Make Nice with Your Body through Abhyanga

Image by Chelsea Shapouri

Image by Chelsea Shapouri

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 Vol. 1, V: 88-89

The practice of abyhanga, or self oil massage, has radically changed my relationship with my body. A relationship that was pretty unhealthy from puberty on, me always wanting more (or less) or what my body had to offer. A body that I had taken through diets and extreme exercise routines. A body that I held resentment for most days and criticized regularly.

When I was introduced to this practice I was coming from a place of using not-so-natural lotions and potions on my skin, I used a loofah in the shower avoiding hand to body contact, and my explorations of my body were visual, in a mirror, usually looking for bumps, lumps, and if my outfit concealed what I then believed unsightly.

But one day my Ayurvedic Practitioner recommended abhyanga as a way to reduce excess Vata in my system. In a practical sense, abhyanga helps to soothe the nervous system, moisturize, remove dirt and toxins from the top layers of skin, and can help ground the mind and body. My initial practice was to help sooth the nervous system as I was healing my adrenals and learning new coping mechanisms for stress in my life. So I got home, armed with the traditional Sesame Oil, ready to massage- and never thought I would experience such resistance to nurturing myself.

As I stood there naked in the bathroom, hands dripping in oil as I stood on an old bath towel I realized I really did not want to massage the places I felt the most criticism for. I had told myself the story that my thighs and butt were too big for many years at this point, my stomach wasn’t perfectly flat, and rubbing my breasts felt foreign. Where I spent time really massaging my joints, lower legs, arms and back I swept over the other bits rather quickly. This was my method for at least a few weeks as I massaged before my shower each day.

But then something began to shift- truly without much effort, just time and dedicated to oiling each day. Before I knew it I was lingering longer on my thighs and bum, rubbing more slowly and intentionally. I found it comforting to begin rubbing my stomach in a clockwise pattern and it calmed me. I felt more comfortable nurturing my heart space and breasts. I became acquainted with the dimples and bumps. I began to add in loving affirmations for my body as I massaged and I realized that my relationship to my body temple was transforming.

I give credit to this practice for making me more confident in my body. To daring to wear clothes that didn’t conceal but that made me feel more like a goddess. There is an energetic healing that happens when we bring hands to the body. We spend so much time separating our minds from our bodies that we become more easily critical as we disconnect. But when you are tending to, and nurturing your body, it becomes much harder to hold it in contempt. I learned to appreciate and accept my body as it was and this in turn guided me to begin making more aligned choices that nourished my body in a loving way instead of extremes.

So yes, abhyanga will help ward off old age, it helps boost the immune system, and calm the nervous system. But it also heals the mind/body connection. In sanskrit the word sneha means both oil and love- because they hold the same unctuous, embracing qualities. And I truly believe that if more folks took the time to self oil massage, if not each day then a few times a week, we would begin making amends to the most important relationship we will ever have- to ourselves.

Are you ready to make nice with your body? Here is the Abhyanga how-to:

Gather an old towel, bathrobe or pajamas if desired, and your oil. Sesame oil for dry skin, Sunflower for sensitive, and Coconut for oily types.

Lay out the towel (I recommend old because with regular use it will become damaged by the oil) in a calm and relaxing place whether it is the bathroom or bedroom. Begin oiling from the feet up to the abdomen. From the arms up to the heart. From the neck up to the crown of the head.

Use long and firm strokes on the longer parts of the body like shins and forearms. Make gentle circles on joints spending extra time nourishing your ‘hinges’. Massage in gentle but firm clockwise circles on the stomach, breasts, and heart.

You can sit and ‘marinate’ in your oil for 5-10 min allowing the oil to sink in. This is a great time to sit on your towel and meditate or lay down and listen to sound healing music.

Once some time has passed, if you still have excess oil on the skin wipe it away with your towel and then shower or bathe (things can get slippery so be cautious).

Some words of wisdom

  • Your towel and robe if you use one will become saturated with oil over time

  • Always use caution in the shower post oiling- make sure you wipe excess oil off before getting in

  • Oil may clog drains, especially in old plumbing. Again, wiping excess oil off should help and then a solution of vinegar and baking soda every few weeks down the drain will help

  • If you don’t have time to do a full massage each day, that’s OK! Focus on joints, wrists, back of neck, and crown of head for a quick version and wait 3-5 minutes

  • When I am experiencing a lot of stress, have excess dry skin, or have a full schedule I like to oil with coconut and then go about my day without washing it off- you may find this nurturing too. Just make sure it all absorbs before getting dressed. This method works great before bed as well if you are having trouble sleeping- try using a heavier oil like sesame for better Z’s.

As with any Ayurveda practice, make it your own. The intention is to nurture, connect, and soothe the body so however that ritual unfolds for you is perfect. And if it at first it feels strange and awkward like I experienced, my best advice is to keep coming back to it. The more we invite the connection and practice loving-kindness to our bodies the healthier we become in mind, body, and spirit.

Have questions about abhyanga? Leave them in comments below!