Abhyanga is an ancient morning practice that uses herbal oils for self massage to help facilitate connection and healing with the physical body. Self care can be as habitual as brushing our teeth each morning. An oil massage only requires a few minutes and those few minutes will quickly have you feeling more grounded, calm, and rejuvenated so you flow into your day.
Herbal oil massaged into the skin is a powerful way we can benefit from herbal medicine. Rubbing the herb infused oil all over our body is absorbed through our pores and cycled throughout our systems. Choosing plants with oil soluble constituents is best experienced through the menstruum of oil.
Historical Use in Ayurveda
Oil is medicine all on its own and it has been used for centuries. Abhyangha comes out of Ayurveda, an old world system of medicine that was born in India. In the Bhagavata, “Oil massage should be used daily to ward off old age, exhaustion, and disease of Vata. It bestows good vision, nourishment of the body, long life, good sleep, and healthy skin.”
Practicing this tradition that is over 2,000 years old can improve overall health but also prevent disease. Oil helps lubricate joints, tones muscles, eases tension, encourages soft skin, nourishes the nervous system and circulates lymph to remove toxins. The oil can also be placed on acupuncture points that need attention to stimulate qi through the meridians.
In Ayurveda they use a body constitution system that refers to three doshas. Dosha is defined as three energies that govern physiological activity. These energies are called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha and are based on the five elements: fire, earth, water, ether, and air.
There are many dosha tests out there that help you understand which dosha primarily governs your body constitution. We all have all three but there is always one that defines our primary makeup.
Depending on your dosha there are different health practices such as herbs, diet, exercise, etc that help keep you balanced. When you have an understanding of your dosha makeup you can start to make lifestyle choices that help you align to a path toward holistic health. Very much like the 5 element system in Chinese Medicine, Medical Astrology and other ancient systems of human design.
When it comes to abhyanga it is most used for the Vata constitution because they tend to have symptoms of dryness, cold, tension, and anxiety. But there are certain carrier oils and herbs that can be beneficial for all doshas. Knowing more about yourself can help you create a herbal oil that is specific for your individual needs. But in general any herbal oil can alleviate certain symptoms and conditions based on the herbs used.
Herbs that stimulate the lymphatic system is most beneficial for stagnant Kapha constitutions. Rubbing sore joints in a circular motion with oil help move stuck fluids in the lymph nodes. This improves blood circulation which helps the lymphatic process protein, glucose, minerals, oxygen, and antibodies. Warming herbs like pine, mugwort, rosemary can be used to stimulate this movement.
Abhyanga helps balance the nervous system so the digestive system can regulate metabolism which helps keep Pitta in balance. Nervous system herbs like vervain can help cool and calm this constitution.
If you dive deeper into the science of Ayurvedic medicine you will find Dincharya, a daily routine that embodies your natural cycle’s. In this routine it is suggested that you practice abhyanga after you wake up, drink fluids, and exercise. This helps to move the lymph, remove stagnation, and encourage detoxification, similar to a qigong practice. Massage the oil in from head to toe. Into your feet, genitals, ears, head, around eyes, lips, and belly button. You can build energetic protection over sensitive areas with words of intention. Breathing into every cell of your body, giving it conscious attention to feel into its needs. Then you can hop into the shower. Oiling your body before you shower helps the oil penetrate and cleanse deep layers of the body.
The most common oil used in Ayurveda is unrefined sesame oil. But any oil can be used. I personally love the simplicity of olive oil. It can help repair damage from environmental factors, aging, inflammation, dry cracked skin, and is high in skin loving nutrients. It is also lighter weight and less likely to clog pores compared to sesame oil.
Herbal Oils We Make and How to Use Them
I like to think of herbal oils as alternatives to bar soap and lotion with the added medicinal benefits of plants. You can also use these oils as a base for bath salts, salves, body creams, lip balm, hair and skin serums.
Mugwort in oil can support all of the doshas. Mugwort is medicine associated with the moon. It helps stimulate lucid dreaming and blood circulation. It is especially helpful in relieving delayed menses and menstrual cramps. Mugwort combines well with cottonwood. Which helps relieve inflammation, arthritic pain and muscle tension.
Vervain has volatile oils that penetrate and calms tension caused by stress. Combine with pine to add aromatic benefits that ease stress and anxiety. Pine and conifers of all kinds are also supportive for circulation and pain. And heals dry, cracked skin. The combination can be healing for all of the doshas.
Using these oils daily or as often as possible helps nurture feelings of self love, balance, creativity, inspiration, mindfulness, healing, transformation and beyond. Allowing your mind and spirit to ground and connect to the physical body so you can feel how much magic it holds.