There us a lot of inaccurate information being circulated online in the West about the traditional Ayurvedic practice of Abhyanga, so we wanted to do a post to provide a traditional Ayurvedic perspective of the practice of the healing practice.
Pronounced somewhat like abh-yanga; not abi-yan-ga as it commonly mispronounced in the West. "A" is pronounced like "u" in the word cup. The word has three syllables and rhymes with the Sanskrit word ashtanga. Abhyanga is the name for oil massage in Ayurveda. It is recommended as a part of a person's daily self-care regimen along with bathing, brushing the teeth, exercise, and meditation. It can be practiced at home or by an Ayurvedic doctor as a part of other Ayurvedic treatments. As a part of Ayurvedic treatments, a much greater quantity of oil is used.
Oils recommended by Ayurveda are dosha specific base oils or specially prepared Ayurvedic herbal oils called tailams. The most commonly recommended base oils for the three doshas are sesame oil for vata, coconut oil for pitta, and mustard oil for kapha. A person's doshic balance may be discerned through pulse diagnosis by a qualified Ayurvedic doctor (online dosha tests are quite unreliable). Ayurvedic herbal oils are prepared by well-trained pharmacists, who in India receive over 1000 hours of formal training in the subject of Ayurvedic pharmacology. Base oils (usually sesame oil) are cooked for days along with specially prepared decoctions, herbal juices, herbal pastes and other ingredients according to complex recipes recorded in the Ayurvedic scriptures and often contain greater than 50 ingredients. These oils are somewhat similar to Western herbal infused oils, but they incorporate a much greater quantity of herbs and are hundreds of times more potent. Ayurveda does not tend to recommend essential oils for general use as they are irritating to the skin and agitating to the mind and have a tendency to aggravate both vata and pitta dosha, irrespective of the qualities of the herbs used to distill the oils, because essential oils isolate only the most fragrant and volatile portion of an herb. Many Western companies marketing "Ayurvedic" products have begun to add essential oils to formulas to meet Western expectations, but this is not in line with the traditional recommendations of Ayurveda.
For at home abhyanga, the recommended amount of oil would be about 1/4th cup to 1/2 cup according to dosha. The most oil is required for vata and the least for kapha. Potent Ayurvedic herbal oils are most often mixed into base oils at a suggested ratio of around 1 part herbal oil to about 5 parts base oil. Specific herbal oils may be used undiluted for the treatment of certain conditions. For daily use for healthy people, it is generally recommended that herbal oils be diluted in a base oil. Before application, the oils should be heated either over a flame or by placing oils in a container in hot water. The temperature of the oil should be different for the three doshas. Oil should be hottest for kapha, very warm for vata, and slightly warmer than body temperature for pitta. Heating the oil helps to ensure that it can be absorbed through the skin to nourish the muscles, tissues, organs and bones. Then the oils is applied all over the head, face and body and rubbed into the skin with rhythmic motions. Pressure should be greater and movements quicker for kapha, with moderate pressure and speed for pitta, and gentle pressure and slow speed for vata. Movements should incorporate long straight strokes along the limbs and back, with circular motions around the joints and belly. Clockwise motions will have a nourishing effect, whereas counter clockwise motions will have a cleansing effect. Motions from the feet upward will have an invigorating effect, whereas motions from the head downward will be grounding. Movements from the extremities toward the heart will be strengthening to the muscles and tissues, whereas motions from the heart toward the extremities will be purifying. The area around the heart is generally bypassed during abhyanga as oil is said to hurt the heart. Special attention is given to the feet which is called padabhyanga and the face and head which is called shiro abhyanga. Rubbing oil into the soles of the feet and the crown of the head is said to have a very calming and grounding effect and to ease stress and promote sound sleep. The process of applying oil should take somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes.
After abhyanga, it is important to take a warm shower to rinse away excess oil and to promote sweating. Sweating helps to release toxins in the skin and blood which otherwise would be trapped in by the oil. Traditionally soap is not used to rinse away excess oil, but herbal dusting powders. These powders often contain grain flours along with herbal powders which have a tendency to clog Western plumbing. In the West, it may be advisable to use soap instead to remove excess oil. It is recommended by Ayurveda to leave a fair amount of oil on the body which protects from wind, sun and extremes of temperature. This does shorten the life of clothing and linens but promotes longevity.
The benefits of abhyanga performed in this way are to increase strength and immunity; soften the skin and to help remove wrinkles and blemishes, ease stress, decrease the effects of aging, promote sound sleep, nourish the organs and tissues, facilitate proper elimination of waste and toxins, improve vision, stimulate circulation, ease pain in the body, and ease mental tension.
Ahyanga is contraindicated if a person has a cold or fever or is is acutely ill, over growths or rashes or cuts (without advise of an Ayurvedic doctor), when there is indigestion or ama (toxic accumulation), during menstruation or pregnancy, and during certain lunar phases. The subject is vast and it is difficult to cover its many intricacies in a brief writing. We have taught workshops on performing at home abhyanga for health in the past.