I bailed on an after-work dinner. Walked home with tears in my eyes, lassoed my three quivering dogs, and took them out for a walk. After the walk, and then a challenging yoga practice and meditation, I felt less distressed, but anxiety still frizzled in my arms. In my bathroom, I picked up a bottle of oil on my sink and poured a quarterful into my palm. The oil drained into the spaces between my fingers just before I began to rub it into my feet.
The first time I heard about oil massage was also the first time I met Tiffany. With her short hair and funky glasses, she spoke confidently about how to use Ayurveda to meet the body’s needs from season to season. Each season came with different foods and a different kind of oil massage, or Abhyanga, a practice she said she spent forty-five minutes doing each morning. Nope I told myself while taking notes. Nobody has time for that.
Almost two years later, I met her for a consultation. Perhaps sensing a fellow Pitta, she asked how I managed stress. I started crying. Tiffany listened, leaning in on her knee, and asked if I’d tried self massage. She referred to it as one of her most important stress-relief activities; “If I’m crying a lot, I might do it twice a day,” she said. I took note. Unfortunately, being gentle with myself, as self-massage insists, isn’t my first (or fifteenth) impulse. I will run up the Great Wall of China if you tell me it will make me happy, but I’ll balk at simple acts like rubbing oil into my skin. But what Ayurveda has taught me is the simple cures—lemon water, fresh food, more sleep—are often the most effective.
As the Ayurvedic guidebook and cookbook Eat Taste Heal points out: “Regular self-massage nourishes the skin, relaxes the nervous system, removes impurities from the plasma and blood, and feeds the inner tissues of the body.” I am suspicious of miracle cures. But understanding the body’s physiology make more sense of the practice.
- Moisturizing: An oil massage can be crucial to rejuvenating dry or overheated skin, especially in the summer (Pitta season) and fall/winter (Vata season). Additionally, Tiffany says, appropriate moisturizing in the winter regulates your body’s moisture so that when the wet, cold Kapha spring season comes, your body doesn’t react to the dryness by creating extra mucus.
- Immune Stimulus: Under the epidermis, our lymph and blood vessels transport their contents throughout the body. By stimulating these, we stimulate the whole body. “Just think what would happen if every woman spent a few minutes a day massaging everywhere,” Tiffany said, motioning to her chest.
- Muscle Massage: Simply rubbing the joints and limbs can release toxins and knots trapped in the muscles. As a runner in marathon season, oil massage has helped relax and rejuvenate my contracted muscles after hard runs. When I oil massage, it feels like my entire body wakes up, even though I didn’t know it felt asleep before.
- Emotional Management: Ayurveda pays special attention to the intersection between body, mind, and emotions. Touch one area, and you touch them all.
How to Abhyanga
The skin is our most absorbent organ, so quality of our moisturizers we put on our skin matters. Ayurvedic practitioners recommend organic, cold-pressed oils; Tiffany puts it more bluntly, saying, “I don’t put anything on my skin that I wouldn’t eat.”
Special oils exist for each dosha type, but heavy oils, like sesame or almond, are best for Vata imbalances because they moisturize dry skin and calm the nerves. Pittas respond best to coconut or olive oil because they are cooling, and Kaphas benefit from light oils like sunflower or grapeseed, or by skipping the oil massage in favor of dry brushing with silk or cotton gloves.
To apply the oil, heat the oil in an oil warmer, or by putting a plastic squeeze bottle of oil in a cup of warm water. When the oil is warm (not hot), massage over your body, using circular motions at the joints and long strokes at the limbs.
Abhyanga is by far my most irregular Ayurvedic practice so far, which has something to do with growing up a multi-tasker and overachiever in a big farming family. For the women I knew, self-care was a luxury. So I make time when I can, and use the oils I have: jojoba and massage oils (both Ayurvedic, and not). This is Tiffany’s suggestion: just try a few things and “notice how you feel when you use them.” So far I’ve noticed the Ayurvedic oils make me smell like cumin and the jojoba lingers on my skin all day. I’ve noticed I still slap on the oil, rush, skip it altogether. But using oil forces me to slow down. I notice how the smell of almonds and cumin smell against my skin, and how my muscles give up under my hands.
“Where do you start—your feet? Shoulders? Arms?” I asked Tiffany, writing notes on every inch of notebook paper.
“Does it matter?” she says. “Does it matter if you believe in Jesus or Buddha, as long as you believe? No. Does it matter if you start at your head or your feet? No. I start at my feet. But as long as you’re doing something, you’ll get there.”