This post was last updated on August 19, 2021 by Preethi Sukumaran
I have a pitta constitution, is sesame oil okay for an abhyanga?
Can I use plain sesame oil for an abhyanga? Must I necessarily use specialised abhyanga oil?
I am used to Mustard oil, especially in Winter – is it okay to do an abhyanga with this?
Why are you so against Olive oil? I am told it is great skin oil. Why can’t I use it for my Abhyanga?
I remember my Grand Mum adding hibiscus flowers to sesame oil for my hair – can I apply that for my body as well?
Our previous posts on the Abhyanga elicited a lot of doubts and queries on how to incorporate the Abhyanga into your daily / weekly regimen. This post addresses many of the subtle nuances behind an abhyanga with insights on why certain choices are made (like the choice of a base oil) to give you greater health benefits.
An Abhyanga is a part of every single Samhita and Ayurvedic text and is mentioned by every great Acharya from Acharya Charaka to Acharya Govind Dasji Bisagratna (of the Bhaisajya Ratnavalli) as an essential part of the Dinacharya (daily practices) for a healthy life. The Dinacharya also describes practices like waking up at Brahma Muhurtha, quiet contemplation before dawn, Yoga, Pranayama and activities related to cleansing like the Gandusha and Snana.
An Abhyanga can be seen as a part exercise, part examination of the body, part toning of organ systems like the digestive system, maintenance of the musculo skeletal system, care of the skin and deep cleansing of the entre body. Most importantly, along with the above, the Abhyanga helps in balancing all 3 doshas of the individual, bringing the whole body back to a state of alertness, vitality and balance.
This definition of the Abhyanga from the Indian system of Ayurveda makes it very different from the western concept of a massage for relaxation, which is why at Krya, we insist on using the original Sanskrit term, ‘Abhyanga” and not the term massage to describe this Dinacharya.
As the Abhyanga is seen as a part exercise for the entire body, it was used in several ways:
- For the aged and infirm who cannot do strenuous exercise the abhyanga is to be performed by a well trained specialist who would work the muscles during the process of Abhyanga slowing down degeneration and decay. If this specialist is not available, a self abhyanga can also be done. Old age is considered high in vata dosha – therefore oil which uses vata reducing herbs is recommended.
- For the active sportsperson, the Abhyanga is used as a part of the cool down to relax tense muscles, bring them back to a state of normalcy and prevent muscular tears due to stiffness and over use. As exercise excites vata dosha, vata reducing herbs aid bringing the body back to a state of balance. In addition, regenerative and repair based herbs like Ashwagandha, Brahmi, and Manjishta are very useful when added to the oil.
- For the infant whose body is just developing, the abhyanga is used as an aid to help the body’s development. Here the texts advice using kapha building and muscle building herbs like Mulethi, Bala, etc.
- For the stressed working man or woman, the abhyanga helps reduce excited vata and pitta dosha. It also aids tranquillity and balance, pacifying the overwrought mind and body. So here cooling and pacifying oil for the head is suggested and a vata reducing oil for body abhyanga is suggested.
- For the post partum mother, the abhyanga helps build the body’s immunity, removes tiredness and exhaustion caused by child birth and baby care, and helps in rebuilding muscles and strength. The main emphasis here is on providing warmth and vata reduction to remove exhaustion, and to ensure there is no mucous production during this time which can in turn affect the baby.
How does an Abhyanga restore health back to the body?
City living is considered high and vitiating to Vata dosha. This combined with high commute times, constant travel, air travel; use of vata exciting devices like the mobile phone, computer, and constant use of the brain ensures that most of us have aggravated Vata dosha in excess of what we should have.
The Ayurvedic texts tell us that when Vata is in excess it contracts the minute channels (srotas) all over the body. This means that Rasa dhatu (lymph fluid) which is responsible for our strength and immunity has a narrower passage to flow through, which means that the body is depleted of its vital nutrients. When Rasa dhatu (lymph) is constrained, it in turn affects the free movement of rakta dhatu (blood).
When Rasa dhatu and rakta dhatu have a constrained flow in the body, we will feel exhausted, fatigued, mentally worn out and can also get easily over wrought, depressed and anxious in difficult situations. Our response to these situations is to make use of external stimulants like tea and coffee to help us keep going at work. Unfortunately, tea and coffee further aggravate and increase Vata dosha leading our body into a vicious cycle of imbalance.
This is why Ayurveda prescribes the use of a Taila Abhyanga and the use of specific Sneha like Cow ghee internally in vitiated Vata.
The external application of Taila in the abhyanga works by trapping excess vayu from the skin. As the abhyanga is done continuously with warm oil, it helps trap vayu along with minute debris, dirt and dead cells through the skin surface and helps it leave the body through Sweda (sweat) generated after a vigorous abhyanga. As the action of the taila is warm, unctuous and penetrating, it is the opposite of vata dosha which is cold, rough and light – this in effect helps bring down the excess of vata dosha and restores the body back to a state of balance.
The internal use of cow ghee frees up the internal constrictions and allows the smooth passage of Rasa and rakta dhatu. This is because ghee is minutely penetrating (sookshma), demulcent and moisturizing in its action, and is pacifying to all 3 doshas, especially pitta and vata dosha.
What are the 5 positive changes I can immediately see after a month of regular Abhyanga?
Please remember that an abhyanga alone will not do if you have vitiated vata dosha. You must make necessary changes to your diet, include cow ghee and make a few lifestyle modifications as well. All modern devices excite vata dosha (cell phone, e readers, laptops, i pads) so ensure you set a diligent cut off every night after which you will allow your body to recover from the impact of using these devices.
If you have been sincere about implementing small diet and lifestyle changes along with a once a week abhyanga, here are some changes you should see:
- You should find it much easier to fall asleep – insomnia or an inability to fall asleep easily is typically symptoms of vata aggravation. As your vata is brought back to a state of balance, you should be able to fall asleep much easier.
- If you have been feeling maudlin, depressed, anxious and negative in general, you should be seeing a change in your disposition. Aggravated vata is considered to lead to mood swings and depression in the texts. When this is brought under control, you should see a change in your outlook on life.
- You should see a positive change in your ability to digest food and your appetite. Vata aggravation brings about inconsistency in digestive ability and appetite. With vata under control you should be able to digest your food much better and should get hungry at roughly the same time and regularly every day.
- Higher energy and less aches and pains during the day – vata dosha has its seat in the joints, lower back and all organs of movement including the neck and shoulders. You should experience vitality and new life in all these areas and should wake up feeling fresh and full of energy.
- Change in hair and skin texture – when vata goes out of control, the first 2 systems to feel its effects are your skin and hair. You hair will become coarse, rough, brittle, have split ends and break easily when combed, when tugged or when wet. Your skin will also start looking rough, dull and can also start becoming much darker than usual. When your vata is under control, you should be able to observe lustre in your skin, an evening of skin tone and your hair should get much stronger. The elasticity of your hair should be slowly restored which means you should be able to comb / pull it without it snapping and breaking.
Why is sesame oil used in an Abhyanga despite it having a pitta nature? Will it suit everyone?
All Ayurvedic texts are unanimous in their opinion of Sesame oil. It is considered the best taila for pacifying vata aggravation. As vata aggravation is the most common cause of most diseases (50%), sesame oil is used as the base taila in almost all skin and hair formulations. In fact when the texts do not specify the exact taila to be used and simply mention the word “taila” we take it to mean Sesame Taila as the word “Taila” is itself used interchangeably with sesame Oil.
We have mentioned that external application of taila requires a small amount of heat. This heat improves the penetrative ability of the taila and helps it enter the skin much faster. This heat also makes the action of the oil “sookshma” or minute and helps deliver the herbs to the body much faster.
This is why Sesame oil is preferred over oils like Eranda (Castor) even in applications for the hair. Despite the fact that castor oil is much more “cool” oil compared to Sesame which is required for hair and scalp applications, Castor is dense and not as Sookshma compared to sesame because of its cold nature. This means that castor does not work as fast as Sesame and is not as effective as sesame to deliver herbs to the body.
Depending on the formulations used, we can balance the nature of oils. However, it is important to note here that while Sesame is considered pitta in nature, it is not as pitta in nature like Mustard oil for example. So the Ayurvedic formulators were wise in recommending Sesame as the base oil of choice for tackling all Dosha based disorders.
The Krya Abhyanga Oil, for example is designed to control excess vata which is a common complaint and also balance Pitta. We do this by formulating our base oil sesame with herbs like Bala (Sida cordifolia), Sucukrika (Tamarind leaf), Nirgundi (Vitex negundo). Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) which are revered vata balancing and pacifying Ayurvedic herbs. Along with this we also use Pitta pacifying herbs like Nimba (Azadirachta indica), Vacha (Acorus calamus), Manjishta (Rubia cordifolia).
While sesame oil remains the base oil, the Krya abhyanga oil also uses small amounts of Coconut oil and Kokum butter for their pitta and vata pacifying properties and many skin benefits.
When in doubt, and you do not have access to a specially prepared abhyanga oil, sesame oil is the best and safest bet for you and will work for all constitutions. Ensure it is prepared properly as described below.
The 4 step Oil preparation process for Abhyanga to suit all prakritis (individual constitutions)
Once you have chosen your base sesame oil, it is important to prepare it so that it helps your body, aids dosha balance and restores health back to you.
The rationale behind this is simple: all Tailas and Snehas are kapha promoting. By this, we mean that their consumption or application aids growth and strength. However, this also means that if they are applied unprepared, you can quickly accumulate mucous in your body as kapha is also responsible for accumulating mucous in the body (along with accumulating strength).
- Coarsely pound ¼ teaspoon of cumin seeds (jeera) and 1 pepper corn. The idea is not to make a fine powder but to simply bruise the spices so that they begin releasing their properties into the oil
- Warm your sesame oil in an iron vessel, preferably.
- Into the hot oil, add the coarsely pounded spices PLUS ¼ teaspoon of raw rice. The addition of the raw rice helps remove moisture if any from the oil and ensure it does not splutter or retain any traces of moisture when applied on skin. Ensure the spices do not char or burn in the oil. Once you see foam coming up in the oil and the jeera has become reddish and is swollen, it is time to filter out the oil.
- Filter out the rice and spices from the oil. To this hot oil add your Abhyanga oil of choice. Apply the oil mixture when bearably warm on your skin.
In Ayurveda, we do not reheat oil which has already gone through the Tila Paka process. This is why to apply warm oil we add a small quantity of plain warm base oil to our specially prepared Abhyanga oil and apply this mixture warm.
We recommend using pure Krya Abhyanga oil for your Abhyanga or sesame oil prepared as mentioned above. Please note that Sesame oil is a stop gap measure as it does not contain vata pacifying herbs. A specially prepared Abhyanga Oil is much better in the long run for your Abhyanga as it does a much better job of dosha balance.
- If you are prone to severe kapha accumulation (frequents coughs and colds), you can also add a tiny piece of dried ginger to your coarse spice mixture.
- If you have any manner of skin allergy, psoriasis or eczema, skip the pepper and ginger and only add cumin (jeera) and raw rice to your oil.
- If you find this irritating, simply warm the oil with raw rice alone and use this as your Abhyanga base oil.
The difference between Keshya Abhyanga and the Abhyanga for the body
We have spoken before about the differences in the constitution of the head and the body. The head carries the brain and the eyes, both of which are organs made up of fatty tissues. Kapha dosha is an important dosha here which has helped create the fatty tissues that make up both the eyes and the brain.
Heat melts kapha, so Ayurveda believes that it is important to maintain coolness in the brain, scalp, head and eyes for the organs to function well. The activity of these organs by themselves increases Pitta or heat in the body. As we see, process information, think and use our intellect we use up vital nutrients and generate heat in the body. So Ayurveda says we should constantly cool this area and apply tailas which soothe the brain and eyes, and allow them to relax and rest.
This is also the reason behind using only cool water to wash the eyes and lukewarm – body temperature water to wash the hair. Hot water should never be used above the neck area.
The taila designed for this area is therefore necessarily different. We use cooling, relaxing and soothing herbs like Bhringaraj, Brahmi, Nimba and Amla. All of these herbs balance pitta, help in the release of ushna (heat) from the scalp and cool and relax the brain and the eyes. In addition, as this area is high in kapha, we use sweet kapha promoting herbs that are useful in hair softness, and growth like Mulethi etc.
This is why Krya recommends a separate oil for the head and the body. The same cooling oil when applied to the body will aggravate vata dosha further and could also upset Kapha dosha. The warming, Vata reducing oil of the body when applied to the head can increase Pitta and heat in the body, which is the very thing we are trying to control in this area which is already very Pitta prone.
We hope this post and our previous post on the Abhyanga have helped clear some basic doubts on the Abhyanga. As we have mentioned, the Abhyanga is a valuable tool to bring the body back to a state of balance and we have used it successfully as a tool in many seemingly unconnected disorders ranging from dry and flaky skin to post partum hair fall.
If you have any queries on how you can incorporate this Dinacharya into your life, please email us or call us on 075500-89090.
Krya products for Abhyanga:
- Krya products for Abhyanga:
a. Krya traditional baby massage oil with Bala & Ashwagandhab. Krya Ubtan for Baby girls with Rose & Himalayan Turmeric
c. Krya Ubtan for Baby boys with Chamomile & Rosemary
- 2. Kids
a. Krya traditional baby massage oil with Bala & Ashwagandha
b. Krya Kids Ubtan with Gotu Kola & Cassia flower
- Men & Women
a. Krya Abhyanga Oil with Vacha & Ashwagandha
b. Krya Women’s Ubtan with Lotus Leaf & Lodhra
c. Krya Men’s Ubtan with Vetiver & van Tulsi