Ayurveda, as you might already know, is an ancient Indian medicine famous for its teaching on longevity and wellbeing. Ayurveda teaches us that seven systems in the body (plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, bone marrow and nerve tissue, and reproductive tissue) develop in this specific sequence: plasma from food, then blood, then muscle and so forth. Our skin has seven layers that are correlated to those seven bodily tissues. As a result, whatever happens to any tissue will have an effect on the skin. Also, any substances absorbed into the skin will affect body tissues as well. So, anytime that we apply a cream or oil, we simultaneously balance and nourish the blood, muscle, fat, bone, nervous and reproductive tissues as well.
Abhyanga is one of the healing approaches listed under “Bahya Snehana,” which means techniques for external oleation, such as rubbing oils into the skin. “Sneha” is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “compassion” and “love.” Abhyanga as a form of Snehana that helps a person become loving, happy, and energized. Abhyanga promises to unfold the healing qualities that our bodies inherently have. Dr. Vasant Lad, a preeminent Ayurvedic Physician, noted that oil is the transmitting medium for loving care that passes from the therapist to the client.
One of the hallmarks of Abhyanga is herbal oils. An experienced practitioner always chooses the herbal oils that are designed to reduce specific imbalances in a client’s body. As you might already know, there are three energies in the body: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Every person has their own combination of them, and because of that we are each unique. Specific oils and herbs help to reduce energies that are out of balance.
For example, Vata energy is going out crazy when we have a lot of stress or the weather is cold and dry. Some symptoms of high Vata are dryness of the skin and mucus membranes, constipation, gas and bloating, anxiety, overwhelm, insomnia, scattered thoughts and feeling unsatisfied. For Vata imbalance, the best base oil for application is sesame oil, which is warming and very nourishing in nature. A good herbal sesame oil for Vata imbalance might contain aswagandha (strengthens nervous system, improves reproductive system and bones), brahmi/gotucola (mental rejuvenative, promotes collagen production, improves nervous system), bala (tones the muscle tissue, calms the nerves), passionflower (reduces anxiety, pain, insomnia).
When Pitta energy is out of balance, a person might have burning indigestion, ulcers, acid reflux, problems with liver, gallbladder, inflammation in small intestine, rosacea, acne, anger, being critical or frustrated. Good base oils for application for Pitta imbalance are sunflower and coconut oils because they are cooling in nature, and a person with Pitta imbalance needs to reduce excess heat generated in themselves. Herbs that are good to be added to the base oils are: brahmi/gotucola (mental rejuvenative, improve nervous system), guduchi (improves function of liver and kidneys, bolsters the immune system, promotes elimination of toxins, clears the skin), manjistha (removes toxins from blood, clears the skin, supports proper function of liver and kidneys).
When a person has excess Kapha energy, she might experience the following symptoms: sluggish digestion, heavy or sleepy after eating, lack of appetite, water retention, lethargy, apathy and stubbornness. People with Kapha in excess don’t need too many of oils, if any. When the oil application is advised, the base oil should be mustard or safflower. The following herbs infused in these oils are best for Kapha imbalance: punarnava (good for joints and weight management), chitrak (supports proper metabolism, removes natural toxins from intestines, support optimal weigh management), calamus (supports proper function of the lymphatic system, invigorates the skin).
These are just a few examples of herbs, which might be infused into a base oil, there are many others on the market. Ayurvedic practitioners consider oils as external food for the body, or medicine that heals the skin and deeper organs. A mixture of oils created by an Ayurvedic practitioner depends on a specific client’s imbalance, season, climate, and main complaint.
Another hallmark of Abhyanga is that the chosen herbal oil (or mix of oils) should be warmed up before application, because warmed oil is better absorbed by the skin.
A trained Ayurvedic practitioner incorporates Marma Points Therapy during Abhyanga. A marma point is a juncture on the body where two or more types of tissue meet, such as muscles, veins, ligaments, nerves, bones or joints and "where the Prana is present." Marma Points Therapy utilizes 107 points, or "doorways," into the body and consciousness. Using these energy points on the body, this treatment restores the proper flow of energy (prana) through the entire body and eases specific conditions while enhancing the natural ability of the body to heal. Your therapist works with pranic energy and expertly massages marma points with specifically selected organic essential oils and gemstones. Working on specific marma points is wonderful for mental and emotional balance, the nervous system, pain and more. Removing blockages from the marma points produces physical and psychological relaxation and strength.
A few examples of essential oils that are beneficial for using on marma points, for reducing specific imbalances are:
Weak bones – ashwagandga
Nervousness, anxiety – jatamansi, valerian root, brahmi, lavender, sandalwood
Inflamed muscles – St. John’s Wort, birch, blue chamomile
Rashes on the skin, anger – rose, lavender
Spasms, inflammation – St. John’s Wort
Pain relievers – blue chamomile, clove, ginger, cinnamon, wintergreen, peppermint
An essential oil, or mix of them, should be chosen according to a dosha (Vata, Pitta or Kapha ) imbalance. For Vata imbalance, oils should be warm and calming, for Pitta, cooling and calming, and for Kapha, heating and stimulating.
The additional benefit of Abhyanga comes from working with meridians and the flow of subtle energy. Also, it is more important to adjust movements according to the imbalance a client has rather than from deep work on specific areas of body tension. Once absorbed into the body, the herbal oils and aromas go directly into the bloodstream through many capillaries in the skin. Oils lubricate the inner organs and tissues, loosen stored-up toxins, and carry them back to the digestive tract for elimination.
Having a steam treatment after Abhyanga brings lubricated toxins to the pores of the skin to eliminate them through the process of sweating, or Svedana in Sanskrit. A person that has just received Abhyanga at an ayurvedic spa or clinic can use an herbal steam (Svedana treatment) for sweating. Peppermint is a universal herb that is beneficial for all doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha – because it has a very unique property of inducing sweat in the body. For reducing Vata, lavender, dashmool, nirgundi, triphala, and comfrey are good for sweating therapy as well. For Kapha, calamus, sage, cinnamon.
Svedana (sweating therapy) is not recommended for people with Pitta imbalance (inflammation, high blood pressure, burning sensation in the stomach, ulcers, rosacea, acne). Abhyanga, combined with the sweating therapy, is highly recommended for using during dry and cold seasons.
From the spiritual perspective of Ayurveda, almost all diseases come to us due to stress, and the main culprit of it is fear: fear of not being successful, losing loved ones, being ill, not having enough money for living and the list goes on and on… The only remedy for this is love and faith. Abhyanga with herbal oils is one way to bring love and nourishment to the body and senses. Appreciate your body, mind and spirit, give them love and support during cold or windy days or when stress is too high.