When's the last time you had a massage? For most of us, it was a while ago—a splurge on a vacation or birthday treat. But ask an ayurveda practitioner the same question, and they'll probably answer "this morning." No, they're not shelling out hundreds of dollars at a luxurious spa every day. They're practicing abhyanga, a soothing massage ritual that stems from ayurvedic practice.
What is abhyanga?
Abhyanga is a full-body ayurvedic massage that uses warm oil to promote overall health and well-being. It involves rubbing the body down from head to toe with an herb-infused oil specifically chosen to help balance the doshas, or energies, in your body. There are three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—and each one has its own qualities and characteristics. Everybody has a unique amount of each one in their body, and the idea is that balancing them out can help you achieve more vibrant health.
"Though abhyanga is often performed by an ayurveda massage practitioner, it's an easy and extremely self-loving practice to adopt in your own home," says Carly Banks, an ayurveda lifestyle counselor at The Habit Ayurveda.
The benefits of abhyanga.
In Sanskrit, the word for oil is sneha—the same word used to describe love or tender affection. "When we anoint the body in oil, we are anointing it in love," says Banks. And self-love is just the beginning of the health benefits of abhyanga: While science has yet to thoroughly study this practice, research has shown that it can calm your heart rate and melt away stress.
It helps with stress reduction.
A 2011 study of 10 men and 10 women found that participants experienced significant stress reduction1, as measured by their heart rate and sometimes their blood pressure, after undergoing a one-hour abhyanga massage. Building on those findings, a 2018 study found that rhythmical massage with aromatic oil (similar to abhyanga) provided a measurable increase in heart rate variability2, which indicates relaxation and stress relief.
"Abhyanga moves the body from a state of imbalance to equilibrium, from stress response to ease, from clogged ama (toxins) to freely circulating prana (vital energy)," said Salila Sukumaran, an ayurvedic educator who runs the wellness travel consultancy Ayurgamaya.
It may help you sleep better and improve your circulation.
Like a lot of alternative medicine, ayurvedic massage hasn't been studied in many clinical trials. However, ayurveda practitioners say their clients have seen noticeable benefits, like deeper sleep, sharper focus, more youthful skin, and improved circulation, from abhyanga.
If nothing else, taking care to rub your body with high-quality oil is sure to help your skin stay moist and nourished.
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How to give yourself an abhyanga massage.
Don't have an appointment lined up with an ayurveda massage therapist? You can practice abhyanga in your own home, every day. Here's how to do abhyanga, according to Banks and Sukumaran:
- Choose an oil—ideally, one tailored to your dominant dosha(s). Banks recommends expeller-pressed raw sesame oil for those who are vata-dominant and coconut or sunflower oil for people with high pitta. Those with high kapha do well with light oils, like apricot, jojoba, or almond, said Sukumaran. (Not sure what your dosha is? Cold-pressed sesame oil and cultured ghee are safe bets for everyone, according to Sukumaran.)
- Pour the oil into a glass bottle, then warm it by putting that bottle into a mug of hot water for a few minutes.
- While the oil is warming, exfoliate your skin with a medium to firm bristled brush.
- Place a towel on the floor to help you avoid slipping.
- Pour some oil into your palm, then use long strokes to apply it to each part of your body, moving away from the heart. Use circular strokes on knees, elbows, and other joints. Throughout the massage, express gratitude for your body and everything it does for you.
- Apply a small amount of the oil to your head and face. Use circular strokes on your scalp and gentle pinching on your ears.
- Let the oil absorb for about five minutes. Then, take a shower or bath. Don't remove the oil with soap right away. Just continue rubbing it into your skin as the warm water opens up your pores.
Once you've learned the basics of abhyanga, play around with the ritual to make it your own. You might consider infusing the oil with your favorite skin-safe essential oils, listening to calming music during the massage, lighting some candles and meditating before you rinse off—anything that helps you relax and find deeper meaning in the practice.
Joni Sweet is an NYC-based freelance writer specializing in travel, health, and wellness. She earned her bachelor's in journalism at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications.
Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, The Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Real Simple, Prevention, HealthyWay, Healthline, Thrillist, and more.