Self-massage is a pleasurable way to show yourself love and a great practice for taking care of the mind and body. When done regularly, oil-based, self-massage helps relieve stress and is beneficial for maintaining the health of our nervous system. In our recent chit-chaat with Ayurveda Lifestyle Counselor, Aparna Khanolkar, we talk about the benefits and best practices of Ayurveda’s ancient ritual of self-massage. Discussing what, when, why and how of anointing the body with warm oils and the mental and physical benefits of this self-care ritual.
Q & A with Aparna Khanolkar
Ayurveda Lifestyle Counselor
What is Abhyanga or Self-Massage
Abhyanga (Sanskrit for self-massage with herbal oil) is an ancient ritual. It is based on the knowledge that anointing the body balances doshas creates an experience of rejuvenation and rest. Snehana or the application of oil to the body is also another term for love. Applying oil to the body is like an act of love, it creates a sense of nurturance and comfort in the body. In our modern world, every day the body and nervous system absorb stress. While meditation is a great buffer for mental stress, self-massage with oil is a buffer for the body and nervous system, known to release oxytocin.
What are the benefits of oil-based self-massages?
Self-massage is to the body what meditation is to the mind. Meditation awakens consciousness. Ayurvedic doctors knew thousands of years ago that one of the most powerful ways to nourish the nervous system is through the applying oil on the skin. Oiling the body in Ayurveda is known to release stress, promote a sense of steadiness and helping ground nervous energy. Encouraging a state of deep relaxation and rejuvenation. Other benefits include glowing skin, keep the body warm through improved circulation, lymphatic drainage, detoxing the skin of any impurities, better sleep, and relief from stiff achy joints and muscle pain.
One of the most important tenets of mind-body medicine is that a soft mind leads to a supple body. A supple body keeps the mind flexible as well. Anointing the body with warm oils is itself a way to break down the rigidity of the mind. It creates a natural state of self-acceptance, love, and allows for the blossoming of greater inner and outer beauty.
How does oil help to calm the nervous system?
With regular application of warm oil to the skin, the oil will make its way to the nerve endings. When the nerve endings absorb the oil, it gives one the feeling of deep rest, warmth and a feeling of stability. Bringing with it contentment and self-acceptance. For this reason, it is vital to practice self-massage regularly.
How often should one practice self-massage?
The more regular the practice of self-massage, the more one benefits. Daily self-massage is ideal, but may not always be possible. Aiming for 3-4 days a week is a good place to start. Focusing on days when you feel especially stressed or fatigued. Since the oil has been metabolized by the skin, the best time to perform a self-massage is during the daytime hours, prior to showering. Avoid self-massage at night when metabolism is slow or during menstruation, fever or other illness and immediately after surgery.
Are some oils better than others for self-massage?
Using oils based on one’s constitution is recommended to receive the optimal benefits. A thick, warming oil such as unrefined sesame is beneficial for vata constitutions or imbalances. A cooling, light oil like coconut or olive oil is beneficial for pitta constitutions or imbalances. And a light, heating oil such as sesame, corn or mustard oils are best for kapha constitutions to balance the dosha’s heavy and damp qualities. Although, non-herbal oils are beneficial, for maximum benefit, I recommend using oils infused with herbal intelligence.
What are the benefits of using an herbal oil?
Ayurveda has known for thousands of years that plant intelligence is powerful medicine for the body and mind. We can take in plant intelligence in various ways, such as tinctures, tablets, teas AND also via herbalized oils. Making an herbal oil is an art and a science. It takes about 5-6 hours to prepare one gallon of herb-infused oil. A self-massage is a wonderful way to carry the healing qualities of herbs into the seven tissues, or dhatus, as they are referred to in Ayurveda. Depending on the formulation, herbal oils can have a pacifying stimulating or cleansing effect.
Should I choose the oil based on the season or the personal constitution or an imbalance?
First soothe the dosha, or imbalance, and then consider the season. For example, if you suffer from a pitta imbalance, use cooling oils for your abhyanga. If your doshas seem balanced, use oils that pacify the dosha predominant during a particular season. In the late fall and early winter, opt to soothe vata dosha. From late spring, all of summer into early fall, choose pitta pacifying oils. During the coldest part of winter and early spring, opt for kapha pacifying oils.
Do I have to warm the oil prior to application?
For maximum absorption, I recommend applying warm oil. The pores of the skin open when anything warm is applied. It is through the absorption of the oil on the skin that the nerve endings are able to drink in the oil. Therefore, it is crucial for the oil to be warm. Also, if the oil is cold, it remains on the skin as a sticky residue even after a shower. Oil can be warmed on a stove top in a small pot or it can be warmed in small a copper warmer.
Once I apply the oil, how long before I can take a shower or bath?
After applying oil on the body, it is best to wait for 15-20 minutes before taking a bath or shower. This allows for full absorption.
Is there a particular time of day to do abhyanga?
Ideally, this ritual would be performed in the morning. If your schedule does not permit a morning self-massage, pick a different time, but avoid night time, when the metabolic rate is slow. Do your best to stick to the same general time frame and always prior to eating a meal.
How long before I see the benefits?
The very first time you do an abhyanga you will experience a soothing and nurtured feeling. Some people may even experience some fatigue as the nervous system may release old stresses. However, over time, an abhyanga will rejuvenate and restore your energy immediately. You will feel relaxed and ready for life. Your digestive system may feel more balanced and sleep may come easily.
“The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much, even if subjected to accidental injuries or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts, and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age.” — Charaka Samhita: Sutrasthana: V: 88-89
Aparna Khanolkar is an Ayurveda Lifestyle Counselor and creator of Ishvari, an ayurvedic product line. A former chef at the Chopra Center, she also works with clients privately for wellness, nutrition, and emotional healing.