Ayurvedic Oil Bath

Warm Sesame Oil Massage

Benefits of Ayurvedic Oil Bath:  Foundation of Healthy Living

Regular Ayurvedic Oil Bath,  or self massage with medicated herbal oils, or simply natural vegetable oils such as Sesame, Coconut, and Mustard oils, appropriate to your dosha  is an Ayurvedic Oil Bath, simply called Oil Bath in Indian Culture and in Ayurveda its also called Abhyanga. Regular oil bath is one of the practices at the center of a health promoting lifestyle in Ayurveda. Like diet and meditation it is used  to balance the doshas It also relieve stress, stimulate digestion and elimination, aids sleep, stimulates agni, and benefits the skin. It is a kind of self-care that for modern people involves slowing down.

Oil Bath another word for Self Massage with Oil

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. In Ayurveda oil bath is called Abyanga, but this implies someone else massaging in a particularly skilled fashion that involves specific methodologies. Whereas  when you do it on yourself we call it Oil Bath, and the goal is simply to get the oil into your skin. Dry skin will take more oil. Someone with very dry skin may end up massaging an entire cup of warm sesame oil on their body, because the goal here is to use enough oil to become quite slippery, another words you are “bathing” your skin with oil.

Benefits for Vata Dosha

Weekly self massage with Seseame, 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.

What Vata Needs , Why Modern Life Aggravates Vata Dosha, Why Ayurvedic Oil Bath is Excellent Medicine for Vata

One of the great things about Oil bath is how much it lowers Vata. The problem with modern life is that many of its factors elevate/aggravate/vitiate Vata, because Vata is itself fast, cold, and irregular, so that it needs slowness, calm, regular rhythms to its lifestyle such as farmers have and most of us once had. It also needs warmth.

So 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 designed, i guess, to appeal to the youth spending all their money. Computers, video games, and people’s over-scheduled jam-packed fast lifestyles all elevate Vata.  Flying accross the country twice a month. I have a patient who flies from L.A to Moscow, Russia twice a month. Up in the cold dry stratosphere. Double 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 where is cold and dry. Vata is cold and dry and wants warmth and moisture. The tropics are ideal for Vata, which may be why, so many people love lieing 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. 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 not for making money and building business networks or a new outdoor fireplace, but time for self care, self love even. In India oil bath is very loving. Mothers regularly massage their babies, (see the book Loving Hands by LeBoyer), and whole families massage each other. This is self care.

Ayurvedic Oil Bath for Pitta and Kapha

In modern world Pitta and Kapha types too will often have aggravated Vata. So all the benefits just mentioned apply. And some Pittas and Kaphas will have Vata as their secondary dosha so they will be more subject to the overstimulation. But when doing oil bath for Pitta and Kapha, we first adjust the oil to the dosha, see below, and we also adjust the method.

Pitta types with oily skin 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 our high achieving lifestyles. Stress induced hair loss, for example, is an excess of Pitta fire, sometimes driven by by an excess of Vatta wind. I treated successfully a highly overscheduled teenaged girl with stress induced hair loss both by introducing oil massage, but, more importantly, introducing the notion to mom and daughter that being on three sports teams and all honors classes in which she has zero free time might be unhealthy for her. She dropped one of the sports teams that she did not even really like anyway, took herbs, got acupuncture, did oil bath, and it went away. Steroid cream from the MD had done nothing, because it did not address the cause or root, but only the symptom, or branch.

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. Is Ayurvedic oil bath an oil massage or a bath?  Well its both. Indians use the word bath to describe any kind of bathing, not just soaking in a tub; so swimming in the ocean is “sea bath”, taking a shower is “shower bath” cleansing your skin with oil is “oil bath.” In American English, too, we describe exposure to the sun as sun bathing, yes? But 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”

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.

Some links to you tube how tos. http://youtu.be/eNs2xwf_KCA or http://youtu.be/VEFWVqREgps  but compare to this versions in India and you will see the westerners are not using enough oil. This one is of a technique that uses a great deal of oil, you don’t have to use so much, but more than video 1, and a little more than video 2.

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

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