The History of Abhyanga: What Ashtanga Hridayam says about Abhyanga

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The Abhyanga is a key Dinacharya, daily practice recommended in Ayurveda to impart Bala (strength), Ayush (health and Immunity) and Ayu (long life) to the body.  This practice forms an important part of Krya’s recommendations to improve hair growth, impart better strength and texture to hair and to also improve the quality, tone and texture of skin.

Abhyanga is a key dinacharya practice recommended in ayurveda

An abhyanga is also a very important Dincharya that is recommended for specific cases of hairfall like post partum hairfall, hairfall due to sudden and extreme weight loss (cases of high vata aggravation).

Many Krya consumers have found a HUGE difference to their hair health, skin texture and overall well being and immunity when abhyanga is added to their daily routine. The practice of abhyanga is mentioned as a health giving practice in all the Ayurvedic Samhitas.

In today’s post, we will analyse the abhyanga shloka in Ashtanga Hridayam’s Dinacharya chapter and see why Acharya Vagbhatta says this is such an important and useful practice.

Ashtanga Hridayam: part of the Brhat Trayee Texts in Ayurveda

We have written often about how empowering Ayurveda is as a Vaidya shastra. Ayurveda is considered an UpaVeda, an offshoot of the vedas themselves and is found in the Atharva Veda. This Upa Veda is a Divine Science which has been handed down from the Devas to the Raja Rishis.

Ayurveda is an Upaveda: it si incredibly ancient and of divine origin

It was then passed down in oral tradition until it was compiled about 3000 – 4000 years ago by Agnivesa. Agnivesa’s Samhita, was then further redacted by Charaka.  Charaka’s redaction of Agnivesa Samhita became much more famous than the original, and soon everyone began to refer to Charaka’s redaction as the Charaka Samhita.

Charaka Samhita is one of the 3 ayurvedic texts in the Brhat Trayee.

Charaka Samhita forms the first of the Brhita Trayee. The second text in the Brihat Trayee is Sushruta Samhita. The Sushruta Samhita concentrates more on surgery and surgical methods than general Chikitsa (medicines and general healing) which Charaka Samhita focusses on.

The Ashtanga Hridayam is the 3rd text included in the Brhat trayee – the great 3 texts of Ayurveda . This classification of “Brhat Trayee”  is of the 19th century origin. The classifier appears to have chosen 3 texts that are of universal repute in the field of Ayurveda, with use in almost the entire length and breadth of India.

The Ashtanga Hridayam is of more recent origin. Various datings ascribe it to the 7th – 8th century AD.  Despite its more recent origin compared to Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, it is not surprising that the Ashtanga Hridayam text is included in the Brhat Trayee . This text is extremely lucid, clear with  easy to understand and shorter Sanskrit shlokas .

Concept of “Living Right” in Ayurveda:

One of the stark differences between Ayurveda and Western Medicine is the high emphasis on “living right”. Each Acharya tells us that if we followed “Dinacharya” (daily practices for health and well being), followed Ritucharya (seasonal modifications to adjust to changes in weather and internal doshas) and followed Ahara Niyama (guidelines to eat, choosing right food, avoiding incompatible foods, etc), we can avoid nearly 85% of the disease.

Ayurveda varies gretaly from allopathy in the emphasis on living right

A Vaidya is then only required for the balance 15% of the stubborn diseases which may occur due to accidents, karma etc. Even the effect of these diseases, their severity and the speed of our recovery can be greatly affected if we have been following Dinacharya, Ritucharya and Ahara niyama.

As Ayurveda spans a long length of time (over 4000 years), it makes sense that there will be variations in the variety of herbs used, and also additions to the disease conditions discussed, chikitsa techniques, etc over time across various texts.

But the basic fundamental chapters like Ahara Niyama (how to eat / food guidelines), Dinacharya (daily living) and Ritucharya (seasonal living) are largely unchanged from the time of the MOST ancient Ayurvedic Samhitas.

Abhyanga in Dinacharya: ancient and unbroken guideline to “Living Right” in Ayurveda

We have already seen that the chapters on Dinacharya and Ritucharya have remained largely intact, with only minor modifications and additions from the time of Acharya Charaka. So also,  Acharya Vagbhatta’s Shloka on Abhyanga is a modified and modern retelling of the Shloka found 3000-4000 years ago in the Charka Samhita. Since Charaka Samhita itself is a redaction of Agnivesa Samhita which is even more ancient, we can surmise that a similar shloka on abhyanga would have been found there also.

As many ayurvedic texts and commentaries are lost today, we cannot physically verify this fact. But each Acharya in his retelling confirms this and tell us that he is presenting in a brief manner what he has already read / seen / studied from earlier texts. The abhyanga tradition can therefore be seen as a distilled piece of practical wisdom that follows an unbroken chain across thousands of years of traditional Indian medicinal wisdom .

Abhyanga is a distilled piece of wisdom form an unbroken line of indian traditional medicine

So, without doubt, when we practice abhyanga regularly, we should get the benefits that the acharyas have described.

Abhyanga recommendations at Krya:

At Krya, we recommend doing a “regular” abhyanga for good health. What is the meaning of “regular”? As the abhyanga is mentioned under “Dinacharya” chapter in Ayurvedic texts, along with activities like brushing our teeth, etc, it should also be done “Dina” or daily.

However, most of us are unused to even the idea of a Dinacharya, let alone the concept of an Abhyanga. So at Krya, we start by suggesting that Abhyanga be done two times a week as a complete routine including Karna abhyanga (ear massage), Shiro Abhyanga (head oiling) and Pada abhyanga (feet oiling).

In addition, we have recommended doing a shortened version of the abhyanga, called “Mini Abhyanga” 3 – 4 times a week. The Mini Abhyanga is mainly done for women to balance Apana vayu. This is very useful to correct Vata imbalances in the lower abdomen – this helps regulate menstrual cramps and ensures periods are relatively easy and pain free. In Men, the mini abhyanga helps regulate digestion.

Similarly, we recommend doing Pada abhyanga atleast 3 – 4 times a week. The Pada abhyanga is a vital part of the daily abhyanga and is an incredibly health giving, relaxing abhyanga to do. For those who are unable to do a regular full abhyanga, the Pada abhyanga is a great way to start inculcating the Abhyanga Dinacharya.

Pada abhyanga is to be done atleast three to four times a week

We will do a separate post on the benefits of Pada Abhyanga. But in short, it helps relieve fatigue, improves sleep quality, balances vata dosha and is a “drishti prasadaka” practice – clarifies and strengthens the vision.

A pada abhyanga is especially recommended for Men and those with high mental stress, insomnia, late nights, high vata aggravation, etc.

Splitting Abhyanga into mini units – some benefits

By splitting the abhyanga into full and mini Abhyanga units at Krya, we have been able to overcome some part of the resistance to take time out to do this Dinacharya. As our consumers start experiencing the benefits of these mini abhyangas for themselves, they are much more motivated to attempt doing a full abhyanga regularly.

Also, we are seeing a high rise in certain repetitive stress disorders due to the nature of urban careers. For example, we see a lot of wrist injuries, frozen shoulder, lower back ache etc, due to the high use of smartphones and laptops and also due to long commutes in a car. This tends to aggravate Vata dosha in these specific areas in the body.

Hasta abhyanga - good mini abhyanga that helps in repetitive stress disorders

So when Mini abhyangas like Pada abhyanga & Hasta abhyanga are done, there is an immediate improvement in the flexibility, working and health of these areas.

An Interpretation of Acharya Vaghbatta’s Shloka on abhyanga:

How did we arrive at concept of Karna abhyanga , Pada abhyanga, and mini abhyanga ? We arrived at this by interpretation of the abhyanga Shlokas themselves. How did we arrive at the benefits of doing a regular abhyanga? Again by reading and interpreting the shlokas first and then following their instructions and then experiencing these benefits.

Every Ayurvedic Nighantu and Samhita offers a varied nuance / flavour for each Dinacharya practice suggested. Obviously the more texts we read, the more complex and detailed our understanding of the process becomes. When we do these Dinacharyas ourselves and also observe the benefits experienced by hundreds of Krya consumers of various prakritis age groups, demographics and geographies, we get better and better at understanding the abhyanga and its benefits.

Given below is a picture of the exact shloka on abhyanga from one of the commentaries written on Ashtanga Hridayam. The Shloka itself has been composed by Acharya Vagbhatta in the 7th century AD.

The translation given here is my own based on my interpretation, the interpretation of my gurus and also derived from the interpretation of many more commentaries of the same text.

Summarizing the benefits of Abhyanga: from Acharya Vagbhatta’s Ashtanga Hridayam

In this shloka on abhyanga, the Acharya uses the word ” achareth” which means “suggested / recommended”. This is a point of change from the Abhyanga shloka in Charaka Samhita. In Charaka Samhita the Acharya makes an observation: ” the body of one who does abhyanga daily is strong, does not break easily, etc”.

Ashtanga Hridayam - shloka on Abhyanga's importance

But Acharya Vagbhatta has taken it upon himself to make a more “prescriptive” suggestion. In the Ashtanga Hridayam, The Acharya has remarked that Vata based diseases are on the rise. This could be an increase from Acharya Charaka’s time. Acharya Vagbhatta has also predicted that he expects 50% or more of all diseases in the future to be caused by Vata aggravation. This is most certainly the case today for all of us. I suspect this is why he has actually used the word “achareth” or recommend in this shloka.

The benefits of abhyanga are well known to us: but to summarize from this shloka: A regular abhyanga retards aging, removes tiredness, reduces vata aggravation, clarifies eye sight, gives good quality sleep, improves health and improves the stability and strength of the body.

Acharya Vagbhatta tells us to pay special emphasis to the Head, Ears and Feet while doing an abhyanga. This is the reason behind frequent hair oiling of atleast 4-5 times a week which is recommended by us at Krya.

Hair oiling atleast 4 – 5 times a week improves health AND hair quality, growth and texture. Similarly, doing a Pada abhyanga 4 – 5 times a week improves vision, relieves fatigue, etc. Other texts contain specific shlokas on the benefits of Pada abhyanga and hair oiling separately.

Abhyanga products available at Krya:

We have 2 kinds of abhyanga snana products available at Krya. Just as the choice of abhyanga oil is very important, the right Snana product is also equally important. The correct Snana product cleanses and removes only the excess oil present after abhyanga on Skin. This varies by prakriti – we can expect Vata prakriti skin to strongly soak up abhyanga oil leaving very little aside to remove.

Such an intelligent system like our body, also requires intelligent cleansing. We have written more about why cleansers made from Divya Oushadis and live organic grains are intelligent and better suited for your body, here. Do take a look.

Classic abhyanga-snana range:

This abhyanga snana range is a general abhyanga Oil + ubtans suitable for all prakritis, with no major aggravation in any one dosha. The Krya Classic abhyanga oil is a 34 ingredient proprietary formulation. The herbs and herb compositions have been carefully chosen from the classical samhitas. This is a balanced abhyanga oil which helps balance all 3 doshas. It is suitable for both Men and Women and is a general abhyanga oil that can help all prakritis.

Krya abhyanga Oil - classic

The Krya Classic abhyanga oil goes with either the Krya Women’s Ubtan (Classic) OR the Krya Men’s Ubtan (Classic).

If you are a high Kapha prakriti, we advise using less abhyanga oil which has been well warmed, more vigorous massage and bathing twice with the Ubtan – this is a guideline to ensure there is no further Kapha aggravation.

Intense abhyanga-snana Range:

If you are intensely Vata dominant, or are a Post Partum woman or have an INTENSIVE exercise routine (marathoners, regular gym goers), the Intense abhyanga Snana range is more suitable for you.

We have also recommended Intense abhyanga Oil for those on a low fat / limited fat diet and a Vegan diet – such diets usually aggravate Vata very quickly – so if you are on one and are noticing skin darkening and sudden weight loss, it is time to both re-examine your diet and use the Intense abhyanga Oil.

The Krya Intense abhyanga Oil is a 41 ingredient proprietary formulation. This oil has been formulated to balance aggravated Vata dosha, so it is warming and intensely Vata balancing in nature. It is not recommended unless your Vata dosha is really out of balance. Pitta aggravated individuals might find this oil too hot and warming for their liking. In some cases Kapha aggravated individuals can also use this oil. If you have any queries, please call / write to us seeking clarifications.

The Krya Intense abhyanga oil goes with the Krya Women’s Ubtan (Intense) which is a new launch. This is a special women’s ubtan designed with a high amount of Mangalyam (auspicious), Vata balancing , astringent, skin health improving herbs. This is especially suitable for post partum women.

We do not yet have a Krya Men’s Ubtan (Intense) – so to go along with the Intense Abhyanga oil, Men can continue to use Krya Men’s Ubtan (Classic).

To sum up: the Benefits of a Regular abhyanga

At Krya, we emphasize that external products alone do not give you the holistic changes you expect in skin and hair health. When you add on good Dinacharya practices like the abhyanga and also follow Ahara Niyama guidelines, you can see a quicker and more long lasting change in your health and well being.

Today, we are no longer trained in our Indic languages like Sanskrit and Tamil. We do not have any training of Ayurveda. We have also lost out on hard earned cultural knowledge like food norms, dietary guidelines, etc.

Despite this loss, some of what the Ayurvedic texts survive in our lives – but as a fragment of a fragment of a fragment. This is why all of us are used to only a once a year abhyanga on Deepavali day. We have lost the knowledge of the Samhitas and the shlokas which asked us to do abhyanga “Nityam” and are instead doing abhyanga once a year only.

I hope this post inspires you to adopt this health giving, wonderful practice. The most wonderful part about Ayurveda to me, is how firmly the acharyas put our health in our own hands. Every Acharya tells us that if we adopted the guidelines of Dinacharya, Ritucharya, ahara niyama and Right living, we will not fall ill often and have to meet the Vaidya.

When we follow the principles of “Ayurvedic right living”, we have to meet a Vaidya only about 15% of the time for truly serious illnesses. The balance 85% of illnesses can be avoided, averted or simply treated at home.

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