Oil is highly revered in Ayurveda for many reasons and is used in many ways. Application of warm oil on the body, called abhyanga, is one of the first Ayurvedic practices many people implement in their lives. But what’s so special about oiling your body?
Everything that exists, including human beings, passes through six stages: pre-existence, birth, growth, maintenance, decay, and death. The first three stages are generally fixed. It is the fourth and fifth stages, maintenance and decay, that we can change (for better or for worse) with our daily habits and choices.
Ayurveda teaches us how to have a healthy body and mind so we can comfortably and joyfully live out a lifespan of 100 - 120 years (Yes! That is what our human bodies are designed for!). It guides us to extend the maintenance phase and decrease the decay phase. One of the ways we can do this is by using organic, high quality oil externally on the body.
OILING THE BODY
Oil has the quality of snigdha, or unctuousness. Applying oil externally as a regular practice increases the unctuousness, suppleness and lubrication of the layers of skin. It also calms the mind and increases feelings of groundedness, security, and safety in the body, mind, and emotions. It extends the maintenance phase of our lives.
“Anga” is body parts and “abhy” means to cover. “Abhyanga” means to cover the body with oil. Different than a massage which aims to loosen the muscles, abhyanga nourishes the layers of the skin and the deeper tissues, calms the mind through its specific pattern of application, and administers balancing and healing herbs into the body using the oil as a carrier (if using herbal or medicated oil). It enhances sleep, contentment, and lubrication in the body while countering symptoms such as dryness, anxiety, restlessness, stiffness, and poor quality skin.
Practicing abhyanga daily prevents mental, emotional, and physical imbalances and considerably slows down the degenerative process (of mind and body) that happens naturally with age.
Application of oil on the body was traditionally done for a time period of one muhurta, or about 48 minutes. That is why many Ayurveda treatments are about 45 - 60 minutes long. Sometimes they extend to 1.5 hours, which is 2 muhurtas, but it is around one muhurta, or 45 - 60 minutes, where there is maximum oil absorption. Beyond that, the absorption is not as effective.
Many practitioners suggest to apply and leave the oil on for 20 - 40 minutes. It makes a tremendous difference. But what about when one isn’t able to spend this time daily? Looking at how your schedule can be arranged to support a daily abhyanga practice, even of 10 - 15 minutes, is a good first step. Making time is a gift to your mind, body, and spirit. On days you can’t apply the oil in full, there are other options.
The first is to apply the warm herbal oil (or plain oil will do) to your main troublespot, or spots. For example if you tend to have knee pain, apply the oil to your knees. Or if you hold a lot of tension in your back and shoulders, apply the oil there. Hip pain? Oil there. In addition to your troublespot(s), choose at least one other body part to oil and alternate that body part each day. Eventually, you will rotate through the entire body and can cycle through again.
THE FOUR VITAL POINTS
Another option is to oil the four vital points. As one of my dear Ayurveda teachers says, oiling the four vital points is said to bring “goodness” to the whole body. This is also a great approach to include the calming, nourishing, nurturing effect of oil application during times when full abhyanga is contraindicated, including when sick, during menstruation and the first five months of pregnancy.
CROWN OF THE HEAD
The crown of the head is connected to the brain and nervous system, and where prana, one of the five subdoshas or movements of energy of vata dosha, primarily operates. Prana vayu, sometimes referred to as prana vata, resides around the head and in the brain. It is responsible for higher mental function, inhalation, perception, thinking, and the movement of the mind, emotions, and sensations. When out of balance, prana vayu can cause an overactive mind, fear, anxiety, scattered and spacey mind, difficulty focusing, heart palpitations, panic, poor concentration and memory, and more. Applying a bit of warm oil to the fontanelle (top of the head) daily leads to more stability and stillness in prana vayu. As it becomes more calm and orderly, it is reflected as peace and clarity of mind.
The crown of the head is also the location of sahasrara, the 7th chakra or energy vortex, which is related to our knowingness and how we access our own information, or our truth.
BEHIND AND AROUND THE EARS
Applying oil on and around the ears affects all of the body. In acupuncture, the ear is looked at like the fetus of a baby and ear seeds are used at specific areas of the ear to affect certain organs and systems of the body and support harmonious functioning.
PALMS OF THE HANDS AND SOLES OF THE FEET
The palms of the hands and soles of the feet have chakras at their centers. The hands and feet have marmas, or accupressure points, that also relate to various organs and systems in the body, and they are important organs of action that we use to experience life. Applying oil to the palms of the hands and soles of the feet grounds us in our bodies so we are more present and aware.
CHOOSING AN OIL
An Ayurveda professional can recommend an herbal oil that is specific to bringing you to balance. Bhrami in sesame (warming) or coconut (cooling) oil is a great option for most people to use for the four vital points, as it has calming, cooling properties. Sesame oil is calming and the most easily absorbed plain oil. If one is feeling too hot, coconut, sunflower, or olive oil can be used instead.