abhyanga: The art of self-oiling
Anoint, like we USED TO
To anoint is defined as pouring or rubbing the body with perfumed oil, milk, butter or other substances. The human race has been oiling up for a long, long time. As we draw from ancient practices, knowledge and traditions, anointing with oil certainly stakes it’s place throughout the history of mankind dating back before Christ.
Some historical references of anointing
Ancient Egyptian texts contain hundreds of descriptions of oil for both physical and spiritual uses. Cleopatra’s beauty secrets dating back to 70 B.C. included many recipes of sesame, avocado and quince oil. She was known to bathe in milk (back when milk was full-fat as nature intended) as a luxurious beauty treatment. There are hundreds of biblical references of Sacred anointing rituals: From the 23rd psalm …”anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over: The bible discusses anointing as a rite used within sacred rituals as well as for health and cleanliness. In the Torah, oil was described as a way to make the anointed person more holy, or closer to god. The Charaka Samhita is one of the oldest and most important authoritative writings on Ayurveda dating back to 400-200 BCE. Here is a quote taken from Vol. 1.
“The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much even if subjected to injury or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age.”
During the exciting present day resurgence of true, natural beauty and longevity practices, how can we not draw from these important clues, recorded throughout our own history?
Abhyanga: the Ayurvedic art of anointing with oil
Abhyanga is the Sanskrit word for the practice of self-oiling. Applying oil to the entire body is an integral part of overall health and well-being systems defined by traditional Ayurvedic texts. It is also an essential preliminary step in the Ayurvedic detoxification system called Pancha Karma. According to Ayurveda, the body has 7 layers of tissues and only oil has the ability to pass through all seven, entering into our blood stream, our bones and even our bone marrow. Traces of medicinal oils have been detected in the bone marrow of people who self-oil daily, proving this is one of the most effective way we can introduce these wonderful oils into our entire organism.
Ayurveda texts show Abhyanga as one of the most important daily lifestyle practices for:
- Loosens toxins
- Stimulates nerves
- Improving sleep
- Improving vision
- Tones muscles
- Improving skin health
- Removing wrinkles
- Thickening hair
- Slows aging
- Increasing circulation
- Lubricates bones and joints
Pacify aggravated Vata
The three doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) are biological energies found throughout the physical and emotional body as dictated through Ayurveda. The three dosha’s govern all of the physical and mental processes for every living being. Keeping our three dosha’s in balance is rudimentary to Ayurvedic health. Vata dosha, just like the Pitta and Kapha dosha are present in all of us in varying degrees. However, Vata dosha imbalances are responsible for more than 80% of our troubles/illnesses. This means understanding the Vata dosha is really key for anyone wanting to find balance through Ayurveda. Some signs of aggravated Vata Dosha on the mind: stress, poor short-term memory, anxiety, insomnia, peak-and crash energy cycles, unreliable moods, lack of focus and mental-looping. Sound familiar? As we age, we move into the Vata era or our lives. Vata’s most prominent characteristic is dryness. By the time we are in our 30’s, we start to loose the lubrication of the body and become drier, thus, more wrinkled and less elastic in both skin, muscle and even mind. To remedy this as much as we can, we must keep our body lubricated! We are now well aware that eating essential fatty acids are paramount to optimal physical and mental health. Integrating the practice of Abhyanga into your daily routine is seen as fundamental to Ayurvedic longevity practices.
Nervous system relief
Rituals like Abhyanga are very soothing to our nervous system which once in balance, help keep so many of our important other systems in check such. When our nervous system is stabilised, we are supporting our hormones, our immune system and encouraging regenerative sleep. This is a daily practice but even Abhyanga once a week will have a lovely effect on your overall wellbeing.
You will need
- Abhyanga oil: 20-25 ml. Use any pure non-refined oil that is suitable for your dosha or a VPK oil. Pure sesame oil is seen to be the “king” of oils in Ayurvedic treatments being the most nourishing, but any pure unadulterated oil will work,
- A designated “Abhyanga towel” or an old sarong or dressing gown (something you want to
replace anyway, or don’t mind getting oily)
- Small glass or ceramic bowl for warming the oil and to use during application
1. Set up the space
You will need to be naked, warm, covered in oil and comfortable for about 20 minutes. Throwing your Abhyanga towel over your bed and making sure you have a heater on (if needed) is generally perfect but feel free to create any space you like for this experience. The climate and your living space will define how you set this up for yourself. Lying in the garden, meditating, or even walking around or answering emails are all totally fine. You just need to find a few minutes to apply the oil, and then really let it absorb. The absorption takes about 20 minutes.
2. Warm the oil
Once you have the “where” sorted out, next you need to warm the oil: Simply pour boiling water in a ceramic or glass small bowl and let it sit for a 30-60 seconds. Then pour the boing water out of the bowl and immediately fill the hot bowl with enough oil to cover your body generously. This should warm the oil sufficiently. You can always use a little double boiler to warm the oil more. Do NOT microwave the oil. Making sure the oils is nice and hot just makes this experience all the more wonderful and effective.
2. Apply liberally
Now simply apply the oil LIBERALLY to the entire body, excluding the head. It’s nice to start with arms and legs and end at your middle section, but the method isn’t too important, just get it all over and GENEROUSLY. Remember, This is a PLEASURABLE experience, so don’t rush! Apply the warm oil with long, loving strokes. Circle around the joints a few extra times to make sure they get a nice amount of oil. Go ahead and massage any part of yourself you can reach if you are so inclined.
It is extremely counter-productive to go through this procedure with negative body image thoughts. On the contrary, really focusing on loving messages to the body has an extremely positive effect on our overall health. This is a perfect time to love-up your body and thank it for doing such a good job for you thus far! Be nice to beautiful, unique you!! I know, we’re all working on this, but here is a great opportunity to practice.
3. Relaxing time
Now just rest (on or wrap up in) your Abhyanga towel for a minimum of 15-20 minutes, in a warm space while the oils absorbs into your skin. You can double up and use this time to do a short morning meditation, or some pranayama breathing.The idea is to allow the oil to absorb into your skin, that’s it.
4. Wash off
After 15-20 minutes (longer if you like) take a hot shower or bath. You will not need soap, as the oil will wash everything away, including dirt and bacteria. If you want to use soap, use only pure soap. Please do not smother yourself with perfumed shower gel or any other chemical-laden product. There is nothing better than embarking upon a long-term health and rejuvenation ritual that is this beneficial and totally enjoyable!
PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE
I have spent most of my life moisturising my skin by applying oil after the shower. I loved the way the oil mixes with the water remaining on the skin making for a quick and easy application. Then, through the study of the Abhayanga practice, I leaned why it makes much more sense to go about it the other way around.
Ayurveda is a holistic practice, which of course focuses on prevention over treatment. If the aim is to hydrate the body, why dry it out first? Water (especially most hard city water) is actually drying to the skin, washing away all the natural oils collecting on the surface (thus: the need to moisturise after the shower).
So oiling after bathing is essentially remedying the symptom, or the dry skin caused by washing away our body’s natural and protective oils. Prevention of dryness makes more sense, and this is why the Abhyanga practice teaches us to apply oil to the body before bathing.
Bathing after an oil application not only eliminates the need for replenishing lost sebum in the skin after the shower, but also essentially eliminates the need for drying soap as the oil dissolves or melts away any dirt or bacteria on the body allowing the water to rinse it away. Double bonus. Of course pure soaps are fine for smelly bits but really not necessary for the rest of the body after one has practiced Abhyanga.