold and damp transforming body and mind and keeping alive that inner spark.
Why oil? Using Ayurvedic terms it is because oil is the perfect antidote to vata. Vata is the wind – like subtle energy in our body – that is the power behind that inner spin. If allowed to rage like a tornado, it will disrupt all normal, peaceful functioning of body and mind. This disruption not only hinders healing, but is considered to be the root cause of premature aging and all its accompanying problems – pain, stiffness, emotional stress, poor memory, insomnia, problems with sight, hearing, taste, dryness inside and out, and generally less zest for life.
Of course regular professional massage is wonderful, but you can get very similar benefits from giving yourself oil massage. For many that follow an Ayurvedic lifestyle daily abhyanga, applying oil from head to toe before a warm shower is part of their Dinacharya (daily routine).
Oil massage is the way to mature gracefully – rather than age painfully on many levels. For the body, it helps by:
- Improving the circulation of blood and lymph so tissues. This means the whole body is better nourished and cleansed so it can look and feel more youthful.
- Relieving pain and swelling in the body by warming the subtle energy channels, which then expand allowing obstructions to clear and toxins cause all types of diseases to move out.
- Lubricating tissues inside and out, lubricating the joints and organ linings. This keeps movement more free and graceful, the digestive tract more efficient, and all linings well lubricated.
- Softening the skin, preventing dryness, and creating a healthy radiance and inner glow.
Maintaining a suppleness and ease of motion in muscles and connective tissue by preventing fibrous buildup caused
- Making the body feel light, vital, and strong. Activity remains a joy and the body does not just rest and rust.
Keeping all the senses sharper, which helps communication and participation flowing.
- Supporting the immune system.
- Calming the nervous system so we are less easily overwhelmed.
- Improving physical stamina and virility.
- Helping relaxation and restorative sleep.
- More subtly making an invisible film that protects against extremes of climate, environmental pollution, and even sudden changes in air pressure. This is why oil massage before or after air travel is a perfect antidote for jet lag.
For the mind, oil massage is obviously a calming and enjoyable process but it can also:
- Improve intelligence, wit, memory, and self-confidence.
- Banish fatigue, especially that caused by stress.
- Give us the clarity to make better lifestyle choices.
On the more subtle level, oil massage helps:
- Balance all three subtle body energies – vata, pitta, and kapha.
- Move prana (life force) in both the physical and energetic sheaths of the body.
- Opening nadis, the channel in which life force flows.
- Awaken consciousness in the chakra and brain centers.
The goal here is not only longevity, but for everyone getting oil massage to find their full potential and feel awake and alive in every cell; to have both the subtle body and system and physical body connect more fully and for each and every one to have perfect physical, mental and spiritual health.
Here in the West, we tend to measure success by the amount and quality of our possessions. In the East, traditionally life was not measured by material wealth or even political power, but by an individual's level of contentment. In these changing times, it may serve all of us to remember we need good health and a stable mind if contentment is our goal and there is nothing as simple and luxurious to take us there than oil from head to toe. Oils can be used alone or infused with herbs, spices or essential oils. In many parts of the world, herbal oils would be brewed for an individual client. Here in the West, we tend to rely on fewer basic, standard formulations.
The Purity of the Oil
The skin drinks in a certain amount of the oil in any massage. As it is absorbed, oil should be thought of as nourishment and selected with the same care as our food. Just like food, the better quality the oil, the more nutrients and less toxins it will contain. Cold pressed organic oils are the best choice. Check that essential oils or herbs added to the main base oils are organic or wild crafted from clean environments. These will be more energetic potent and smell more enlivening than poorer quality or synthetic alternatives. Avoid mineral and baby oils they block the skin's pores and stop the skin from breathing well and the body getting ample oxygen. This will make clients feel heavy and the mind dull. Lotions are convenient but they do not have the same benefits as oil.
Quality of the Oil
Oils are a type of nourishment, each having their own energetic qualities. Just as a hearty, hot soup works in winter to warm and satisfy and a smoothie is delightful on a summer's day to cool and refresh, there are oils that are warm and oils that are cool, making them the best balance for each season or particular weather conditions. Warming oils include sesame, almond, and mustard seed. If a client has a nut allergy, nut oils may bother them. Cooling oils include coconut, sunflower, and ghee.
Body Type of the Client
Vata clients that are thin, dry skinned, sensitive cold, or generally stressed and over-talkative do well with warming heavier oils such as sesame, castor, almond, mustard, avocado, and rose hip seed. Pitta clients that have a more athletic build, get hot and bothered easily, and tend to be most oil phobic do well with light amounts of coconut, sunflower, safflower, or jojoba. Kapha clients that are more full-bodied, easy going, quiet, or sleepy benefit from mustard seed or sesame oils.
Oils for Specific Conditions
These are a few standard Ayurvedic oils that are new to the West, but you may find in a spa setting. Essential oil blends are wonderful, but too numerous to list here.
- AMLA – rich in vitamin C, this oil has traditionally been used for hair and scalp
- ASHWANHANDA – strengthening and rejuvenating
- BHRINGARAJ – prevent premature graying of the hair and help with a better quality of sleep
- BRAHMI – calms and cools the body and mind, nourishing the nervous system, and deepening meditation
- MAHANARAYAN – rheumatic joints; Please do not use plain oils on inflamed joints as they can cause more irritation.
- NEEM – antibacterial and anti-fungal; it can be useful in chronic skin conditions
- POMEGRANATE - breast tenderness and health
Whatever the type of oil, the intention of the person applying it is very important. Though Ayurveda has hundreds of massage techniques, it is believed that the heart felt feeling and connection of the therapist to their client and the inner peace that this creates for the client is the most essential element in re-establishing that inner peace and bringing the client back to full health.
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.