Ayurvedic massage is known as abhyanga.
The word ‘abhyanga‘ is composed of two Sanskrit words, abhi,and anga. Abhi means ‘towards’ and anga, in one of its meanings, refers to ‘movement’.
In this article, we’ll cover many aspects of abhyanga, and hopefully answer all your questions. Here’s what you’ll learn. Leave your questions about Ayurvedic massage in the comments below.
Abhyanga is a synchronized massaging of the body towards the direction of the movement of arterial blood.
In practical terms, it means massaging the body in the direction of the body hair.
The scientific reason for this may be due to the increase in blood flow towards the most distal parts of the body.
If the massage is done towards the heart, or in the direction opposite to that of the body hair, the massage may overwhelm the heart through the increased venous return.
Abhyanga may be done using oil, herbal powder, herbal pastes or ghee.
It is a part of the daily routine suggested by Ayurveda. It is used for relief of pain, stiffness, and tiredness.
It also forms an important part of snehana or oleation which is an indispensable prelude to panchakarma treatments, the five Ayurvedic detoxification therapies.
Abhyanga not only prepares the body for panchakarma, but also helps to mobilize the dosha or morbidity from the periphery toward the core in order to get them eliminated through the body orifices.
Vata dosha is particularly pacified by abhyanga. Pitta and Kapha can be pacified with a massage using different massage mediums like ghee and herbal powders respectively.
Abhyanga is considered an important treatment modality for balancing the dosha. Melanie and Robert Sachs explain in the following video. Leave your questions in the comments below!
Abhyanga and other types of massage are similar in two ways. Both involve basic manipulation techniques that have been developed through experience and have been passed on from generation to generation.
Interestingly, Ayurvedic texts do not give details of the procedures involved in abhyanga but mention certain techniques.
‘Samvahan’ means gentle rubbing. ‘Peedan‘ means pressing and squeezing. ‘Mardan’ means pressure massage, which corresponds to modern-day massage techniques.
Various abhyanga techniques have been developed over the centuries.
Marma massage and Kerala foot massage which were traditionally used to heal injured warriors were carefully guarded secrets. Now they are being taught openly as well.
Abhyanga differs from other massages in that it invariably uses copious amounts of oil for massaging the body.
Unlike massage which is used for recreation and relaxation, abhyanga is a therapeutic procedure used in many health disorders. Medicated oils are used to encourage therapeutic effects on the body.
This type of distinction is not made by modern-day massage therapy unless combined with aromatherapy.
Ayurvedic massage can be classified into different types according to the body part involved and the techniques developed and used by different schools of massage.
The Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita specifically mentions the benefits of full-body abhyanga (sarvanga abhyanga), head massage (shiro abhyanga) and foot massage (pad abhyanga) separately.
This shows the relative importance of massage of these particular parts of the body. They can be massaged in isolation or along with full body massage.
To reiterate this fact, Vagbhatta’s Ashtanga Hridayam states that even if one is unable to perform a full body massage, feet and head should be massaged regularly.
Other popular abhyanga forms are marma massage and Kerala foot massage. Traditionally in rural India massage of the newborn and post-delivery massage of the mother by the midwife is popular.
Massage is also done by traditional ‘bone setters’ for sprains, dislocations, and fractures.
Though there are no details of massage procedures in the ancient texts, the techniques of abhyanga have been developed by the traditional practitioners and have been more or less standardized.
The reason seems to be that abhyanga was such a common and indispensable part of the daily routine at the time these texts were written that they did not feel the need to explain the technique in detail.
Only to reiterate their importance, the benefits were highlighted.
Here are the basic techniques and steps involved in these different forms of abhyanga based on the experiences of different Ayurvedic practitioners and abhyanga therapists.
Ideally, full-body Ayurvedic massage should start with the head and end at the feet.
The body should be massaged in sections and not the whole body at a stretch. This is to facilitate the proper flow of blood and lymph and induce relaxation of the body part by part, from the head downwards.
Massage should be done slowly with varying pressures.
Firm pressure should be applied on the extremities and light to very light pressure should be applied to the neck, abdomen, heart area, face, eyes, and forehead.
The extremities can be massaged with long strokes in the direction of the body hair. The back of the neck, waist, and sides of the body can also be massaged using long and firm strokes.
Circular clockwise motion should be used on the joints.
The abdomen should be massaged in a clockwise circular motion in the direction of the large intestine. Move up on the right side then straight across the abdomen and then downwards on the left side.
The massage should be done for 5-15 minutes on a routine basis and on weekends one should give at least 10 -15 minutes to each of the three areas of the body – head, body, and feet.
Rest for 15 minutes after massage then take a warm water bath.
Massage should be done in a comfortably warm, ventilated but draft-free room like a bathroom.
Warm oil should be used for the body and cool to lukewarm oil should be used on the head. In peak summer season cool oil can be used and in cold seasons lukewarm to warm oil should only be used even on the head.
For Pitta dominated people or for those with Pitta aggravation, oil at room temperature can be used.
The choice of oils should preferably be made according to your dosha or body type and the area to be massaged. For the head, generally oils with cooling properties are used.
For the body, use sesame, olive, sunflower, mustard or corn oils.
For the head, use coconut oil or sesame oil infused with cooling herbs.
For the feet use any oil appropriate for the dosha. Or use ghee.
In addition, there are several herb-infused oils available for different purposes and can be selected following the advice of an Ayurvedic practitioner.
Begin by heating a quarter cup of massage oil. It should be slightly warmer than body temperature, 38°C or 100°F, for example.
This is typically done by placing a container of the oil in hot water for a short while. A plastic squeeze bottle works well.
Start by massaging the head.
Put a small amount of oil on the crown. This is the area on the head that remains soft in young children and subsequently becomes ossified. Give gentle dabbing strokes using your palm.
Pour more oil on the scalp and massage using open palms of the hands and the flat surfaces of the fingers (rather than the fingertips) for the whole massage. The stroke should be circular, using small circles.
Spend more time on the head than on other parts of the body.
The head has marma points (vital points) which influence all the other parts of the body. Head massage in itself is a very important part of self-care.
According to Ayurveda, it can be a quick fix for headaches, insomnia, and stress. Massage the face and outer part of the ears, using the fingers.
Massaging the ears is said to influence the whole body.
Give them some extra time, but don’t massage them vigorously.
Massage the entire outer ear and apply some oil at the opening of the auditory canal and massage using your little or index finger.
Trim your nails if you have long ones. At this point, you may want to smear oil over the rest of the body.
This will give the maximum time for the oil to penetrate the skin.
Massage the front and back of the neck, and the upper part of the back using firm and long strokes along the direction of muscle fibers.
Next massage the arms, chest, and stomach.
Massage the arms using long strokes in the direction of the body hair (from the shoulder towards the hand).
Use a circular motion, on the shoulder, wrist and elbow joint.
The palms, back of the hands and the individual finger and the finger joints should also be massaged with firm but gentle pressure using the thumb and finger of the other hand.
Repeat for the other arm in succession. Now do the chest and stomach. Use moderate to light pressure particularly on the heart area.
Use a circular motion over the pectoral area, and a very gentle, vertical motion over the breastbone and solar plexus.
Use a very gentle circular motion over the abdomen, moving clockwise, in the direction of the large intestine.
Massage the back, spine, and sides as far as your hands can reach using firm and long strokes.
Massage the legs and feet.
Now massage the legs in the same way you did the arms: straight on the bones, circular on the joints and from the hip downwards in the direction of the body hair.
Massage the feet spending more time. Massage the sole and top of the foot vigorously applying firm pressure with your palms. The toes are massaged individually like fingers.
Feet also contain many vital points and nerve endings, and like the head affects the whole body. Foot massage is a ritual in itself and thus is detailed later in this section.
The ideal length of a daily full body massage is 15 to 30 minutes, but even a quick massage for 5 minutes could be very beneficial. In these short massages make the priorities the head and feet.
Be careful about getting oil on your bathroom floor. If your bathroom is carpeted, we suggest that you protect it with an inexpensive floor mat or some disposable covering.
A plastic tablecloth works well. Take a warm shower 20 minutes after your massage. Do not use soap on the body.
Instead, take black gram flour for Vata dominant body types or triphala powder for Kapha and Pitta dominant body types.
Mix these with some water to make a thick paste and apply all over. Rub it off once it starts drying.
It will take away all the oil but still, some oil will be left to nourish the skin.
For taking oil out of the hair an herbal shampoo can be used. Dab the body dry with a towel.
It’s best to keep separate towels for massage as ultimately they get oily and need to be changed.
Caution: Never put oily towels in a dryer or hot vehicle as oil and heat can start a fire.
For Kapha types who have a Kapha dominance, and in the case when the weather is too humid, the same steps of massage can be done using raw silk gloves.
Alternatively, first, smear the body with a paste of triphala powder mixed in warm water and let dry. Then rub it off using the same massage strokes.
For the head and face, bare hands have to be used. To enhance the effect, the dry massage can be done in the direction opposite to the body hair.
Ayurvedic massage should not be done in the following conditions according to Ayurveda.
The head should be given an exclusive 15-minute massage at least twice a week.
How To Give Yourself A Head Massage
Begin by choosing an oil.
Sesame, mustard, almond, coconut, and olive oils are most commonly used. Coconut oil and sesame oil are best for massaging the scalp.
Step 1: Pour some oil on the crown area and do gentle dabbing strokes with your palm.
Let the oil spread over the scalp assisted by your palms. Then, starting from the sides and working towards the top, give the scalp a moderately vigorous massage in small circular patterns using your palms.
Work your way toward the front and back of the head. Once the whole scalp has been covered, gently massage the whole head in the same circular fashion, with your thumbs and fingers using the flat surfaces.
Step 2: Grasp fistfuls of hair at the roots and tug from side to side, keeping your knuckles very close to the scalp.
Gently squeeze at the temples with the heels of the hands and make slow, wide, circular movements of the head. Bow down your head slightly and massage the back of the neck by squeezing and rolling the muscles.
Begin at the top of the neck and work your way down, first with one hand and then with the other hand.
Step 3: Place the thumb of your left hand under the left occipital area (base of the head) and the thumb of your right hand under the right occipital area. Relax the tight muscles by using friction or a rubbing movement.
Place your right hand on your left shoulder near your neck. Using medium pressure, gently squeeze the shoulder muscle that starts at the base of your neck.
Work your way outwards along your shoulder to your arm and then down as far as your elbow. When you reach your elbow, go back to the base of your neck and do this twice more.
Concentrate on squeezing and releasing the muscles. Repeat on the right side using your left hand.
Step 4: Finally, rub lightly using the flat surface of your fingers and thumbs all over the head; extend this movement to cover your face. If possible, relax for a few minutes afterward.
Take a head bath using an herbal shampoo or an herbal dry shampoo powder. Wrap wet hair and let dry.
Comb hair repeatedly with a wide-toothed comb when fully dry.
The foot massage should be done exclusively for 15 minutes at least once a week or more if time permits.
First Prepare A Foot Bath
Create a foot soak that meets your current needs, using one of the following recipes.
Submerge your feet in the solution and relax for 10 minutes. Remove your feet when done and pat them dry.
To Cool Down
Pitta constitutions and those experiencing summer will enjoy this cooling recipe.
Fill a foot tub with cool water and mix in a tablespoon of honey and a handful each of dried lavender and fresh rose petals. You can also use lavender essential oil, rose or a Pitta soothing blend.
This will soothe the mind.
To Warm Up
Kapha constitutions and those experiencing winter will enjoy this warming recipe.
Fill a foot tub with lukewarm water and add 1 teaspoon of dried ginger powder. This will invigorate the body and increase circulation.
To Relax And Rejuvenate
Those with Vata constitutions and those experiencing rainy season will benefit from this recipe.
Fill a foot tub with very warm water and add 2 tablespoons of rock salt to 3 liters (about 12 cups) of water.
This will reduce any swelling and alleviate fatigue.
If you would like to learn more about abhyanga, check out this Ayurvedic course by Melanie and Robert Sachs below.
Now you are ready to give yourself a foot massage.
Use slightly warm sesame or olive oil for Vata, mustard oil for Kapha or ghee/coconut oil for Pitta. Apply the oil/ghee generously throughout your massage.
Step 1: Start With Your Left Foot
Take your left foot and some oil and massage in circles around the ankle.
With your right hand, squeeze down from the base of the calf muscle all the way to the heel bone, 3 times.
Holding the heel, flex and extend the ball of the foot several times.
Massage the spaces between all the toes, pinching the webbing between your index finger and thumb. Glide your thumbs up and down the grooves between the tendons on the top of the foot.
Step 2: Now turn your foot over so the sole is facing you and hold it in both hands, with your thumbs just under the ball of the foot.
Press your fingers into the top side of the foot, stretching the base of the toes apart.
Then use your thumbs to “milk” each toe, sliding from the base over the tip of each toe several times.
Step 3: Next, massage vigorously from heel to toe using the heel of your hand.
Walk your thumbs along the outer edges of the foot, along the arch, and deeply into the edge of the heel. Use your knuckles to massage the arch.
Hold your ankle with your left hand and the top of your foot with the right, rotating the foot clockwise, then counterclockwise.
Step 4: Grasp your big toe and rotate it fully, as if you were drawing a large circle with the tip of the toe.
Then rub the toes between the palms of your hands and massage the base of each toe with your thumb.
Finally, using the flat palm of your left hand, massage the entire sole of your foot in a figure-8 pattern.
Step 5: To finish, pat the sole of your foot a few times.
Then press the palm of your hand to the center of the sole of your foot feeling the subtle energy at this marma (pressure point). This encourages a healthy flow of apana vayu, the grounding, and the downward moving subtype of Vata.
Repeat the entire sequence on the right foot.
Finally, rinse your feet with warm water.
Dry them thoroughly and slip into clean cotton socks, which will allow your feet to feel protected, soft, comfortable, and responsive.
Marma massage is a specialty of Ayurveda. Only a few practitioners are experts in this form of massage.
It involves the manipulation of 107 vital points called marmas located at different anatomical sites on the body. Traditionally they were used to judge the prognosis of the injuries of warriors and were also used to direct the energy flow to heal their injuries.
Currently, this knowledge is held by a very limited number of practitioners in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India.
They claim to manage various disorders related to different organs through Marma massage therapy, relieve pain and improve digestion and metabolism.
If you would like to learn more about abhyanga, check out this Ayurvedic course by Melanie and Robert Sachs below.
In this unique form of massage, firm pressure is applied by a masseur. He uses his foot while balancing himself on the body of his client.
The client lies on a mat on a hard floor while the masseur balances himself holding ropes that hang from the ceiling.
Obviously, the technique requires the use of the right amount of pressure, balance, and strength.
The body is then massaged from the neck to the toes after applying a suitable oil.
Kerala foot massage is believed to remove pain, stiffness, and edema. It provides suppleness, flexibility, and agility. This technique is traditionally taught by masters that transfer the knowledge to their students.
Ayurveda believes that post-delivery there is an aggravation of Vata dosha.
Due to the delivery of the baby, there is a void left behind and Vata finds an opportunity to fill that void.
Unless Vata dosha is pacified, it tends to cause a local aggravation in the uterus which in turn affects the whole body.
To pacify Vata, along with a Vata pacifying, easily digestible diet, massage is performed with an appropriate oil like Dhanwantram oil.
Postnatal massage is usually started the fifth or tenth day after a normal vaginal delivery.
In the case of a cesarean section, postnatal massage is done after at least 21 days.
The basic method of giving the massage is the same as explained above, but the pressure applied is gentler in comparison.
The massage is always done in the morning followed by a warm water bath or warm water bath infused with herbs.
Massage given at this time helps the ligaments and muscles that go lax during the pregnancy to firm up. It prevents sagging of the lower abdomen and prevents various Vata disorders that the mother is prone to at this time.
In a randomized, controlled study on the effects of massage therapy on preterm infants, greater weight gain was reported for the massage therapy group.
The study involved moderate pressure along with flexion and extension of the upper and lower extremities. The massage was given for 10 to 15 minutes, three times a day.
The study reported greater weight gain for those receiving massage therapy versus the standard care control group.1
Sesame oil processed with herbs is considered the best oil for newborns. Among the commonly used herbal oils are bala talia, bala lakshadi oil, ashwagandhadi oil,and bala ashwagandhadi Taila.
Otherwise, ghee, coconut oil or just sesame oil may be used. This may be done after doing a patch test on the infant’s skin, testing for any allergic reaction.
Step 1: Use comfortably warm massage oil by keeping the bottle in a warm water bath. Test the temperature on the back of your hand before applying it to the baby.
Step 2: Wash your hands with antiseptic soap and dry with a sterile towel. Pour some oil in your palm and dip fingertips into the warm oil and apply lightly to the entire body.
Wait for 4-5 minutes to let some of the oil absorb into the skin. Massage the entire body, applying even pressure with the whole palm rather than the fingers.2
Step 3: Apply light pressure on sensitive areas like the abdomen and heart.
Use more oil and spend more time where nerve endings are concentrated. The soles of the feet and palms of the hands are good places.
Step 4: Use circular motions over rounded areas such as the head or joints. Use straight strokes on straight areas such as the arms and legs.
Caution: Avoid pulling on the limbs and crossing the legs or the arms. Do not hyper-flex or hyperextend any body part. Avoid massaging on the bregma, the soft area on the top of the head, until it firms up. Just put some oil on it and leave it there.
After the massage, let the child relax for 10-15 minutes. After one hour, give the child a warm water bath.
Newborn massages can be given immediately after birth once the baby is vitally stable.
The only prerequisite to this is that the baby should be vitally stable. There should be no signs of illness or sickness.
Signs of illness or sickness include lethargy, refusal to feed, convulsions, respiratory distress and more.
Check with your doctor or health care provider to see if your newborn baby is ready for massage.
In a vitally stable and healthy newborn, massage can be given once daily either in the morning or evening.
If one does not start newborn massage after birth, then there is no specific time or indication to start the procedure. You may begin as long as the baby is in good health.
One can give abhyanga to a baby at any time of the day. The ideal time to do abhyanga though is in the morning.
Take care that the room temperature is not less than 25 degrees Celsius or 77 degrees Fahrenheit in order to prevent hypothermia to the baby.
Windows should be closed and there should be no drafts while doing the massage.
Continue abhyanga until the completion of infantile age, or up to one year of life. It can be done every day in the absence of illness.
In newborns, massage pacifies Vata dosha and strengthens the bones. It improves the strength of the muscle and tendons. It induces good sleep, causes weight gain and growth.
Massage should not be done if the child appears sick or has a fever, congenital heart disease, has just fed, has indigestion or is throwing up.
Wait for two hours after feeding to begin the massage.
Please consult a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner before undergoing any kind of abhyanga session.
1 Tiffany Field, Miguel Diego, and Maria HernandezReif. Preterm Infant Massage Therapy Research: A Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2844909/
2 Bala Tail Abhyangya For Weight Gain In LBW Infant – A Case Study. Dr. Shubhangi K. Thakur* and Dr. Ramchadra P. Babar.
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