Self-care practices and health rituals differ from culture to culture, and what was once considered normal and beneficial, might now be considered downright dangerous. The multitude of ways we’ve cared for ourselves has radically changed through the years, but the ones that are truly beneficial have stood the test of time.
The 1800s was all about face bleaching, tapeworm dieting, and eyedrops containing deadly nightshade. In the 1900s, men’s fashion even saw them wearing high, stiff shirt collars, which were so high and so stiff, they actually cut off circulation to the brain! Yes, we’ve done some silly things throughout history, but the fact is, even though we assume we’re more evolved and intelligent, we’re still making mistakes when it comes to wellbeing. The dangers these days may not be so visibly obvious as they were in the Victorian era, but that’s exactly what makes them so harmful. Read the small print on your favourite shampoo or moisturiser and you’re likely to find a whole host of ingredients that definitely don’t belong on your skin.
It’s modern-day 2016, and instead of chalk and charcoal, we’re slathering processed creams and subtly-labelled chemical-laden ointments onto our bodies. Despite the fact that they’re titled ‘natural’ and beneficial for skin, they’re actually more likely to be harmful than helpful. Moisturisers, shampoos, soaps and many skincare products often contain ‘endocrine-disrupting compounds’, which create hormonal changes, and can even contribute towards breast cancer. These ECDs can also be found in plastics, pesticides, herbicides, and household cleaning products.
Lots of modern-day products can be linked to early-onset adolescence, and the reason behind why many girls now begin menstruating much earlier than they have ever done historically. Microwaves, artificial bright lighting and additives in food are things we have around us all the time, and also things which are severely disrupting our circadian rhythms, hormones and health.
This is where Ayurveda and its natural healing techniques come into play; we can learn a lot from ancient traditions and nature.
Abhyanga is a practice derived from Ayurveda, the ancient ‘science of life’ and India’s oldest traditional health system. This system works to bring the body and mind back into balance and harmony, and uses a multitude of ways to promote wellness, including a unique diet dependent upon each person’s dosha or ‘type’, exercise, mediation, mantra, visualisation, herbal supplementation, self massage with oils, otherwise known as abhyanga, and much more. One of the most important aspects of Ayurveda to understand, is that the health advice given thousands of years ago is just as relevant today, and it still works.* There’s no need for chemicals or anything artificial and unpronouncable, just nature and knowledge.
The word abhyanga implies a massage of the whole body, or all ‘limbs’. The word ‘anga’ means limb, and ‘abhy’ can be understood in a few different ways. In this context the Sanskrit prefix means ‘to make smooth and glowing’. The Sanskrit word for oil is ‘sneha’ which also means ‘love’, which indicates that rubbing oil into the skin is a very real way to care for and show a little love and thanks to the physical body.
Abhyanga is often used to prepare the body for panchakarma, meaning ‘five actions’. This is the traditional and relatively hardcore Ayurvedic detox…. The five actions are intended to detoxify, balance, and strengthen the body, mind and immune system. It is a healing practice to restore and rejuvenate, and also includes Vamana (medical vomiting), Virechana (purgation – said to be effective for skin disorders), Niruha Basti (clearing the lower part of the gastrointestinal tract), Nasya (administering medicines via the nose), and Anuvasana (an oil enema).
Traditionally, abhyanga uses warm oil, pre-medicated with natural herbs. After massaging the oil into the body, svedana therapy is practiced, which means ‘to perspire’. This ‘perspiration’ includes lying out in the sun. Taking a warm bath is also an effective and traditional way to follow oiling. The types of oils used differ from person to person (depending upon their dosha or prakriti (nature)) and season to season. Coconut, sesame, almond, mustard, sunflower
Self-massage is a simple and incredibly effective way to maintain health of skin, cell membranes, muscles and joints. It promotes healthy cell regeneration, healing and can even enhance mobility and flexibility.
Massage throughout the whole year is advised, but is especially important during the Winter months. The air in Winter is particularly dry, which in turn can cause dry skin and aching joints. Using oil on particularly vulnerable areas of the body, upon the joints, or choosing to slather the whole body in oil, can keep it supple and hydrated.
From personal experience, I began the practice of Abhyanga a few months ago, and genuinely noticed a huge difference in how supple and more comfortable I felt in my own skin. Previous aches and pains had disappeared or at least become far less uncomfortable, and my whole body literally felt more hydrated and alive.
Your own personal body type will determine the type of oil that is best to use; those who ‘run hot’ or have sensitive skin would do well to use pure coconut oil. For those who have particularly dry skin and aching joints, sesame oil can do wonders. Almond oil is generally useful and appropriate for all body types. In Ayurveda, the oils are usually infused with herbs or essential oils for specific purposes. Nutmeg essential oil is good for boosting circulation and easing aches and pains, lavender can soothe inflammation, and frankincense oil is useful for both relieving dry skin and reducing anxiety (FYI – skin issues can often be a symptom of anxiety or stress).
Do It Yourself
There are a few different ways to practice Abhyanga or ‘self massage’. Start by choosing a pure, organic oil that feels good on your skin. If you’re able to, then purchase one that is natural and without any artificial ingredients. Remember; what goes on the skin, goes in the skin. Next, choose when to practice the massage. Self massage is best practiced at either of these times of day:
- Upon waking: Massage a small amount of oil over the whole body, starting at the feet and ending with the head. Massage in long strokes towards the heart, and in circular motions over joints. Orange or Ylang Ylang essential oil can be a useful way to warm and uplift the senses in the morning, bringing a positive start to the day.
- After a shower or bath: Massage the oil onto warm, lightly towel-dried skin. Massage in long strokes towards the heart, and in circular movements over joints. Sandalwood or bergamot oils are comforting and can be a good way to maintain good mood levels throughout the day.
- Before Bed: As long as you don’t mind your sheets becoming a little oily, practicing abhyanga before bed can be a fantastic way to promote a calm mind and good quality sleep. Massage in long strokes towards the heart, and in circular motions over joints. If you’re using an essential oil, frankincense or lavender may be helpful for relaxing the nervous system.
Try it for yourself, just a few minutes each day to nourish and care for yourself. After all, in order to fully show up and care for others, we have to have shown up for ourselves first. Experiment with different oils, and notice how you feel in your body and mind.
*Please note: I’m not a doctor! In no way do I intend to give sound medical advice. Please consult a professional medical practitioner before using any oils or massage techniques upon yourself.