Love heals. Oil heals. The Sanskrit term snehana means “to oil oneself” but it also means “to love oneself.”
The association of oil with love helps us understand how the ancient world discerned the healing qualities of both. It is no wonder that ayurveda (the holistic healing system of ancient India), uses oil as a form of therapy for everything from protecting and nourishing to balancing and detoxifying.
One of our favorite ayurvedic practices is abhyanga (pronounced ah-bhee-yan-ga), a self-care ritual of massaging the entire body with warm oil that is specific to the needs of our primary dosha (constitution). Lovingly anointing ourselves with oil is a practical expression of self-care. When practiced regularly, its effects are healing and grounding -- similar to the feeling of being saturated with love. Abhyanga can draw us into a deeper connection with ourselves, helping us to be more aware of changes in our body. It can calm and balance the nervous system and impart a deep sense of groundedness. It also supports digestion and elimination, moisturizes and tones the skin, boosts vitality and cultivates self-nourishment through the sense of touch. Yes, it is true -- oil/love heals.
Abhyanga can be administered any time, but it is a practice that we particularly love to indulge in during the season of autumn-into-winter, when the ayurvedic energy of vata, (which is composed of space, air, and wind elements) is most prone to aggravation. In the fall we tend towards imbalances that are characterized by an increase of cold, dry, light, rough and mobile qualities. This is true for everyone, but especially for those who are dominant in the vata dosha.
(For those unfamiliar, ayurveda conceives of three primary doshas that shape the qualities of our physical bodies, our souls, and the outer environment: pitta (fire), kapha (earth and water) and vata (ether, air).
According to ayurvedic wisdom, air is the dominant energy during autumn. Sometimes it is positively electric. As the leaves shrivel and shed in the cool winds, those with imbalanced vata doshas may feel just as dry and scattered. Our hair might dance with static electricity, our skin or scalp may feel tight and dry, our digestion may become erratic, our hands and feet may become cold. We may become more prone to dehydration, heart palpitations or nervous stomach. Mentally and emotionally, we might experience restlessness, scatteredness, anxiety and insomnia.
A vata imbalance can be calmed and brought “back to earth” with the opposing qualities of oil, which is heavy, unctuous, moisturizing, and slow. Externally, the best way to receive the grounding benefit of oil is through abhyanga. As we lovingly massage oil into our body, penetrating through the deep layers of the fascia and into the nerve endings, we stimulate our lymphatic system, assist our body in detoxification, and soothe our frazzled nervous system. When our nervous system is stabilized, our hormones and immune system are better supported, encouraging regenerative sleep and a calm, focused outlook during the day.
Abhyanga is best experienced as a daily practice, especially for people dominant in the vata dosha. However, even once a week will provide a grounding effect on our overall well-being, and all doshas will find the practice beneficial.
Best Practices for Abhyanga
While abhyanga traditionally involves the usage of ayurvedic herb infused oils, any of our warmed oil or body butters are great for abhyanga, for autumn we suggest our Vetiver Hinoki, Neroli Frankincense or Patchouli Vanilla body oils. You can simply warm the glass bottles in a heated pan of water on the stove. If you don’t have time to warm an oil, we suggest our Whipped Moroccan Body Butter, which is our shea butter that has been whipped to a lush and decadent, mousse-like perfection with the addition of nourishing sesame seed oil, pomegranate seed oil, argan oil, and shea butter. This butter melts into the skin effortlessly and the synergistic quality of these oils is perfect for centering and balancing ourselves in the fall.
Note: While our first impulse might be to slather ourselves with oil after coming out of the shower, abhyanga is traditionally administered prior to bathing. Excess oil will be removed in the warm water, leaving the body clean, conditioned, and nurtured. However, if your skin tends to be very dry, you can practice abhyanga after bathing, because you will easily soak up the oil. It is up to you.
1. Begin. Take a moment to center yourself or set an intention. Sometimes, it is enough to remind yourself that the Sanskrit word for oil, sneha, means love.
2. Make sure that you are in a comfortable place. A warm, comfortable bathroom can be ideal. If you really want to indulge, light some scented candles, play calming music, and anything else which will help you relax.
3. Dip into your jar of Whipped Argan Butter (if you are not using warmed oil) and melt/warm a generous amount between your palms.
4. Slowly massage the butter/oil into your skin, your scalp (you can skip this step if you have less time), ears, face, and neck, moving slowly down your torso and arms, all the way to your feet. Circle around the joints of your arms, legs and feet. Anoint yourself in clockwise circles on your abdomen, which will encourage healthy digestion. Spend extra time massaging the oil into your scalp, ears, hands, and feet, as there are high concentrations of nerve endings in these areas. Use a slow, serene, loving touch, and don't leave any place un-treasured or un-oiled.
5. A properly administered abhyanga should take a minimum of 10-15 minutes. If you have time, you can indulge further by allowing the nourishing oils to remain on your skin for another 10 minutes before taking a warm shower or bath. You may wish to designate a large towel especially for this purpose, which can protect your linens, etc. from excess oil.
6. Oil is a natural cleanser for the skin, so it is not necessary to use soap after abhyanga. But if you feel the need for soap, use something very gentle. You do not want to strip your skin of the oil’s benefits.
7. If you oiled your scalp, apply a gentle shampoo directly to your hair before getting it wet, as this will cleanse the excess oil from your hair more easily.
8. Towel dry, dress and go out into the world as a grounded, blissful, and loving presence.
9. Repeat often, with gratitude.