Abhyanga: the nourishing ayurvedic massage
Abhyanga is traditionally performed by two practitioners, and for centuries has been an integral component of the Ayurvedic
system of bodily rejuvenation. From the perspective of panchakarma, or the classical protocol for detoxification, one of the primary purposes of abhyanga is to support the safe cleansing of the physical body. Through abhyanga, the tissues are saturated with sneha, or oil, which helps to gently dislodge impurities and deliver them to the digestive tract to be eliminated from the body. The benefits do not end there, however! Abhyanga is known to balance the channels and mediums that comprise the subtle body, which include the nadis (subtle energy pathways), srotas (tissue-carrying channels), doshas (elemental organizing principles), vayus (subtle movment currents), and chakras (energetic plexuses), which results in a deep sense of pure santosha, or contentment.
The massage techniques used by practitioners of abhyanga are different from those of Western massage approaches. The emphasis is on supporting balanced flow throughout the body by way of the unobstructed passage
of consciousness from Source to receiver, with the practitioner as the conduit between the two. Subsequently, traditional abhyanga is practiced with smooth, rhythmic, loving strokes moving sequentially away from the heart to “enhance arterial [and lymphatic] flow into the muscles and organ systems” (Dr. John Douillard). Long strokes are utilized on the long bones of the limbs, circular strokes at the joints, and sweeping, spiraling effleurage strokes are utilized on the back and abdomen, all with the intention of stimulating the proper movement of the vayus.
Ayurveda encourages us to honor each person and each session as an entirely unique experience, and the careful tailoring that goes into each treatment reflects that philosophy. Considering Ayurveda’s reverence of sneha and how much oil is used in each abhyanga session, customizing this one facet alone can offer an incredible dosha-balancing experience. The dense, nourishing qualities of sesame oil are an exceptional antidote to Vata imbalances, like jitteriness, anxiety, and malnourishment; Pitta imbalances, which manifest as physical heat and redness as well as “hot” emotions, respond wonderfully to the cooling and soothing qualities of coconut oil; and Kapha imbalances are best addressed by oil that is light and heating, such as Mahanarayan oil and sunflower oil, to pacify excess accumulation of bodily tissues. Similarly, tailoring the ambient aromas, the herbal massage oil infusions, and the strokes can offer a profound avenues towards balance - grounding for excessive Vata, soothing for excessive Pitta, and invigorating for excessive Kapha.
Abhyanga is so wonderfully versatile and therapeutic, a tool to support all individuals and the complexities that life inevitably ushers in. It can stand alone as a complete treatment, complement other Ayurvedic treatments such as shirodhara or swedana, or even be enjoyed as an rejuvenating, ojas-filled self-care practice from the comforts of your own home. Abhyanga is readily adaptable to support your needs for seasonal balance, and to attune you with specific energetic qualities based on the time of day. Whether aligning your mind and body with earthy, grounded energy or invigorating, flowing energy is what you seek, Abhyanga can support it all.
Article by Marisa Hall (2019)