So a lot of people have heard of abhyanga (daily oiling) through the growing popularity of yoga culture. When people read that you are supposed to oil your body, sit with oil on yourself for at least 20 min, and then shower it off, the one hour time investment becomes an intimidating daily practice.
I’ve questioned why the traditional practice was as such and whether that rationale still applies to modern times (as I do with all of the Ayurvedic practices).
Abhyanga, as described above, used to be how people cleansed themselves.
The skin’s surface is an oil mantle. To most effectively clean an oil-based substance, you use oil. So folks would sit on the hill on their farm and oil their bodies with the abundant oil from their land (olive, sesame, coconut, etc). Once they had cleansed their skin with the oil, they allowed the fresh oil to soak into the clean skin, feeding the epidermis, and allowing the medicinal benefits of the oil to be absorbed in the body. Then, they would take a nice dip in the river, which took care of the excess oil and the feeling of walking around dripping oil.
This was before modern plumbing… and emulsified oils (a.k.a. soap) for cleansing.
Today, the emulsifiers in our soap strip the skin of oils, as does the treated water in our plumbing. If you wash your hands with just water, you can feel the drying effect. If you add soap, you can feel the additional dryness that ensues.
Since we use soap to clean, we don’t need the cleansing function of the traditional abhyanga practice. And since we are stripping our skin of oils with our soap and water, I also believe we could use some extra oil absorption.
For this reason, I recommend daily oiling as a practice of oiling the body after showering, when the pores are nice and open and ready to eat. This means the oil takes the place of what would be the 5 minutes you may spend putting on a lotion post-shower.
Plus, this way, you don’t have to deal with cleaning all that oil out of your bathtub because you rinsed in there after a traditional style application.
What’s an herbal medicinal oil?
On my Shop Page, I have recipes for how to tailor your oil to balance various doshas (V oil, PV oil, VK oil, P Oil; the name indicates what it balances, so V Oil helps to soothe vata imbalance).
The best oils are organic and edible. They may not taste great, but they are free of any binders or preservatives.
They are also medicinal oils, meaning they have had medicinal grade (and organic) herbs cooked into them in a process that takes approximately 8 hours. This makes them more potent than some of the “Ayurvedic oils” you may see in the health food markets, which usually use essential oils (and all have preservatives because the FDA requires that for mass distribution).
My theory is that if I’m feeding my skin and my body with an oil everyday, I’m not going to miss the opportunity to get in some rejuvenative herbs at the same time. So we infuse our oils with herbs (rasayana) that encourage rejuvenation of the immune, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. Who couldn’t use that?
The qualities of the base oil (e.g. sesame oil is heavy, nutritive, and warming), and the herbs (e.g. brahmi is cooling and supports the nervous system from fatigue and inflammation) are both taken into consideration when formulating an oil to address a doshic imbalance.
If you get oil shipped in a plastic bottle, move it to a glass container to keep it free of plastic particles which seep into oil over time.
What are the benefits?
- Feeding your body good stuff. Your skin is a digestive organ, and it's eating whatever it catches on its surface, whether that’s air pollution, or laundry detergent or dry-cleaning agents. When you actively feed the skin, it’s eating more of what you are consciously feeding then what’s there by default.
- Nourishing the skin. The oil mantle becomes more thick, and the skin more healthy. Decreased dryness, sagging (all my postmenopausal women reading this), and skin turgor (toning) are all benefits of well-nourished skin. For those that have skin irritations (whether in the dry, flaky vata house, or the inflammatory pitta house, or both), daily oiling can help to soothe those.
- Increased circulation from the daily massage. This is going to reduce stagnation, and support the delivery of oxygenated blood to peripheral tissues.
- Increased lymphatic clearance from the daily massage. This reduces fluid and toxic waste accumulation, and helps to support the immune system.
- Herbs get into body in an easy way. This is a long term subtle effect that happens in the background, but it still counts.
- You get into the habit of connecting with your body and nurturing it in a daily practice.
- You eliminate more chemicals from your life.
How do I apply it?
I can’t really imagine a wrong way to rub oil in. But simply put some oil in your palm (the amount will vary for different people, seasons, etc), rub it in your palms and massage it into your body.
I prefer to start at the extremities and work my way in towards my heart.
Don’t forget to do the bottom of your feet, where there are lovely energetic channels waiting to be nurtured.
You can totally use these oils on your face.
Perhaps the most important instruction here is to go in the direction of digestion on your abdomen. I start at my navel and work my way clockwise (UP on RIGHT, DOWN on LEFT, in a circle)
Most days, this is a quick five minute thing. But, on somedays, I’ll sit on my towel and actually massage my feet and open my heart chakra, and try to reverse the effects of gravity on my neck and face. After all, this is an act of self love. And if you want to take it there, the oils are safe to use for that as well.
We send the oils in amber glass bottles, so they last, and can be easily warmed. Simply put the whole bottle in a pot (or sink) of hot water before you get in the shower, and by the time you get out, the oil should be nice and warm. Warm oil feels so delicious.
- What if it feels to thick and sticky? My skin almost immediately drinks up the oil and I don’t have to worry about getting dressed and getting oil on things. I also have a lot of vata. If you are someone that doesn’t absorb the oil immediately, you may want to just designate a robe or t-shirt to hang out in while you do other things and see if giving it 10-15 minutes does the trick. Alternatively, you can shift your shower/oiling to bedtime and let it soak in while you sleep. If you still feel too sticky, you can cut the oil with some organic almond, apricot or olive oil, as these are all lighter oils that absorb faster and are relatively neutral (not really warming or cooling).
- What if I don’t like the smell? You are welcome to add in any organic essential oils that you’d like. My suggestion is that if you are going to use essential oils, you choose ones that attend to your doshic balancing (e.g. sandalwood would help to balance vata and pitta and would be a great add to the PV oil). But really, just make it smell like what you need to feel you smell good, and you’ll be fine.
- What if I don’t want to use a medicinal oil? You can use just organic cooking oils (e.g. coconut). The most important thing is to keep in mind the qualities of the oil and what its effects are. For example, I have come across a lot of people with dry skin oiling with coconut in the winter, and that is not really serving them.