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How to do an Ayurvedic Abhyanga massage with oil

11 Sep 2023
by Aimée Kuntz

What is Abhyanga?

Abhyanga is an Ayurvedic (self) massage with warm oil that relaxes and calms the nerves. Usually also resulting in better sleep.

Abhyanga can help especially if you have a Vata imbalance or constitution or if it is autumn (=Vata season).

The oil balances the dryness of Vata and is good for the skin. You also get to connect more with your body and combined with slowing down by taking time for self-care, it helps to ground, which balances the volatile light nature of Vata. And of course the warm oil counteracts the feeling of coldness.

Adapt the time of taking the Abhyanga massage to your available time; from taking a few minutes to an extensive massage, after which you let the oil soak in before you take a shower.


Who benefits the most from an Abhyanga massage?

As indicated above, it is especially good for people with a Vata constitution or Vata imbalance or in the fall as it is the Vata season.

However, people with a pitta constitution or imbalance also benefit from it due to its harmonizing effect. However, they don’t need oil massages as often.

Persons with a kapha constitution or imbalance already have a lot of oil (as opposed to dryness) in their existing features and therefore benefit less from an abhyanga massage. For them, dry brushing can be more helpful for an invigorating and energetic effect. Do you still feel like taking an abhyanga massage if you have a kapha constitution/imbalance (for example in autumn)? Then massage from bottom to top (instead of top to bottom).

Are you pregnant and in the first 3 months of your pregnancy? Then it is usually not recommended to undergo a massage because you want to prevent the release of toxins during that period. A self-massage is less intensive in this aspect. That is why you can do a gentle self-massage during that period. It can even be a very nice way to connect with your baby and to create relaxation.

Do not perform abhyanga massage if you have a fever or other acute illness.

And do not massage wounds.


Which oil to use?

Choose an oil that suits your Ayurvedic constitution, imbalance or the season.

Above all, choose a good quality oil. By this I mean that it is cold-pressed and free of added perfumes and chemicals: be extra alert to the latter if you add essential oil to your base oil. The skin is our largest organ and we also absorb nutrients (and unfortunately also toxins) through the skin. A good indicator is that you should be able to eat the oil. So if there is a toxic warning symbol on your oil bottle, it is not suitable for an abhyanga massage.

Organic cold-pressed sesame oil or almond oil can be used by anyone, especially in autumn and winter. Coconut oil is a good oil to use in the summer or if you have a pitta constitution or imbalance because of its cooling effect.

To balance Vata, sesame, almond, mustard and castor oils are recommended. If you, as a Vata (or Vata-Pitta or Vata-Kapha), suffer from cold hands and feet, you can add a few drops of wintergreen or eucalyptus oil to increase circulation. And pine needle oil is a nice addition if you suffer from muscle cramps.

Unrefined coconut oil, cocoa butter and olive oil are recommended to balance Pitta. Pittas can add a few drops of lavender or sandalwood oil.

Since Kaphas benefit less from oil, it is often better to dry brush. But if the skin still requires some lubrication, they can use sunflower, safflower or, in winter, mustard oil.

If you suffer from rheumatism, many oils are less suitable; castor oil is recommended by Ayurveda.

Based on the season, warming oils such as mustard oil or sesame oil are good for winter and cooling oils such as coconut oil are good for summer. In addition, Ayurveda makes a distinction between a dry and wet climate, with sesame and castor oil being good for a dry climate and dry oils such as safflower being good for a wet climate.

In addition, various Ayurvedic organic brands (such as Lakshmi or Maharishi Ayurveda) also have blends available per dosha.


How to do Abhyanga massage?


  • Use a large old towel to sit/stand on, so don't have to worry about oil stains that won't wash out. If you want to put on clothes while the oil is absorbed, choose old clothes for the same reason. And/or provide a pleasant warm room, so that you don't get cold while the oil is absorbed by your skin.
  • Warm the oil (using a bottle warmer or au bain marie) to approximately 38 to 40 degrees Celsius; so just slightly above your body temperature. Optional, you can add a drop of essential oil to your base oil.
  • If necessary, put together the things you need during the time the oil is soaking in. Such as a meditation cushion or a book.


The massage

  • Massage with your entire palms (instead of just your fingers). Every time you start a new body part, pour a little bit of warm oil in your palm. Massage with long strokes over your limbs and circular movements over your joints. Massage the abdomen clockwise, which is good for your digestion. Include your armpits, chest, abdomen, hands and feet in the massage.
  • The order you want to follow depends on the effect you want to achieve.
    • To ground Vata or balance Pitta, it helps to start with your head and gradually work your way towards your feet; 1. Scalp, 2. Face (including ears), 3. Front and backside of neck, 4. Chest & abdomen, 5. Back (as far as you can reach), 6. Armpits, shoulders & arms, 7. Legs & Feet (including foot soles and toes).
    • To activate Kapha energy, it is better to start at your feet and work towards your head.
    • Another Ayurvedic approach is to work from your extremities such as hands and feet towards your heart. To make things a little more confusing, continue massaging in the direction of your hair growth so that you don't disrupt the natural flow of Vata.
    • If you don't have time for a full body massage, you can also massage just the soles of your feet. This is also very nice to do just before going to sleep. You can then put on loose-fitting socks to let the oil soak in overnight.
  • If you don't want to wash your hair afterwards, you can skip massaging your head. But if you have the possibility, it is really recommended to include your head in the massage. Besides the fact that it has a very relaxing effect and is good for keeping the Vata mind under control, it is good for your scalp and hair. Ayurveda has even linked the nutrition of your hair to the nutrition of your bones.
  • There are also many marma points (vital energy nodes in the body) on your face. Moreover, it is a good addition to your facial care. Also include the edges of your eye sockets (especially around the eye brows) and your ears, which can feel very relaxing.
  • In any case, massage with attention and awareness. Just like in your yoga asana practice, try to really connect with your body and what you feel. Just as it is often easier said than done with yoga postures, it can also be a challenge during the massage. The effect is created by working on it, so don't let it discourage you if you find it challenging to connect to your body.


Taking it all in and wrapping up

  • If you have the time, let the oil soak in for 15 to 20 minutes. If you have less time, it is better to let the oil soak in for a short period of time but still do the massage, rather than skipping it altogether.
  • If you otherwise get cold, you can put on old clothes and thick socks while you let the oil soak in. Otherwise, ensure a well-heated room.
  • While the oil is soaking in, you can meditate, practice pranayama or read a book. In any case, choose something relaxing.
  • Shower with warm water. The warm water will open your pores and the oil will penetrate deeper layers of the skin. It is best not to use soap, because it will dry out the skin again. The thin layer of oil that might remain is very nourishing for the skin. When washing your hair, it is best to apply the shampoo before wetting the hair, so that the shampoo adheres better to the oil.


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