Massages have always been intrinsic to the Indian tradition of physical well-being. As a child, I recall my mother furiously massaging our scalps with coconut oil (if we were lucky, or sticky castor oil if we were not) as we wriggled helplessly, trying to avoid the pre-bath ritual. Thinking back to my childhood, the massage as a treatment was remarkably ubiquitous – mother has a headache, massage; granny has a sore heel, massage; dad’s hair is thinning, massage, and so on. It was very much in the Indian tradition of ‘one medicine for all cures’ as opposed to the Western approach of targeting more and more specific issues with more and more specific treatments.
As more Indians adopt Western methods of treatment and well-being, we risk losing some of the valuable ancient traditions that are not only fully natural but also contribute towards holistic health, not just spot-fixes. One such tradition is the oil bath or massage, known as Abhyanga in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian ‘science of life’ based on natural therapies.
“Massaging oil into the human organism imparts a tone and vigor to its tissues in the same manner as water furnishes the roots of a tree or a plant with the necessary nutritive elements, and fosters its growth, when poured into the soil where it grows. The use of oil at a bath causes the oil to penetrate into the system… and thus soothes and invigorates the body with its own essence.”
The modern urban lifestyle is marked by stress and exertion of both the body and mind. Such a lifestyle reflects an aggravation of what is referred to as Vata dosha in Ayurveda, which is an imbalance caused in the body-mind by predominance of vata which literally means wind (vayu). Vata refers to air and that which governs movement in our body and mind. As Ayurveda and Yoga scholar Dr. David Frawley explains in his book ‘Yoga and Ayurveda’, disturbed vata leads to mental, nervous and digestive disorders, including low energy and weakness of body tissues. Further, the key to managing all the doshas is to care for vata. As Dr Frawley explains, at the cosmic level, vata energises and upholds dharma and similarly, managing vata brings dharma or natural order to the workings of the body and mind.1
In Ayurveda, warm oil baths or Abhyanga, involving self-massage, pacify Vata dosha. These baths are especially beneficial in the winter season, a season which naturally aggravates the qualities of vata – dryness and coldness. In India, Abhyangasnana (see below) is a traditional ritual during Diwali, the festival that also marks the onset of winter. The ritual was probably instituted to remind people to carry on this practice during the winter. Abhyanga is avoided in the hot season.
Generally, sesame oil and coconut oil are recommended for Abhyanga. These oils are nourishing and lubricating for the skin and hair. Sesame oil may tend to be too hot for Pitta types (whose body constitution is marked by heat or the fire element) who may prefer coconut oil. Many herbal oils such as Ashwagandha Bala oil and Brahmi oil are also commonly used.2
Oil baths involve gently massaging each part of the body with the (warmed) oil of choice, including massaging the scalp. After the massage, wait 10-15 minutes for the oil to soak into the tissues.
Generally, the oil massage is followed by applying ubtan, a paste made by combining mainly gram flour (besan), turmeric and milk (see below). The paste is applied to the whole body (excluding head), allowed to dry and then rubbed off. No soap is applied thereafter – the body is rinsed just with warm water. This ubtan ritual was another one of mother’s favourite activities with her kids. The excuses she gave were the sun-tans and skin impurities we had picked up playing in the sun all day…
The hair is then washed with reetha water (see below). Alternatively you could use herbal shampoo powders readily available these days.
Adopting these rituals avoids the need for expensive spa treatments and is probably even more effective! Including Abhyanga as a weekly ritual in your busy schedule is sure to do wonders in leaving you looking and feeling calm, balanced and fresh. Do try and report!
Note: Abhyanga must be avoided by women during their menstrual cycles and during pregnancy and by those suffering from illness, injuries or broken or infected skin. If you have any medical conditions, consult your doctor before taking an oil bath.
1. David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda, p.42.
2. For more details about suitable oils, see: https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/ayurvedic-living/living-ayurveda/lifestyle/self-oil-massage/
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