Oil massage, or abhyanga, is part of the daily regimen of fitness recommended by Ayurveda. It has a penetrating effect on one's health well beyond the benefits that can be observed superficially at the skin level.
Oil massage is integrated into ayurvedic treatments for curing aches and pains, neurological disorders, muscular damage, fatigue and improvement of vision, and other conditions.
A daily oil massage helps to maintain general health by delaying aging process, nourishing body tissues, improving skin texture, inducing sleep and prolonging life span. Abhyanga should be done by everyone, everyday, especially old aged and tired people. Ayurvedic oil massage has good effect over all the body systems, rather than just a local effect on skin. For this very reason, in many diseases, especially having Vata imbalance such as arthritis, oil massage is highly recommended.
How Does Massage Work?
Ayurveda explains that herbal oil contains oil and water soluble medicinal principles of the herbs. These medicines principally enter the body through the skin pores and become available for absorption at the end part of blood vessels called srotas, and then get absorbed into the blood and eventually reach the target area and bring about the required cure. Since cell membrane is made of lipoproteins (combination of lipids and proteins), oils being a form of lipid easily pass through the skin to the targeted area. This is the logic behind extensive use of massage as an effective Ayurvedic therapy in a number of diseases.
It has been observed that when Ayurvedic oil massage is done directly over the target for treatment of arthritis on the knees, absorption and therapeutic action is immediately effective.
The fact that medicinal application on the skin penetrates into the bloodstream has now been proved and accepted by allopathy physicians. Ayurveda offers this benefit without any side effects (which is the case with some gels in the allopathic system).
Nature of Oil
If you observe the composition of Ayurvedic massage oils, they will have regular anti-inflammatory herbs such as dasamoola (group of 10 roots), devadaru, rasna, ela (cardamom) and other herbs that have rejuvenating and anti-ageing properties. A few examples of such herbs in Ayurvedic oils include the famous Mahanarayana oil which is widely used in treating arthritis, muscular and joint pain. This oil contains several anti-oxidant herbs such as ashvagandha and turmeric. Kottamchukkadi oil used in the treatment of vata disorders causing neuro muscular pains, sciatica, spondylosis etc., is another example. This oil contains herbs such as moringa, ginger and tamarind leaves.
Right Time for Massage
Ayurvedic physicians usually advise to undertake a massage early in the morning before bath, especially for patients who have body ache that increases during the day. Massage brings the pain under control, with the benefit felt throughout the day. If the day is divided into three parts, the last part - evening is dominated by vata dosha. Hence, oil application done in the evening can also be beneficial. If massage is done in the evening, it is good to apply some hot fomentation after massage, as this helps to avoid coldness and body stiffness. The warm fomentations also improves better absorption and assimilation.
Massage is administered an hour before or after taking food, because when the food is taken and digestion sets in, kapha (phlegm) will be dominant. Since massage is done to target and balance the vata dosha, it is not ideal to do this when kapha is dominant.
It is for this reason that oil massage is avoided when there is indigestion in the body.
Doing the Massage
Massage is done on scalp by using finger tips to reach to the scalp skin. On hair, use your palm. On forehead, use finger tips. Massage with medium pressure just above the eyebrows, from the centre towards the sides. On face and ear, massage is done using the finger tips, in circular movements. On chest, use the palm and fingers in a rotating motion on both sides. On joints of hands and legs, rotatory movements are recommended. Massage is best when it gets done by someone, instead of self-application.
Heating of Oil
During summer, heating of the massage oil is not required. But during winter, it is better to heat the oil, especially if coconut oil based oils are used. Very cold oil may cause stiffness in some people due to an increase of kapha dosha. At the same time, heating of the abhyanga oil is not recommended in the case of high pitta people. Heating the oil is done just for a minute or two (to 50-60 degree celsius). Commentaries on Susruta Samhita mention about the time duration of massage. When abhyanga oil massage is done as a part of dinacharya or daily routine, massage can be done for about 15 minutes.
When a particular joint or bone requires treatment, approximately 15 minutes are required in that particular area (ekanga abhyasa). A higher time limit of 30 minutes of massage is followed for abhyanga undertaken to treat chronic ailments. After abhyanga, the person should be asked to rest for about 15 minutes, and the oil should be wiped using cloth dipped in hot water. After swabbing, the patient is given either svedana or sweating treatment, or snana (hot water shower).
During therapeutic massage, internal medicines, diet and other ayurvedic procedures and panchakarmas are combined by the physician after assessing the patient's condition to help speedy recovery.
- Janardham Hebbar