Benefits of Ayurvedic Oil Bath: Foundation of Healthy Living
Ayurvedic Oil Bath (Abhyangha) is self massage with warm oil. In Ayurveda its traditionally done once a week by the whole family for wellness and prevention of disease.
Regular oil massage, or Abhyanga, is part of the normal health promoting lifestyle in Ayurveda. Like eating fresh food and meditating regularly, it is used to stimulate Agni and balance the doshas.
Sesame and Coconut Oil
In Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, the Tamil speaking people use Sesame Oil for the once-a-week self massage, because Sesame is the most penetrating of all the oils. Drops of sesame oil are also regularly placed in the eyes, nose, and ears, and sesame oil is also used as a gargle for dental health. Sesame oil is considered so medicinal that its Tamil name “Nal ennai” means “good oil.” Its a favorite for vegetarian cooking, too.
Some people do use Coconut oil, as needed, because Sesame oil is warming. Or they use Sesame once a week, and Coconut oil daily in the morning on the scalp, because coconut is cooling. In North India people may use mustard oil, which is very warming.
Match the Oil to Your Dosha and Use Medicated Oils
Its excellent to use the oil that pacifies your dosha the best. It IS possible to aggravate your dosha by using the wrong oil. Its also very nice to use medicated herbal oils that are made from cooking Ayurvedic herbs in with the oil. There are many to choose from depending on your health condition and dosha.
Oil Bath to Pacify Vata; the Bringer of 1008 Diseases
Regular oil bath is a powerful way to keep your Vata dosha in check, because Vata is cold and dry and fast, and oil bath is warm and unctuous and slow.
Vata dosha has to be kept pacified for people of all doshas. It is said in Ayurveda that 70% of diseases are due to Vata, because Vata is the most fragile dosha and because of its nature as wind, which carries things. And ecause Vata is wind, if your other doshas are aggravated, then an elevated Vata make things worse.
Aggravated Vata will fan the flames of Pitta, and cause the water of Kapha to overflow. If you think of elevated Vata dosha as like a dry twig, Oil bath Abhyangha is like soaking that twig in nice warm oil so it can regain its flexibility. The effect is profoundly mental, as well as physical.
The Speed and Stimulation of Modern Life Elevates Vata
Modern life with its 24/7 hyper-stimulation is very aggravating to Vata. Weekly Oil bath is just so lovely for Vata, its like a mini-vacation for the mind and body. It relieves stress, stimulates digestion and elimination, profoundly aids sleep, stimulates Agni, and benefits dry skin like nothing else.
And its this quality of stimulating Agni, that pacifies Vata, too, because Cold, Spacey, Ungrounded Vata has naturally weak Agni. Its much harder to keep Agni high in a Vata than in a Pitta, or even a Kapha. The earth and water can retain heat much better than the air. Outer space does a downright lousy job of holding onto head.
The Goal of Oil Bath: Deep Penetration of Oil into Your Skin and Psyche
In South India the word “bath” is used to describe any kind of treatment of the skin. Swimming in the ocean is “sea bath” , a shower is “shower bath” and so on. So massage with warm oil is called Oil Bath. Its just another word for self massage with oil.
Difference between Oil Bath and Ayurvedic Abhyanga
In Ayurveda, rhythmic oil massage along the shrotas is called Abhyanga, but this implies someone else massaging in a particularly skilled fashion that sets up a powerfully sedating rhythm and that stimulates Marma points, similar to acupuncture points in Chinese Medicine.
When you do Oil Bath for yourself the goal is less massage and more penetration of oil deep into the skin. Dry skin will take more oil. Someone with very dry skin may end up massaging an entire cup of warm sesame oil into their body, because the goal here is to use enough oil to become quite slippery, another words you are “bathing” your skin with oil.
Enjoy the Process
And enjoy the process. It may seem odd at first to Americans, but over time you will fall in love with the self care aspect of the oil bath process. Enjoy the silky relaxing texture of the oil. Relish the fragrance of the oil molecules, even more so if you are using wonderful Ayurvedic medicated oils like MahaNarayan oil.
If you do not have access to medicated oil, you can add a few drops of a dosha appropriate essential oil into you oil. Something warming like Vetiver or Spikenard for Vata dosha, Sandalwood or Rose or Lavender for Pitta, Eucalyptus Radiata or Grapefruit for Kapha.
Benefits for Vata Dosha
Weekly self massage with Sesame, Coconut, or Mustard Oil, depending on the season, climate, and individual dosha is a traditional part of Indian culture. As 70% of diseases come from Vata elevation, and Oil Massage is a fantastic way to pacify Vata, weekly self massage, along with a meditation practice that calms the Vata elevated mind, is some of the best prevention and treatment for Vata elevation and the diseases that follow Vata elevation/vitiation.
Modern Life Aggravates Vata; Ayurvedic Oil Bath is a Simple Remedy
One of the great things about Oil bath is how much it lowers Vata. The problem with modern life is that it aggravates Vata so much. Modern life is so aggravating to Vata because Vata is itself fast, cold, and irregular, which is what modern life is like.
Technology and Media Aggravate Vata
The constant stimulation of technological media in modern life is that very embodiment of constant stop and start. Vata dosha needs the opposite: slow, calm, regular rhythms like the lapping waves of a lake on a very peaceful day.
Everything that over-stimulates your nervous system elevates Vata. Go to the mall. Music in every store and in the ambient space as well. And its not calm relaxing music but fast stimulating music. Computers, video games, and people’s over-scheduled jam-packed fast lifestyles all elevate Vata. No wonder so many kids have ADHD.
Excessive Travel Aggravates Vata
The amount of air travel nowadays also aggravates Vata. I have a patient who flies from L.A to Moscow, Russia twice a month. Up in the cold dry stratosphere. In an air conditioned airplane. Eating salad. Triple wammy.
Travel elevates Vata. Driving at 65 miles an hour in a small fiberglass box 30 minutes twice a day is bad enough, but flying you are also putting yourself in a very Vata elevating physical place, up in space which is cold and dry.
Warm Human Relations Pacify Vata
The tropics are ideal for Vata, which may be why so many people love laying on the beach in the warm moist air with the soothing regular sound of the ocean waves.
On top of that in the USA family relations tend to be a bit cold, and with world wide mass immigration everyone has left behind the secure structures of regularity. My patient from Argentina left home to come to medical school alone in the northern USA. No family or friends, none of that warmth. It affected her strongly.
Warm Touch Pacifies Vata
Vata needs warmth, emotional warmth and physical. Cuddling with the dog pacifies vata. Any kind of positive, soothing touch pacifies or calms Vata. And if the touch is warm, as in the dog and as in self massage with warm oil, all the better.
Oil is also unctuous which is just what dry vata needs. And, as you will see below, to do Oil bath right means to take time, to actually set some time aside for self care, to forget about work and to-do lists for an hour.
In India oil bath is very loving. Mothers regularly massage their babies with arm oil. See the book Loving Hands by LeBoyer for more on that topic. And whole families massage each other on Saturday afternoon. This is self care of the group and the individual.
Ayurvedic Oil Bath for Pitta and Kapha
Oil bath is not just for Vata. Remember, everyone’s Vata gets elevated and needs treatment. Pitta and Kapha types will often have aggravated Vata as well. And no one is just Pitta or Kapha. If you are Pitta or Kapha you are either Pitta-Vata, Kapha-Vata, or Pitta-Kapha or Kapha-Pitta.
So all the benefits just mentioned apply. . But when doing oil bath for Pitta and Kapha, we first adjust the oil to the dosha, as follows, and we also adjust the method.
Oil Bath for Pitta types
Pitta types can use less oil on their body, but still plenty of cooling oil on the scalp, face and ears. Just as calming touch soothes Vata, soothing touch relaxes Pitta. But Pitta and Kapha both may prefer a more vigorous deep massage.
But again, the point is simply to get that oil into the skin. Pitta will especially benefit from medicated coconut oil with herbs like Brahmi that cool the Pitta fire that collects in the head with their high achieving lifestyles.
Oil Bath for Pitta Type Stress Induced Hair Loss–Alopecia
Stress induced hair loss is an excess of Pitta fire. Fire rises in the body, as in nature. Stress involving frustration and teenaged hormones often cause heat in the head. Examples are migraines, hormonal acne, and alopecia.
When anxiety and fear combines with frustration then excess Vata fans the fire of Pitta. A successful treatment of acne and alopecia in a highly over-scheduled teenaged girl honor student on three sports teams began by introducing oil massage with Divya brand Kesh Taila.
I gave her Ayurvedic and Chinese Herbs, but as importantly, introduced the notion to both mom and daughter that being on three sports teams and along with her perfect 4.0 in honors classes might be more than her nervous system could handle. A lifestyle guaranteed to aggravate Vata and Pitta.
This seemed important, especially since she did not seem to really want to be on the third team, but was having trouble saying no, because of certain social reasons.
She dropped the extra sports teams, took herbs, got acupuncture, did oil bath, and it her Alopecia was cured.. The Steroid cream from the MD had done nothing, because it did not address the cause or root, but only the symptom, or branch.
Oil Bath for Kapha Dosha
Kapha needs stimulation and fire. Kaphas are naturally cold, heavy, regular and made of earth and water. So when Kapha is healthy you get good solid clay you can make bricks from. Solid like an oak tree.
But when Kapha is elevated, you get either mud, or bricks so dense and heavy you cant move them. Kaphas can be kind and loving or frozen and withdrawn. Kapha can be strong and solid or phlegmatic and prone to sinus infections, constipation, and tons of mucus.
And Kapha, like water, is naturally cold. So oil bath for Kapha has to have warming oil, either sesame treated with herbs, or mustard oil. And Kapha will need and like rather vigorous stimulation with the oil, almost like a chafing, with fast strokes that wake her up. The massage equivalent in a way of chile pepper.
Regular Ayurvedic oil bath helps you maintain health and wellness and prevent disease. A once weekly oil bath strongly pacifies Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, keeps the body lubricated, nourishes the skin and tissues (dhatus), and helps to mobilize the body’s toxins (Ama) from the tissues and channels where it has lodged, leading them back to the center of the body, where it can be discharged from the internal organs through a dosha appropriate diet, lifestyle, and occasional Panchakarma therapies like fasting, emesis, and purging.
Like massage, an oil bath will leave you feeling profoundly relaxed– mentally and physically.
The difference between a regular massage with oil and oil bath is twofold–oil bath is self administered (though it does not have to be), and like Ayurvedic oil massage, uses considerably more oil than ordinary massage, you really slather it on quite liberally, especially if you have dry skin. In both Ayurvedic massage and oil bath the factor of the oil is more important than in other forms of massage. You really are “bathing” the skin with large does of dosha appropriate oil that is soaked up deep into the cutaneous tissues.
Sesame vs Coconut vs Mustard Oil: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha Dosha
Oil applied to the skin is warming, moistening, nourishing, and soothing–everything that Vata needs to be balanced. Sesame oil is is the most penetrating and nourishing of all the oils which makes it ideal for pacifying dry Vata, and small amounts can be included in mixtures for the other two doshas for that reason. The molecular structure of sesame oil is unique in that it is so small it is able to penetrate past the dermis layer of the skin. That is why sesame oil is in so many of the finest high end body care lines, like Dr. Hauschka. Sesame Oil is warming as well, another characteristic that pacifies Vatta. While Vatta is cold and dry, Kapha is cold and wet, so for Kapha a warm, spicy oil that stimulates lymphatic drainage like mustard oil is often used. If mustard is unavailable, one can use a spicy olive oil or a lighter oil like sunflower. Pitta on the other hand is fiery and hot, so coconut oil and even diluted neem oil are used in oil bath for Pitta dominant types.
Match the Oil to your Dosha:
- Vata: Sesame, Almond, Olive (but not a spicy variety)–dry skin, drier in cold weather, dry type psoriasis or eczema, painful joints
- Pitta: Coconut, Neem–red, hot skin, easily irritated skin, oily skin, headaches from hot sun
- Kapha: Mustard, Olive (prefers a spicy variety), Sunflower–cool, moist skin, large boned, slow, easy going, gains weight easily
Where this becomes interesting is to match the oil to your dosha combination. What if you are a Vatta Pitta with dry skin, but a hot irritable head? First, you can use a sesame based oil on your body, but a coconut oil on your head. Or you could mix coconut and sesame in proportion to your dosha relationship. If you are having Pitta symptoms favor the coconut and add some sesame for balance. Or vice versa. In cold dry Vata season you may not have any Pitta symptoms. You can also decide based on the medicated herbal oils in which case the herbs affect the doshas. Medicated herbal oils are oils in which herbs have been steeped and extracted over long periods of time. The medicated herbal oils used for Ayurvedic oil bath are called Thailam in Sanskrit and Tamil.
Ayurvedic Thailam are oils in which herbs have been steeped. These are even more powerful than using plain oil, as above. There is an especially strong tradition of using these thailam in Kerala’s version of Ayurveda. But North Indians, too, especially in Gujarat, also use oil massage heavily in Panchakarma treatment and for preventative use. Mahanarayan Oil is famous for arthitic and muscular pains and is easily available on Amazon. I like Dabur’s version. Neelabringraj Oil is used for hot scalp conditions like dandruff, premature grey, psoraisis, and insomnia due to elevated Pitta. A similar oil, which i like very much is Divya Kesh Tailam, available on Amazon.
Balaswagandhadi Thailam, for example, pacifies Vata and Pitta so is safe to use on a mixed Vata/Pitta person. Chandanadi, which has been made from a process involving coconut water and cow’s milk, as well as cooling herbs, strongly pacifies Pitta, so will not be used on the body of a Vatta or Kapha as it will be too cold, but could be used on the head on a Vata/Pitta or Kapha/Pitta or for shirodara, especially with mental stress. Brahmi oil is used in the same way. Karpoorathi is an oil that is used for Kapha. The source I trust when it comes to medicated Ayurvedic oils is http://www.trihealthayurveda.com in Hawaii, but their oils are all imported from Kerala, one of the 3 centers for Ayurveda in the world. Their oils are fresh, pure, unadulterated, and contains the correct ingredients.
When using oil for self-massage the oil needs to be “cured.” This means heating the oil for 15 minutes on a pilot light or in a pan on the lowest simmer. This makes the oil really silky, and much more easily absorbed by the skin. If you use Thailams (oil in which herbs have been cured) they are already cured. But if you are using your own oil like sesame or coconut, you must first cure it yourself. You can cure some in advance and then warm it up at time of use, or you can use it right away the day you cure it.
How to take an “Ayurvedic Oil Bath”
1)On a relaxed day when you have plenty of time and don’t need to be anywhere or answer anybody’s questions, in either the morning or at noon, on an empty stomach, take a cup of your oil of choice and heat it slightly. I like to place a glass bottle of oil into some hot water for a few minutes. You want the oil pleasantly warm. Avoid the desire to have music on, and just do this in silence so you can hear your own breathing and the sound of the massage.
2) Now pour a generous amount of oil on the crown of your head and massage it deep into your scalp with a circular shampooing action. Now massage your feet with a liberal quantity of oil. Take your time and really rub it in well. And now massage everywhere in-between, using circular movements at the joints, the belly, chest, and low back, and long movements on your limbs, with again, circular motions at the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles.
Here is a link to you tube how to. http://youtu.be/eNs2xwf_KCA , but compare to this versions in India and you will see the westerners are not using enough oil.
3) This will be a bit messy. I have some old towels I use to protect the bathroom floor. In India the bathroom floors are traditionally made of stone, are slightly sloped, and have a drain at one end, to facilitate easy cleaning after your bath, so its not problem. Or you bathe outside at the well. Here we have to improvise and I find old towels work perfectly. I place one on the floor and one on the toilet seat, so can put a leg up to get the back of the thigh, for example, or sit down while doing my feet.
4) When you are finished with your leisurely oil massage, which should take from 20 minutes, and you feel like your whole body is soaked in oil, now lay down in a quiet warm spot for about 15 minutes if you can and take a nap. Really relax. Otherwise just go ahead and wash the excess oil off (much will have been absorbed into your skin) using either a very mild shampoo, or even better a powdered Ayurvedic herbal mix called Shikakai powder and warm, but not very hot water. Yogis in India don’t even use Shikakai, which is a bit harsh. Rather they use clay, or chick pea flower mixed with a kind of river clay called Multani Mati, that benefits the skin and is not drying. I also like simple olive oil soap, or the Neem soap I get from Organixx South.
5) Dry off as you normally would, dress in comfortable loose cotton clothing, and lie down for a little while; even take a nap if you like, followed by a light vegetarian meal. Please plan your oil bath for when you can spend the rest of the day in easy relaxation, or better yet, quiet meditation. Vatta benefits from slowing down!
6)Stay indoors if it is at all windy, rainy, or cold, as your pores will now be very, very open and you will be susceptible to the elements and can easily catch a chill. If it is hot and sunny out please stay in the shade. Pitta types especially will want to avoid the sun after oil bath (they need to avoid too much sun anyway).
In India oil bath is taken any time of year except the hottest season when people become really exhausted by the heat. But during the hot season everyone massages coconut or other cooling oil into their scalp to help bear the heat. Ayurvedic Oil bath during that hottest season, when the temperatures stay around 100 for days and weeks, is considered further weakening, because it is so relaxing. I don’t think we have a commensurate climate here, so I myself take oil bath even in summer, but am very careful about avoiding too much sun afterwards, and only use coconut oil on my hot Pitta head.
copyright eyton shalom dec 2013 all rights reserved use with permission
Hi. I’m a vataa type and will try these oil baths weekly. Thank you 🙂
Hi Eyton. That was a great article – thank you! I think I’m mostly Vatta and a little Pitta too right?
Since this is public, shall I respond privately to your email? Meanwhile, in general terms: people with freckles and reddish hair generally will have strong Pitta Prakruti (innate constitution, vs. Vikruti which is current elevation), that too if there is a tendency to heat symptoms whether physical, like red rashes or acne, or mental, such as impatience or short temper. so think about each dosha in terms of both phys and mental. On the Vatta side one looks for anxiety, fear, restlessness, nervousness, what Chinese medicine can call vexation, on the mental level, whereas on the physical cold and dry and boney and skinny, for example. Most valuable usually is to ask what is elevated right now. What is working and what not. Physical strength for hard work like digging ditches, that is kapha, large mounds of flesh. More by email….