Benefits of Abhyanga (warm oil massage)
Have you ever experienced a blissful massage where all your worries and responsibilities melt away? Modern culture inspires lot’s of activity and stimulation which keeps us in constant motion, especially in our minds. This level of high paced activity is a relatively new phenomenon in terms of our time on this planet. The ancient medical science of Ayurveda developed a strategy thousands of years ago to help balance activity with relaxation and ensure longevity. The benefits of this simple practice can have profoundly positive effects on our current lifestyle. The practice is called abhyanga and is often translated as warm oil massage.
What is warm oil massage or abhyanga?
Abhyanga is traditionally done on oneself, although receiving a warm oil massage can provide even more of the benefits to the body and mind. The primary goal of the massage is not to work out knots in the muscles but to inspire a feeling of self love and to apply oil to the entire body. Traditionally sesame oil is used because it has been shown to have anti-carcinogenic effects, helpful in preventing melanoma and colon cancer (Salerna and Smith 1991 1992). Many Ayurvedic oils are prepared by infusing different herbs into the oil. Many of these herbs can bypass the digestive system and be absorbed trans-dermally (through the skin). Depending on the herbs they can affect muscle and joint pain or enhance relaxation. The benefits referred to later in this article do not include the medicinal qualities found in the herbs. Research has shown that even with a simple oil like sesame just the act of giving oneself a massage creates a reduction in oxidative stress (Kang et al 1998) (Sotnikova et al 2009). A written protocol for giving yourself a warm oil massage can be found here or watch the video by Banyan Botanicals.
Why do warm oil massage?
All of us deserve to feel nourished and satisfied. Sometimes in the busy pace of our lives and the striving towards success the feeling of contentment and satisfaction feels far away. Abhyanga while simple can be a remarkable help in this regard. Abhyanga puts us in touch with our body and helps to integrate body and mind. By doing this it facilitates self confidence and breeds self awareness. As this daily ritual becomes a steady part of our lives we can receive the benefit of contentment and satisfaction. Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself for a week and see what the benefits are.
How is warm oil massage different than therapeutic massage?
The primary differences between warm oil massage and therapeutic massage are the amount of oil that is used, the kind of oil used and the overall intention for the massage. In abhyanga it is customary to use up to four ounces of oil, which is more oil than a typical therapeutic massage where lotion or less than an ounce of oil is typical. The abundance of oil used in abhyanga helps to soften and moisturize the skin as well as the underlying muscles. Think of your skin and muscles like an old pair of leather boots, when you oil them they become soft and supple again as if they were brand new. The kind of oil used in abhyanga is also unique. Medicated or herbalized oils are different from other oils as herbs have been cooked into them until the oil takes on the medicinal compounds of the herbs. This gives these types of oils an earthy or medicinal scent. Therapeutic massage tends to use products scented with essential oils. Essential oils are derived from plants with aromatic compounds. Not all herbs have these compounds and so the medicated oils can include more herbs than therapeutic products. Lastly the primary intention for abhyanga is slightly different than therapeutic massage. Abhyanga is traditionally done as part of an ayurvedic cleansing therapy called Pancha Karma because it helps to mobilize metabolic pathways for improved detoxification. In addition to this it promotes the deep relaxation and sense of grounding needed when goes through deep healing. This takes place because the thick coating of oil on the body allows you to feel safe and insulated so that you can relax more deeply. Although therapeutic massage may also create these effects it is rarely the primary aim of the massage
What are the researched benefits of oil massage?
Ayurveda relies on qualitative medicine instead of biochemical medicine. The three qualities that warrant an abhyanga are dryness, cold and excess activity. When there is too much dryness we can use oil to lubricate that area of the body. When there is too much cold then heat is easily dissipating from the skin and so by applying oil to the skin we can create a barrier so that the body doesn’t get overly cold. By lubricating the channels then the flow starts to move into areas that need circulation. These basic rebalancing strategies then create the following benefits:
- Improved strength and stamina (Gupta et al 2000)
- Toning of the muscles and the whole physiology (Gupta et al 2000)
- Improved sleep quality and calm nerves (Gupta et al 2000)
- Improved cellular nutrition (Fernandez et al 1987)
- Improved softness and smoothness of the skin (Pabst, 1999)
- Improved fluid delivery and lubrication of the joints (Pabst, 1999)
- Reduced bacterial colonization (Pabst, 1999)
- Decreased bloodstream infection rates (Wallace, 1998)
- Improved circulation and thermoregulation (Iyengar, 1991)
- Improved mood and mental alertness (Sherman, et al 2010)
- Balanced blood pressure (Sook Ju et al, 2013)
Most of the research on oil massage comes from infant massage as it is a very common practice in most traditional cultures. This list is far reaching and the benefits cannot be understated for such a simple practice.
Lymphatic vessels move from the inside of the legs into the groin and low back region and from the inside of the arms and down the sides of the neck towards the heart. While massaging keep that in minds by starting at the hands and feet and then moving towards the heart.
Use mahanarayan oil diluted with sesame oil. If neither one is suitable, you may also try olive oil or coconut oil. The oil is heated slightly above body temperature by placing it in the sink with warm water. Ideally use circular strokes on the joints and long strokes on the limbs, massaging toward your heart. Move everything back towards the heart using the lymphatic drainage picture to the left as a guide.
Head massage: Start by massaging the head. Place a small amount of oil on the fingertips and palms and begin to massage the scalp vigorously. Then move onto the forehead, cheekbones, chin, nose, and around the eyes. Hold tender areas and breath.
Face and ears: Apply oil gently with the open part of the hand to your face and outer part of your ears.
Neck: Massage the front and back of your neck, and the upper part of your spine. Continue to use your open hand in a rubbing type of motion.
Body application: Apply a small amount of oil to your entire body and then proceed with the massage to each area of the body.
Arms, hands and fingers: Next massage your arms. The proper motion is back and forth, over your long bones, and circular over your joints. Massage both arms, including hands and fingers.
Chest and abdomen: Apply oil to the chest and abdomen. A very gentle circular motion should be used over your heart. Over the abdomen, follow the bowel pattern moving from right to left.
Back and spine: Massage the back and spine. There will be some area which you may have difficulty reaching, just do the best you can.
Legs and feet: Massage the legs, like the arms, use a back and forth motion over the long bones and circular over the joints. Massage the bottoms of the feet. The feet are considered especially important because they relate to the rest of the body. Use the open part of the hand and massage vigorously back and forth over the soles of the feet.
How to clean up?
As mentioned in the procedure it is best to follow your oil massage with a hot shower. Because of the amount of oil used, abhyanga can be hard on your towels and drains. Oil is hard to remove from fabric, so it is easiest to use an old towel to dry off with, as over time the oil may saturate the towel and give it a funny odor. In addition to this it can be beneficial to pour 1 cup of vinegar down the drain followed by a pot of boiling water at least once a month. This keeps the drains clear of oil.
These benefits are able to accrue within the physiology because the skin is the largest organ in the body and the trans-dermal absorption of the medicinal compounds in the oil are brought directly into the bloodstream where they create positive systemic changes. For the best results do abhyanga daily for 1 week and then decrease the amount to at least 3 times a week.
There are a multitude of high quality herbalized oils that can be used for your oil massage. Please try one of these companies:
Banyan Botanicals – High quality organic oils.
MAPI – If you order from MAPI use promotional code noahvolz10 to receive 10% off.
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