How does Ayurvedic massage work? The various benefits of Ayurvedic massage (Abhyanga) enumerated in the classical texts of Ayurveda, can be attributed to three mechanisms. The mechanical and sensory effect of Ayurvedic massage has one role to play. The effect of the oil or ghee used as well as the action of the active principles of the herbs within those medicated oils also contribute to benefits of the massage.
Charaka has described that Vata dominates in the tactile sensory organ, which in turn resides in the skin. Abhyanga on the skin helps to control the Vata and thus is beneficial for this tactile organ (the skin). Charaka insists that one should practice Ayurvedic massage regularly.1
Modern knowledge of embryology has told us that the most innervated layer of skin (the epidermis) and the nervous system develops from the ectoderm, one of the three primordial germ layers that are formed in the developing embryo. Charak also indicates this when he attributes the development of the sense organ of touch, i.e skin, and the sensory motor system in the developing embryo to the air element.2
This is very much akin to the modern day knowledge of embryology. There is a connection between the skin, the tactile organ, and the brain. This in turn supports modern day research on the therapeutic benefits of massage mediated through touch. Massage has shown to foster better growth in premature infants3, calmer behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)4, lower stress hormones in adults5 and lesser pain, depression, insomnia and improved locomotion in elderly, who receive regular massage.6
The different mechanisms postulated for the effect of the massage are numerous.
Massage can produce mechanical pressure, which is expected to increase muscle complianceresulting in increased range of joint motion, decreased passive stiffness and decreased active stiffness (biomechanical mechanisms).
Mechanical pressure might help to increase blood flow.It increases the arteriolar pressure through release of vaso-dilatory substances like histamine, bradykinin and kalidin which have a local and generalized vaso-dilatory effect. It fosters development of new arteries through passive stretching and through increase in muscle temperature.7
Changes in parasympathetic activity (as measured by heart rate, blood pressure and heart rate variability) and hormonal levels (as measured by cortisol levels) following massage result in a relaxation response (physiological mechanisms). A reduction in anxiety and an improvement in mood state also cause relaxation (psychological mechanisms) after massage.8
A new study has revealed for the first time how kneading eases sore muscles—by turning off genes associated with inflammation and turning on genes that help muscles heal. The discovery contradicts popular claims that massage squeezes lactic acid or waste products out of tired muscles and could bring new medical credibility to the practice.9
In a study dated February, 2012 from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, CA found that massage therapy triggers biochemical sensors that send inflammation-reducing signals to muscle cells. This reduces pain in the same way that painkillers do.10
However, it may be concluded that there would be multiple mechanisms involved in the overall effect of massage, brought about through different types of mechanical manipulations of the soft tissues of the body as experienced in the clinical settings.
Abhyanga involves the use of oily substances like oil and ghee which come under the category of unctuous substances referred to as ‘Sneha’. The word Sneha is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘snih’, which literally means that which causes affection. So, we can say that Sneha is an oily substance that has the capacity to ‘pamper’ the body.
Oil and ghee which come under the category of ‘sneha’ have certain properties in common which are believed to execute their different actions, broadly aimed at pacifying Vata. They have many properties that are opposite to the properties of Vata. Hence as per the rule of similarities and opposites propagated by Ayurveda, Vata is mitigated through use of sneha in Abhyanga. These are the properties of sneha.
This is opposite the light property of Vata. The heavy property increases bodily strength and Kapha. It has the ability of pacifying Vata dosha, increasing the strength of Kapha dosha and nourishing the body. Due to these properties it mitigates the aggravated Vata, increases the depleted Kapha and nourishes the body.
This is opposite the dry property of Vata. Unctuous is the main property of Sneha, known as Snigdh guna. Snigdh guna also acts through its Vata pacifying, Kapha pacifying and nourishing properties. It performs the actions of unctuousness, moisturization and liquefaction at the cellular level of the body.
This is opposite the hard property of Vata. With this property sneha used in Abhyanga reduces stiffness.
With this property the sneha spreads all over the body. Sneha liquefies the Dosha (kapha and Pitta) and mobilizes them by increasing their flowing capacity. It thereby pacifies the aggravated Vata by clearing obstruction produced by Pitta and Kapha in its path.
Slimy is opposite to the rough property of Vata. Sneha increases the body’s strength and maintains the structure at the molecular level due to this property.
Slipperiness is opposite to the tendency of Vata to cause roughness. Due to this property it mobilizes the Doshas and waste products (ama, or toxins) to exit the body.
This property is opposite to the fast-moving property of Vata. The sneha diffuses slowly but remains in the contact of Doshas, tissues and toxic or metabolic wastes for a long time.
Through this property, sneha diffuses into the fine channels of the body and executes its action deep in the tissues, driving the dosha including Vata out of them.
All these properties work together in the process of abhyanga to produce its beneficial effects.
Dalhana, a commentator of the Sushruta Samhita, the authentic reference text on Ayurvedic anatomy and surgery, explains that the mode of action of sneha when used externally, enters into the root of the hair follicles in about 96 seconds. Specifically, Dalhana states that oil enters the hair follicles in 300 matras, one matra being approximately 1/3rd of a second.
In about 128 seconds or 400 matra, oil reaches the full thickness of the skin. Oil reaches the blood in about 160 seconds or 500 matra. By 192 seconds, 600 matra, after the application of oil it reaches the muscles. Within 224 seconds, 700 matra, of application of oil to the skin it reaches the adipose tissue.
It takes about 256 seconds, 800 matra, to reach the bones. It reaches the bone marrow in about 288 seconds or 900 matra.
Thus oil applied to the skin enters the deepest structure of the body in about 288 seconds or approximately 5 minutes. Similarly, the active ingredients of the herbs incorporated by a definitive method of preparation of herbal oils and ghee, also are delivered to the deepest tissue of the body through massage in five minutes of massaging a body part and can produce their effect in the tissue concerned.
Many herbal oils are used for different purposes depending upon the herbs used in their preparation. These have a definitive effect on the body. A few of the common oils used for different purposes are summarized below.
Sesame oil is highly revered in Ayurvedic texts for use internally and externally for massage and other Ayurvedic treatments. It is very effective in pacifying Vata and kapha though it may aggravate Pitta a bit.
Sesame oil is considered good for the skin, teeth (as used in oil pulling), hair and complexion. It imparts strength and heals wounds.
1 Caraka Samhita, Sutra sthana chapter 5, verse 86-87.
2 Charak Sharir, sthana chapter 4, verse 12.
3 Field, Tiffany, Miguel Diego, and Maria Hernandez-Reif. “Preterm Infant Massage Therapy Research: A Review.” Infant Behavior & Development. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2010. Web. 01 June 2017.
4 Maddigan, Barbara, Pamela Hodgson, Sylvia Heath, Barbara Dick, Kimberly St. John, Tina McWilliam-Burton, Christine Snelgrove, and Hubert White. “The Effects of Massage Therapy & Exercise Therapy on Children/Adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review. Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Mar. 2003. Web. 01 June 2017.
5 Cady, S. H., & Jones, G. E. (1997). Massage therapy as a workplace intervention for reduction of stress. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84, 157-158.
6 “Therapeutic Benefits of Massage for the Elderly.” Pacific College. N.p., 14 Sept. 2016. Web. 01 June 2017.
7 “Article Categories.” Science of Massage Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 June 2017.
8 Weerapong, P., P. A. Hume, and G. S. Kolt. “The Mechanisms of Massage and Effects on Performance, Muscle Recovery and Injury Prevention.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.).U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 01 June 2017.
9 Gisela TelisFeb. 1, 2012 , 2:00 PM, 2017 Jocelyn KaiserMay. 26, 2017 Jeffrey MervisMay. 26, Kai Kupferschmidt, Jon CohenMay. 26, 2017, 2017 Warren CornwallMay. 25, 2017 Jeffrey MervisMay. 25, 2017 May. 25, 2017 May. 24, 2017 May. 19, and 2017 May. 17. “Massage’s Mystery Mechanism Unmasked.” Science | AAAS. N.p., 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 01 June 2017.
10 Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage, Justin D. Crane and others, Science Translational Medicine 01 Feb 2012: Vol. 4, Issue 119.
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