What Is Abhyanga? A Beginner’s Guide to Ayurvedic Massage

Consult an Ayurvedic Practitioner

Ideally, before you start a new ayurvedic practice, especially if you’re planning to use it longer term, you’ll seek guidance from an ayurvedic practitioner. Ayurvedic medicine is not regulated in the United States by the federal government, and no state has a licensure requirement, but the National Ayurvedic Medical Association offers a tool to locate a certified professional near you, who can help you identify your individual constitution to formulate an ayurvedic wellness routine, including establishing an abhyanga practice that’s designed for your specific needs.

If you desire to explore abhyanga on your own, here is some introductory information for the self-massage form of this practice, from our discussions with Silcox and Sukumaran.

Identify Your Dosha, or Constitution

In ayurveda, your constitution is the balance of the three doshas in your body, according to the California College of Ayurveda.

A dosha is believed to be an energy that makes up your unique mind and body, based on air, fire, water, earth, and space elements. According to ayurveda, the three doshas are pitta (fire), vata (air and space), and kapha (earth and water).

Consulting an ayurvedic practitioner can help you identify which ayurvedic practices and applications work best for you and your constitution. Silcox, who is also the founder of the Shakti School, provides a free dosha quiz if you want to learn more about your dosha (or doshas, as some people have dominant combinations of two or all three).

Other quizzes can be found elsewhere online, too, to help you learn more about your doshic constitution or to learn more before you see a formal practitioner. For example, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and the Chopra Center both offer similar free tools.

Choose Your Oil

The oil component of abhyanga is believed to be especially important. “[Most] organic food-grade oils will work great,” says Sukumaran. In particular, sesame oil is generally considered one of the better oils for the body, she says, especially if you have drier skin or live in an arid climate.

Coconut oil can be another option, especially during times of heat, as it’s a cooling oil, per ayurvedic philosophy. You can use coconut oil in the summer, for example, or if you have a “fire” constitution, also known as a pitta dosha.

Kapha dosha types may be prone to oily skin, notes Sukumaran, and in this case a lighter oil like almond or jojoba, or dry brushing, may be better.

The oil is also often paired with spices in an effort to balance your dosha. You can create your own by steeping oil along with food-grade spices, such as cinnamon, clove, cardamom, or bay leaf, says Sukumaran. Seek guidance from an ayurvedic practitioner about which spices or herbal preparations will balance your dosha.

A simpler route, says Silcox, is to purchase a ready-to-use herbal massage oil designed for your dosha. Companies like Banyan Botanicals sell formulations for vata, pitta, and kapha.

Begin by Massaging the Limbs

Warm up the oil with your own body temperature by rubbing it in between your hands. Do not heat up the oil on the stove or with any electric device, to avoid the risk of burning the skin.

To get started with the massage, Sukumaran suggests beginning with your limbs. For example, take your left hand and sweep your hand from your shoulder on your right arm down to your wrist. (The idea is to start closer to the heart and move away from the heart.) Repeat on your left arm and then on your legs.

Employ just enough pressure to massage the oil into your body, similar to the way you’d moisturize with lotion.

Use Circular Strokes on Tender Spots

As you approach a joint, like knees or elbows, move your hand in a soft circular motion around the joint.

Apply a gentle rounded motion to your belly, butt, and breasts or chest as well. Don’t forget the top of your head, feet, inside of your navel, and inside your ears. “All of these parts of the body are connected to vital organs [according to ayurvedic philosophy]. Applying oil here [may bring] calm, rest, and peace,” Sukumaran says.

Wipe Down and Rinse Off

Let the oil sit on your body for at least five minutes. “Traditionally, next you would walk into a pond or shower to wash yourself off,” says Sukumaran. Instead you can wipe yourself off with a towel and then rinse yourself in lukewarm water. Since oil will be in your hair, you may shampoo your hair as well.

This entire process can be completed in under 15 minutes, Sukumaran says.

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