In the West, massage is often seen as an indulgence: something that requires booking an appointment with a professional for a special occasion or under certain physical circumstances. However, in the East massage is an integral part of self-care for body and mind. Expert Deborah explains her personal connection with this ritual, how it’s done and why you should consider practicing it.
As part of my advanced yoga teacher training, we were instructed to explore the Ayurvedic practice of “abhyanga” or self-massage. At first, I was not sure about this practice. In Western culture, massage is typically associated with going to the spa or treating oneself every few months. It is not something that we incorporate into our daily routine or do for ourselves. I wondered if it would feel cumbersome—another “thing” to find time for each day.
But I know from experience not to judge something too quickly. If we try something once, we never allow ourselves the chance to discover its true benefits. For example, when we start going to the gym, we don’t go once and expect to see results the very next day. We begin a training program and understand that it takes time to build strength and see results. So, I decided to give this Ayurvedic self-massage a chance, to do it daily and explore for myself what does (or does not) happen.
How to do it
According to The Chopra Center, the technique is as follows:
1. Be sure to use warm oil. You sit or stand comfortably and begin to apply the oil first to the crown of your head.
2. Then, you work slowly out from there in circular strokes spending a couple of minutes massaging your entire scalp.
3. You then move to the face—moving in a circular motion on your forehead, temples, cheeks and jaw. Be sure to include your ears and earlobes which contain essential acupuncture points and nerve endings.
4. Use long strokes on the arms and legs, with circular strokes on the joints of the body. Be sure to always massage toward the direction of your heart.
5. Massage the abdomen and chest in broad, circular strokes, following the natural lines of the intestines when on the stomach.
6. Finish the massage by spending at least a couple of minutes on the feet, which contain very important nerve endings and reflexology points that correlate to the major organs of the body.
7. If possible, sit with the oil for 5-15 minutes, and then enjoy a warm bath or shower and avoid vigorously soaping and rubbing the body.
Reap the physical and emotional rewards of self-massage
There is no shortage on research regarding the benefits of massage—the highlights of which include reducing pain and muscle soreness; improving digestion and circulation; aiding the body in detoxification; reducing stress and increasing “feel good” chemicals in the body.
Time Magazine quoted Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami in the US, as saying, “Pressure receptors under the skin, when stimulated, increase vagal activity.”
This refers to the vagus nerve, a huge part of our nervous system that plays a role in heart rate, breathing and digestion. According to the same article, “increased activity in the vagus nerve could have—among other benefits—a meditation-like calming effect, which would explain the drop in cortisol and other stress-related symptoms.”
I must admit that this was definitely my experience when doing this practice daily for many months. I found myself much more relaxed throughout the day. I felt less tension in my muscles and joints. My digestion improved, and I began to feel lighter.
A true act of self-love, gratitude and nourishment
However, what struck me the most with abhyanga was the daily connection I was able to establish with my body. The ritual became an act of self-reverence and self-love. I realised how often I take my body for granted, or worse criticise and abuse it. During the slow and intentional self-massage, I was often flooded with feelings of gratitude. Gratitude for the miracle of this body and how it works, automatically and tirelessly, for us all the time.
I began to feel nourished (a healing and wonderful sensation). And as the feelings of nourishment and self-love increased, many things changed unexpectedly. I was, suddenly, able to listen more to what my body truly wanted or needed. I rested more. I exercised more. I ate healthier food. And I was honestly amazed to see how one simple ritual had a beautiful ripple effect on how I take care of myself.
I encourage you to try this, with an open mind and deep curiosity. What can this simple exercise offer or teach you?
Writing this article has actually inspired me to take up this practice, again. As a mom of an ever-wandering and walking one year old, god knows my body and mind can could use it. Shall we embark on this journey together? We have nothing to lose and so very much to gain. The body is a temple. And deserves our loving attentiveness.