Q+A: What Is Abhyanga and Why Is It Good for Me?

Abhyanga means “self-massage with oil,” and according to ancient tradition, it is one of our greatest allies for total health.

Q: I’ve heard about the Ayurvedic practice of self-massage (Abhyanga). Why is this good for me and how do I do it?

A: Abhyanga means “self-massage with oil,” and according to ancient tradition, it is one of our greatest allies for total health. Doing a daily practice of self-massage nourishes and soothes the nervous system, boosts lymphatic detoxification, improves circulation, nourishes the skin, and promotes overall mind-body balance.

The word for oil in Sanskrit is sneha — which translates to “love” or “affection.” The essence of a plant is its oil, just as the essence of who we are is love. If we keep extracting something down to its purest essence, what remains is love. When you massage your body with oil, you are literally coating it with a layer of affection, as well as a healing touch. Western science supports this fact, showing that when we receive massage, we release a cascade of feel-good hormones into our bloodstream. Research shows that massage can also decrease the stress hormone, cortisol.

How to do abhyanga:
1. Choose an oil. Generally, people with dry skin and a tendency to “feel cold” are healed and nourished by sesame oil. People who run warm and have oily/rosy skin are cooled and nourished by coconut and sunflower oil. People with thick, soft, slightly moist skin who usually don’t feel either too warm or too cold are enlivened by sunflower or calendula-infused oil.

2. Warm your oil. You can simply place the glass bottle of oil directly in your bathroom sink. Close the drain and fill with the hottest water possible. Allow it to sit for at least 10 minutes before applying to the body.

3. Remove all clothing and jewelry. Sit on an old towel so as not to make a mess.

4. Start at the top of the head and pour the oil directly onto the crown. If you are doing this before work and do not want an oily head for the rest of the day, you can skip this part and save it for a day when you do not need to be presentable. That said, Ayurvedic tradition places heavy emphasis on massaging the head and neck. Of the 107 energetic points of the body (called marmas), 37 are located on the head and neck.

5. Continue onto the face and the rest of the body. On the arms and legs, use back-and-forth strokes. On the joints, use circular strokes. On the belly, use circular strokes in a clockwise motion (if you are looking down at your belly), as this is the direction in which our long intestine moves and will stimulate proper digestion.

6. Try to spend 15-20 minutes massaging your body, spending time on the parts of your body you “don’t like.” Then, let the oil soak into your skin for at least 20 minutes.

7. After 20 minutes, rub off any excess oil with your oil towel, and then take a shower. Showering causes the pores to open, allowing the herbal oil to penetrate even deeper into the skin. You do not need to soap off the oil. The body will most likely absorb it all, especially if you are quite dry.

Katie Silcox is the author of the upcoming book, “Healthy, Happy, Sexy – Ayurveda Wisdom for Modern Women.” She’s a vinyasa yoga teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, contributor to Yoga Journal, and a senior teacher within the Sri-Vidya ParaYoga lineage under Yogarupa Rod Stryker.