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Abhyanga: Rub in some well-being the Ayurveda way

Abhyanga: Rub in some well-being the Ayurveda way

Ayurvedic oil massage therapy can be used to manage muscle rigidity, emaciation, pain, skin conditions, and more
Pouring medicated ayurvedic oil onto a palm
Ayurveda prescribes oil massages as a daily regimen | iStock

An oil massage a day can help you live long and disease-free, according to Ayurveda, which terms the regime Abhyanga.

This therapy includes applying medicated oil all over the body and massaging or rubbing it in gently. The process is said to be beneficial in managing muscle rigidity, emaciation (when someone is abnormally thin or weak), pain, skin conditions and to stabilise one’s dosha (balance of bodily energies).

Who can do abhyanga massage and for which indications? Ayurveda spells out these prescriptions.

  • Daily routine: Healthy individuals can take oil massages to maintain and nourish their bodies.
  • Seasonal regime: An oil massage can be a useful practice to cope with seasonal changes, especially during winters. As winter approaches with its cold dry air, the skin tends to become A warm oil rub induces warmth and comfort.
  • With other therapies: An oil massage must precede a few procedures of Ayurveda such as nasal medication (nasya), purgation (cleansing the bowel through medication) and emesis – or forced inducing of stools and vomiting)
  • Main therapy: Oil massage is the treatment of choice for those with diseases related to vayu/vata such as neurological diseases that affect one’s movement; pain and immobility of joints; and inflammation.

An oil massage is performed in three stages — preparation, the main procedure and post-procedure.

Preparatory stage (purva karma): Oil massage is usually performed early in the morning after completing the morning rituals of brushing the teeth, clearing the bowels and having a bath.

Main procedure (pradhana karma): Oil is slightly warmed without heating it directly. A generous amount of the warm oil is smeared all over the body. The torso and the limbs are massaged by lightly pressing the body with the palm. This is repeated with a pressure suited to one’s body conditions.

To ensure that every part of the body gets the treatment, seven different positions have been advised:

  • Sitting with extended legs
  • Supine position or lying on the back
  • Left lateral or lying on the left side
  • Prone position or lying on the stomach
  • Right lateral or stretching on the right side
  • Supine or spread out on the back
  • Sitting with extended legs (repeat)

Generally, two masseurs or professional massage givers position themselves on either side of the person taking the therapy. Oil is applied and then rubbed in with the palm. A circular method is used for the joints, while long strokes are used for long bones such as the arms and legs. Gentle touch is applied on those with body pain.

After the massage (Paschat karma): After the oil massage, the person is given steam therapy (swedana/sudation) wherein steam is given until one perspires. A hot water bath is recommended after this.

Importance of oils

Oil massage addresses conditions that are caused due to vata imbalance, which makes the skin dry and rough. Sesame oil is considered the best medium, which is why it is the base in most medicated oils.

The oil is infused with different herbal ingredients, with each having different health and therapeutic benefits. The abhyanga treatment oil is selected based on factors such as the body constitution, underlying health conditions and the aim of the massage – such as pain relief, skin conditions and maintenance of health.

Popular herbal oils

  • Mahanarayana tailam is a concoction of the Indian Bael root, winter-cherry (ashwagandha) root, musk, camphor and 40 more herbal ingredients in sesame oil base. This is used in neurological conditions.
  • Ashwagandha bala lakshadi tailam has winter-cherry (ashwagandha) as the main ingredient in a base of sesame oil along with the root of Sida cordifolia (`bala’) and 20 other herbs. It is used on people with general debility and weak muscles.
  • Kottam chukkadi tailam mainly has garlic, Indian costus (kushta) root, drumstick root and eight other herbs as its main ingredients in a base of sesame oil. It is used for pain relief.
  • Pinda tailam uses Indian madder (manjishtha) as the main ingredient in a base of sesame oil. It is used for gout.

Types of abhyanga

Ekanga abhyanga­ is for specific body parts, for example – the face, knee joints, soles and feet.
Sarvanga abhyanga is a full-body treatment.

Duration of massage

A minimum of 15 minutes and a maximum of 40-45 minutes are mandatory abhyangam treatment to absorb the benefits of oil massage. About 2-5 minutes of massage can be done for each posture and if it is for a single area or joint such as the knee joint or the lumbar/back region, a maximum of 15 minutes is recommended as per experts.

The benefits of abhyanga

  • Oil massage improves blood circulation: The pressure that is exerted on body parts while massaging dilates the minute pores of the superficial ducts and increases the temperature of the skin. This helps to improve blood circulation.
  • Improves lymphatic drainage: The lymph is a fluid that helps in draining toxins and metabolic wastes from the cells. Massage strokes increase lymph drainage.
  • Soothes nervous system: With every stroke, the pressure imparted during massage stimulates the nerves and nourishes them.
  • Enhances skin health: Massage followed by steaming helps to open the sebaceous and sweat glands, the toxins are eliminated through sweat, and this improves the person’s health.
  • Provides pain relief: Strengthens muscles and relieves fatigue.
  • Improves appetite & digestion: Massage followed by steaming increases the production of gastric juices and aids digestion.

Mental well-being

Apart from abhyanga massage benefits to the targeted area of the body, massages are known to have shown positive psychological effects, such as in reducing stress and insomnia or loss of sleep.

Interestingly, during post-massage therapy, the levels of cortisol – a primary stress hormone – reduce, and the levels of `happy’ hormones dopamine and serotonin increase. A person feels relieved of stress and sleeps well after a massage.


Although the therapeutic benefits of massage are high when given by trained masseurs, it is not always convenient or possible to have someone do it to us every day. Hence, for daily practice, one can do `self-massage’ especially during winters. Plain, warm sesame oil can be used as a daily or frequent regimen.

Experts suggest that it is always safe to select the oils based on the body’s constitution and underlying medical conditions. Medical advice and supervision give the right results.

Finally, some caution

Though a daily oil massage is advised, there are contraindications to it. It should be avoided by with conditions such as respiratory diseases, indigestion, abdominal distention, fever, bleeding disorders, infective wounds, severe trauma, obesity, and those who have received detoxification therapies recently.

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