Abhyanga – Love your Skin!
December 15, 2014
Kathy Gehlken, MA, RD, CMP, RYT
If you have ever consulted with an Ayurvedic Practitioner, chances are that they recommended abhyanga to you. Abhyangas are a prized therapy in Ayurvedic Medicine and can be received from a massage therapist or self-administered. Christine Tykeson, fellow Ayurvedic Practitioner and Massage Therapist in Lompoc, CA, has been doing extensive research into the use of Sesame oil and Ayurvedic Body Therapies and shared her insights with me recently.
Christine outlined the major benefits, from an Ayurvedic perspective, of abhyanga as follows: “Abhyanga relaxes and nourishes the nervous system, stimulates the agni (metabolic fire) of all the tissues in the body, stimulates circulation of blood and lymph, tones and softens the skin and underlying tissues, and makes the body strong and flexible.”
So, what is an abhyanga?
Basically, abhyanga is applying warm oil to the body. Sometimes, people refer to it as a massage, but that is not exactly correct. The purpose of a massage is to manually manipulate the muscles while an abhyanga has a very different purpose which is to get the oil into the body through the skin. Oil is used in an ordinary massage to reduce friction—to provide “glide” when working the muscles. But with an abhyanga, the oil is the main point of the massage. The oil is applied and rubbed into the skin to absorb in and to nourish and cleanse the tissues. It is part of the system of therapeutics called snehana (oelation). It is recommended that people do their own abhyanga at home daily as a routine. You can also receive an abhyanga from a massage therapist.
How is this done?
Traditionally two therapists apply and work the oil into the body, working in unison in a synchronistic pattern with their strokes. It is also possible to have one therapist doing an abhyanga, although that is less traditional, but it still has a wonderful effect. The term “snehana”, or oelation, is translated to mean “tremendous love and immense tenderness”. So you get a sense that there is a process going on which effects the body, but also there is a component to the practice which is really beneficial to the mind and the emotions.
It is also done as part of the Ayurvedic detoxification process called Pancha Karma. During the detox, the person’s skin receives Ayurvedic body therapies daily in order to saturate the tissues with oil, softening the tissues down to the cellular level which opens the channels of all the cells and tissues of the body to release toxins and allow their transport to the inner channels to be eliminated. On the days that this external oelation is happening, there is also an internal oelation (also part of snehana) that takes place which involves consuming ghee so that the tissues are saturated from oil coming in from the outside of the body during the abhyanga and oil coming in from the inside through the consuming of the ghee.
Interestinly, Dr Hari Sharma, of Maharishi Ayurveda, conducted research on the effects of oelation during Pancha Karma. His research showed that lipid peroxide levels in the blood (which is a marker showing damage caused by free radicals in the body and which can also become a source of more free radicals) rose during Pancha Karma but fell close to 3 months following the process to levels below what was present prior to the treatments. The proposed mechanism for this is that the damaged, peroxidized, cell membrane lipids were replaced by the lipids contained in sesame oil and ghee. This exchange allowed for elimination of the damaged cells. This potentially shows the detoxification principle at work through the oelation process and also might explain why Pancha Karma is considered a premier anti-aging therapy.
Tell me more about Abhyanga, why is it so important?
As a self-administered massage, abhyanga is a recommended practice as part of the daily health routine (dinacharya). The Charaka-Samhita and the Astanga Hrdayam, foundational ancient texts of Ayurveda, have recorded the virtues of it.
"The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much even if subjected to accidental injuries 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. - Charaka Samhita
One of the principle uses of abhyanga is to pacify Vata dosha (the air/ether humour in the body). Managing Vata dosha is a big part of maintaining balance in the body for everyone. Vata is the dosha which moves everything. It is not possible for one to move into imbalance without the aid of Vata dosha and keeping it in balance is a major key to health according to Ayurveda.
Principally Vata qualities are mobile, drying and cold. Oils are generally warming, unctuous, moistening and lubricating. They have very nourishing, nurturing qualities that calm and relax the Vata nervous and active tendencies. Some oils, like coconut oil and ghee can be more cooling and are best for hot Pitta dosha. But generally all oils have this heavy, luxurious and nourishing quality that is very comforting especially to pacify Vata imbalances which are very prevalent in a stressful, active world. This time of year, in the fall and early winter (Vata season), the qualities of Vata are high and people feel dry and stressed. So, it is especially important to do regular abhyanga this time of year.
How does the oil get “digested” through the skin?
One of the wonderful things that Ayurveda teaches is the importance of digestion to health. We not only digest our food but we must digest the impressions which come through all our senses and from our own mind. The skin also is considered an organ of digestion. Classically prepared Ayurvedic oils are prepared with as many as 20 to 30 herbs—it can take a month to make one of these oils. The oil transports the herbs through the skin layers to the body. But, also, and this is a really interesting point, the herbs act to help the digestion of the oil through the skin. It is similar to the use of herbs in cooking acting as effective digestants. Just think how hard it is to digest food that is bland. It seems to sit there in the stomach. Add a little pepper or anything aromatic or pungent and it is more easily digested. It is much better to use an herbal oil than plain sesame or coconut or any other plain oil when doing abhyanga.
We don’t often think of digesting through our skin. We think of the skin as a barrier to letting things in, yet there are in use today many applications which make use of transdermal absorption: transdermal skin patches for various medications, transdermal hormone creams, sublingual vitamins that absorb through the oral mucosa and the like. Essential oils have been shown to be quickly absorbed transdermally, showing up in the blood shortly following application.
I found a very interesting example demonstrating the transdermal properties of oil. There was a study written up in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1987 of a 10 year old girl who suffered from a condition called “benign intrahepatic cholestasis”. This is a condition in which bile flow and liver function are impaired, and it made it difficult for her to digest fat. This created a deficiency of essential fatty acids and her growth rate was seriously retarded. She had been growing only 1.2 cm/year. The girl was treated long-term with cutaneous applications of sunflower seed oil. Following the treatments, and it is important to note that there were no other changes to her regimen, she went through an incredible growth spurt of 23.8 cm in 3.5 years – 5.6 cm more a year, over 4 1/2 times the rate of growth she’d experienced prior. Also, the serum values for the essential fatty acids improved. So we can see that the skin can take in nourishment.
Here is another example: if you have ever taken an Epsom salt bath you would have experienced a pronounced feeling of relaxation and reduction of muscle tension and often pain due to the absorption of magnesium into the tissues. Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate. Studies measuring magnesium levels in blood have shown increases in most subjects following bathing in Epsom salts.
There is an Ayurvedic principle that bears mentioning at this juncture. Ayurveda teaches that it is important not to put anything on the skin that you would not eat. If you put it on your skin, your skin may digest it. And, what is more the skin will take it directly to the blood supply, not to the liver for detoxification, which is what happens when substances enter the body through the digestive tract. A big concern environmentally is that of chemical exposure to the skin of various chemicals like pesticides in agriculture and other hazardous chemicals which escape into the environment and are easily absorbed through the skin. And now there is growing concern about common beauty products and hygiene products containing chemicals which are showing up in the body tissues: in the blood, breast milk, other tissues, after absorbing through the skin.
How deeply does the oil penetrate into the body?
Sesame oil is considered the best oil to penetrate deeply into the tissues due to its low molecular weight. It is reputed to penetrate all 7 skin layers and is able to enter the capillaries in the dermis of the skin and affect the entire body. Another interesting fact is that the seven layers of skin correspond to the seven dhatus or tissues of the body: the seven dhatus are the plasma, red blood cells, muscle, fat (adipose tissue), bone, nerve tissue, and reproductive tissue. Each tissue has a specialized agni, or fire element, which serves to digest and manage other important metabolic processes pertaining to that tissue. As each layer of skin digests the oil, the metabolism of that tissue is activated and effects the functioning of the tissue metabolism throughout the body.
What nutrition/nourishment is provided for the skin and other tissues?
First of all, sesame oil has slight antibacterial properties as well as anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, anti-oxidant, cholesterol-lowering properties. It is known to have natural sunscreen properties that can protect from sun damage to the skin. It has been shown in a study published in the journal Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (1992) to block the growth of malignant melanoma in human cells. Another study showed that it may inhibit the growth of colon cancer.
It is rich in Vitamins A and E as well as some B . It also is a good source of minerals, iron, calcium, magnesium, copper, silicic acid and phosphorus. It contains linoleic acid and alpha linoleic acid and lecithin which benefit the brain and nervous system. The presence of alpha linoleic acid is particularly interesting in light of a passage in the Astanga Hrdayam which says that sesame oil “makes lean persons fatty and fat persons lean.” That sounds like an impossible claim, but the presence of alpha linoleic acid may explain this. Alpha linoleic acid has been a supplement embraced by fitness buffs for its ability to enhance certain metabolic processes.
I focus on sesame oil as it is my area of research. Other oils commonly used in Ayurvedic massage and mentioned in the classic texts are coconut oil, safflower oil, castor oil, mustard oil and neem oil. These oils have special properties as well. Coconut oil is cooling for hot Pitta types and can be helpful to use for abhyanga during the summer months. Safflower can also be used for abhyanga and is good to use for Pittas as well. Castor oil is good for certain conditions, and is mixed with sesame oil in certain preparations, but I wouldn’t use it alone for abhyanga—it is rather thick and sticky. Mustard oil can be good for cold Kapha types who benefit from the stimulation and moving quality of mustard oil. Mustard oil can be mixed with sesame oil in preparations for Kapha body types. Neem oil is effective for irritated skin conditions and can be used for those areas specifically but is not favored for abhyanga. As an interesting side note the sanskrit term ‘taila’, which is translated to mean ‘oil’ specially refers to the oil of tila (sesame). In the classic texts when taila is referred to it means sesame oil unless specific mention is made of another kind of oil.
Does the technique in applying self-abhyanga matter or is it just a matter of applying oil?
Classically, abhyangha is a vigorous massage. When I give an abhyangha massage to a client I usually break out in a sweat, as it is so active. The idea is to warm the skin and drive the oil into the body. Even the head massage is fairly vigorous and stimulating. The duration of the massage is also an important consideration. It is best to spend ample time on each part of the body.
For a self-administered abhyanga, you would make long strokes along the arms, legs, buttocks and parts of the spine and neck that you can reach and circular strokes around the joints and on the abdomen—at least 20 times is a good amount of strokes for each part of the body. You’d leave the oil on the skin for a minimum of 20 minutes.
It is a good idea for the oil to be rinsed off shortly after the 20 minutes as the massage and the oil will loosen toxins which will come out through the skin and unless the oil is cleaned off the body will reabsorb the toxins. Traditionally a steam bath (swedana) follows a therapeutic abhyanga which would further loosen toxins and help them exit the skin through sweat and the steam water contacting the skin. After the bath the sweat and steam is wiped off the skin with a towel.
Sometimes it is not possible to bathe or shower following the daily massage due to time limitations. My feeling is that the amount of oil and the detoxification effect is strongest for an abhyanga received from a therapist at a spa or clinic, so the showering recommendation is more important in that situation. It is not always possible to do that on a daily basis and if you are maintaining a practice of abhyanga, the detoxification will be lighter and something that is maintaine—like keeping things straightened out at home rather than doing extensive spring cleaning.
All that being said, the most important thing is to get some oil onto and into the skin regularly. If you can get some oil on in 5 minutes before or after your shower every day, that is much better than not doing abhyanga at all and will have a wonderful effect on your health.
Certain factors will improve the results. Warmth helps. Warm oil or warm skin or both will help the oil penetrate better. You can warm the oil easily in a hot water bath. I like to pour it in a metal portion cup or small metal bowl and sit that in a bowl of hot water. The oil warms fairly quickly. Friction helps—the more friction the better the absorption.
Some places in the body are more absorbent. The soles of the feet are very absorbent and also, as the feet are one of the areas where a lot of nerves end, rubbing oil on the feet affects the nervous system profoundly. Also rubbing the ears or the head with oil will affect the nervous system in a very good way. It can be difficult to emphasize the head as an area to receive oil massage. Most people don’t like a rich layer of oil on their hair. It is best to do the head massage, if this is a concern, the night before, or just before, shampooing the hair. To best get the excess oil out of the hair when shampooing, add the shampoo and massage in before wetting the hair, then wet, lather and rinse. You may need to shampoo twice. Although it is extra work, it is very beneficial for the health of the hair and scalp and also beneficial to the entire nervous system.
There are some cases where abhyanga is contra-indicated. Conditions of high ama (toxicity) are one situation where you would avoid oiling the body. Also, you may not want to initiate any detoxification response that comes from the oils penetrating and loosening ama during pregnancy or during menses when the system is already very impacted. It would be best to see an Ayurvedic practitioner for advice on how to proceed in these circumstances.
One small benefit which can make a big difference is that you can completely eradicate ever having dry winter skin again, an important concern this time of year. I haven’t had winter skin since I began a regular practice of abhyanga almost 10 years ago. That alone is definitely worth it. But there are many good reasons to do this practice. Ayurvedic oils are one of the best, most natural things you can put on your skin. The most important thing, though, about abhyanga is to do it and to enjoy it.
More from Kathy Gehlkin, MA, RDN, CMP can be found at: kathygehlken.com
Christine Tykeson is an Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist who practices in Lompoc, CA. She specializes in Ayurvedic body therapies and has done research in preparation for a literature review of both modern and traditional information regarding transdermal therapies in Ayurvedic body therapies particularly that which pertains to the use of sesame oil.