From deflated to vitalised (body and soul) in under 20 minutes.
A definitive guide to Abhyanga (self-massage with oil). Discover how to unlock all the benefits of this practice for yourself. And in the process, learn why it has held its ground as an essential wellness technique for centuries.
Can you spare 10-20 minutes for yourself?
It doesn't seem like a big ask. But it can be surprisingly tricky to carve out a few precious minutes of you-time between work, household chores, and the kids. Self-massage can seem like a luxury, with constant demands for your attention coming from all directions.
Yet you know, taking care of yourself first allows you to care for others more effectively. And while Abhyanga (the Āyurvedic technique of anointing one’s body with warm oil) may initially seem cumbersome, you'll soon discover how easily it fits into your lifestyle, without disruption.
Indeed, I would go as far as to say it is one of the simplest ways to invite greater well-being into your everyday routine. And it's a practice you can stick to without needing to hunt for specific tools or make special appointments.
If that sounds good to you, let's go ahead and get into all things Abhyanga. In this post, we'll look at:
What Āyurvedic self-massage is all about
The benefits Abhyanga offers you
How to practice warm-oil self-massage (mess-free)
Essential Abhyanga tips
Incorporating Abhyanga into your life with ease
What Is Abhyanga / Āyurvedic Self-Massage?
Self-care through oil-based massage (Abhyanga) is a practice highly-recommended by Āyurvedic teachings. While we in the West usually think of massage as an indulgent spa treatment, in India it is a familiar practice for people of all ages, including children. Check out my Instagram post on infant massages here.
When utilised daily, Abhyanga forms part of your dinacharya — a daily routine promoting health and longevity. Think of it like brushing your teeth every morning — a ritual that maintains your dental hygiene and guards against decay.
In much the same way, anointing your body with oil safeguards against diseases by placating any aggravated doshas. The oils themselves (I recommend organic ones) are nourishing and hold healing properties. Not only do they provide hydration to your skin, but they carry nutrients deeper into your body as the oil is absorbed.
The act of the massage itself is a sensual practice. It heightens your sense of touch and promotes the natural flow of prana (vital energy) throughout your body. In the process, you embrace self-care and ground yourself in self-love.
Benefits Of Abhyanga
When strapped for time, a single, holistic practice is better than needing multiple rituals to target different areas individually. That's one of the reasons Abhyanga is a winner in my book. Its well-being effects are widespread and far-reaching. Here are just some of the many results you can expect:
Physical Health Benefits Of Abhyanga
Hydrates and nourishes your skin, optimising its ability to serve as a protective barrier and keep out germs
Improves skin texture and elasticity — healthy skin glow? Yes, please!
Helps tone your muscles, lubricate your joints and promotes flexibility for improved physiology (a fitter you is always a plus)
Helps remove toxins by dislodging impurities trapped in the soft tissues of your body (no one wants those nasties hanging around, right?)
Boosts blood circulation, allowing the oil's nutrients seeping in through your pores to go deeper into your body (food isn't your only source of nutrition)
Promotes metabolism for increased energy, not only boosting your body's internal processes but also keeping you going for longer — perfect when you have a zillion things to get done (and want to ward off fatigue)
Improves clarity of sight (physical and mental) — maybe this is how Superman developed his X-ray vision 😉
Aids longevity, by reducing the effects of ageing; and annihilates the effects of an aggravated Vata
Mental Health Benefits Of Abhyanga
De-stresses and calms while removing tension so you can approach your day without the anxiety of a busy bee
Brings clarity and focus, enabling you to conquer your to-do list
Grounds you by relieving stress, so you do not feel as exhausted and burdened by unhelpful thoughts
Helps you wind down at the end of the day, meaning you can get a better night's sleep
Spiritual Health Benefits Of Abhyanga
Allows you to break away from busy work to focus inwards — it's an opportunity to check in with yourself and get in tune with your core being
The physical act of self-massage can ease you into a space of mindfulness and meditation (without the challenge of having to shut down those normally distracting thoughts)
Encourages you to accept yourself through self-love and understanding
Ushers in a sense of peace and connectedness — mind, body and soul
Recharges your spiritual energy, which may be zapped when your focus is primarily on others
With so many benefits, it's clear that self-massage is well worth a try. So how exactly can you perform Abhyanga? Keep reading to find out.
How To Perform Abhyanga (Minus The Mess)
Okay, so you're ready to take the plunge. That's fantastic.
It may feel weird at first. But honestly, it's easier than you think.
While traditionally, Abhyanga is performed in the morning (to rid your body of toxins accumulated from the day before), don’t stress if you can’t add it to your start-of-day routine. After your gym workout or 2-3 hours before bedtime works just as well, to reap the same rewards. It should, however, only be performed on an empty stomach.
Pour about 50-100ml of oil (see below on which oils work best) into a glass/steel bowl. The quantity varies per person, but the amount used should be enough so that your hands can easily glide along your body and not drag.
Place the bowl in a pan of hot water. This will heat the oil. Alternatively, use a small electric baby bottle warmer or a cosmetic bain marie to heat the oil.
Lay down an old towel (one you don't mind getting oil on) on the floor in a comfortably warm room free of drafts. Keep another, small, old towel close by on hand. You can also do Abhyanga in your shower, if it can be easily cleaned.
Option - Keep an old pair of socks and some clothes you don’t mind getting dirty on hand (if you don’t want be naked while waiting for your skin to absorb the oil).
Bring the heated oil into your chosen room. Strip down and begin the self-massage.
How To Do Abhyanga (15-20 minutes)
Stand or sit on the towel you laid down.
Take some oil into your palms and massage it all over your body.
Start with your extremities, moving from your ankles, up your calves and thighs. Then move to your hands (fingers and palms) and work up your forearms, arms, shoulders and armpits. Replenish the oil in your hands as needed. Use long up and down strokes on the limbs and circular strokes on the joints.
Then massage the sides and back of your torso, using long downward strokes for your lower back and circular motions on your hips and butt.
Next up are your chest and abdomen. Work with circular motions in this area. Massage your abdomen in clockwise circular motions. Follow the path of the large intestine; moving up on the right side, then across, then down on the left side.
Move on to your face. Work in circular motions, from your forehead down to your nose, cheeks and chin. Don't forget your ears.
Travel down to your neck. Apply long, firm strokes here.
To end, massage the soles of your feet and work on all areas including your toes and heels. Optional: pop on some old socks straight after, to avoid slipping.
Give your skin time to absorb the oil (10-20 minutes, depending on how much time you have available). If you want, slip on a bathrobe or yoga gear. This is a great time for some breathing exercises, or mild yoga.
After the waiting period, carefully step into your shower (the oil on your feet will be slippery, so definitely take it slow — no acrobatics, please).
Enjoy a nice warm shower, This will further open up your pores, allowing the oil's nutrients to seep in. Avoid using too much soap. Leaving a little residual oil is extra nourishing.
Dry off using another old towel.
To Avoid An Oily Mess
After the massage wash your hands with warm water, using a little soap if required. So that your hands are oil free before you touch anything.
Have a set of towels just for Abhyanga. Those fancy, luxury ones won't appreciate the oil treatment 😉. Also, wash your Abhyanga towels separately, using hot water to remove the residual oil.
Use hot water to wash down your shower or bathtub. And while you're at it, pour some dishwashing liquid down the drain, too, to avoid oil build-up in your plumbing.
It may sound a bit too cumbersome if you've never tried Abhyanga before. Before you dismiss it entirely, however, I encourage you to give it a go. Yes, there is a little bit of effort involved. But even a bubble bath means greasing up the tub and then cleaning up after. It's worth it in the end, though, right?
On that note, here are my recommendations on getting the most out of your self-massage, especially if you're attempting it for the first time.
Key Abhyanga Tips For First-Timers
Choose The Best Oil For You
In Āyurveda, the ingredients used in your self-care depend on your unique constitution (prakriti). Therefore, if you are:
Vāta dominant - untoasted sesame or a herbal oil specific for Vata. Feel free to be generous with how much oil you use, since your body naturally tends to be dry.
Pitta dominant - use sunflower, coconut oil or a herbal oil specific for Pitta. Do not use too much oil.
Kapha dominant - opt for sesame, mustard or a herbal oil specific for Kapha. Use very little oil since the skin is naturally oily/well-nourished.
Your choice of oil will also depend on whether your doshas are balanced or imbalanced. You will want to select one that soothes whichever dosha is aggravated.
Use untoasted, cold-pressed sesame oil if you are new to Āyurveda or unsure about your current state (vikriti). It’s ideal because it liquifies Āma during Abhyanga, thereby allowing toxins to leave your body rapidly.
Sesame oil works for all three dosha types and can be used throughout the year (except in summer if you have a high Pitta). But a chat with an Āyurvedic practitioner will help you identify the best oil for you. Hit me up for a FREE consult if you're keen.
Use Warm, Not Hot Oil
You don't want to burn your skin or cook the oil. It should be soothingly warm to the touch. Fun fact — warm oil is better for skin penetration and absorption.
Like with the type, the best temperature for your oil will depend on your constitution. Vāta-dominant individuals will prefer warmer temperatures than those with a high Pitta. Meanwhile, Kapha-dominant individuals will need less oil than other dosha types.
When To Skip Abhyanga
While the amazing results of oil-massage can be hard to resist, there are times when it’s best to be avoided. Āyurvedic advice is to forgo Abhyanga when you:
Are suffering from vitiation of the Kapha dosha,
Have an acute fever, a cough, cold, flu or chills
Have a low Agni (digestive fire)
Are severely exhausted, have high sun exposure or have participated in strenuous exercise (eg. a marathon)
Have just eaten or after Panchakarma ( your ayurvedic practitioner will confirm if you should do abhyanga or not)
Have wounds or skin issues like inflammation or rashes
Are pregnant, particularly during the first trimester (check with your ayurvedic practitioner)
Don't Rush, Enjoy The Process
Bottom line, this is you-time. The 5-15 minutes you spend on Abhyanga are for YOUR health, YOUR well-being, YOUR peace of mind. I've bolded, italicised and underlined for a reason. YOU are the only being that matters in the moment. So:
put your phone on silent,
close the door,
light a candle
play some music,
switch off from the world.
Embrace this sensual experience. Breathe in the aroma of the oil. Feel each loving stroke as you massage away the tension and invite in wellness.
You have enough tasks that require speed and efficiency. This is not one of them. Enjoy the opportunity to slow down, to have a singular focus and re-centre yourself.
Keep your movements strong to relax your muscles and relish the sensation. Be sure to maintain a relative level of briskness to generate additional heat. This will help the oil penetrate deeper and allow you to luxuriate in nourishment
Nourish and rejuvenate.
You are worth it.
How To Add Abhyanga Into Your Busy Lifestyle With Ease
I'm a big believer in gradual change. You don't have to go from 0 to 100. Incremental additions and adjustments are always more conducive to long-term success simply because they are easier to fit into your existing routines.
Abhyanga is one of these small adjustments you can use to add greater wellness to your life. To help it stick, my advice is to let it blend into your current lifestyle rather than make it something bigger than it has to be. In other words, make it work for you.
I recommend self-massage as a daily practice. But starting with 1-2 times a week is just as fine. Besides, you can always increase the frequency from there.
Similarly, while mornings are said to be the best time for Abhyanga, fit it into your day where you can. For instance, if you're a Mum, you may find the morning too chaotic. Getting the kids dressed and started on their day is hectic enough. So, save your self-massage for when the kids are at school, or save it for the evening.
Is the idea of getting all greased up putting you off? Start light — use small amounts of oil till you build up the feel for it.
No time for a full-body session? Focus on your lower body (lower back, hips, belly, legs and feet). It will still promote better health and allow you to invigorate your mental and spiritual self.
On that note, if you've made it this far, I am proud of you. It shows you are committed to improving your wellness. I understand how daunting it can be to try something new. Just so you know, I am cheering you on from afar and am always ready to answer your questions.