The Wisdom Behind Self-Massage


Healing fingertips trace gentle circles on my head, coaxing the oil deep into each thirsty pore. Patch by grateful patch, my scalp welcomes the warmth, the moisture, the tender touch. The forehead next, the face, then down the length of the neck…Slowly, each limb, each joint, every cell of my body is soaked in bliss.

Healing fingertips trace gentle circles on my head, coaxing the oil deep into each thirsty pore.

No, I haven’t checked into an expensive spa. The healing fingers are my own, and I am sitting in my bathroom on a hectic Monday morning, playing my own masseuse and therapist before I rush to work.

I first tried self-massage on the recommendation of an ayurvedic physician. “Fifteen minutes,” he said. “That’s all it takes. Try it just a few times and see the difference.” I did. Within days, my skin was glowing, and I had energy to give away. Now I look forward to my morning massage as eagerly as I await my first cup of coffee.

Abhyanga” (moving energy into the body), the 3,000-year-old practice of self-massage, has been extolled by ayurvedic texts for its countless virtues. Here is a sampling: 

  • Massage works through the power of touch. When your fingers caress your skin, lavishing it with lubricant, they communicate to your body the one vital message it craves: that you care for it.

  • The rubbing and stroking action dislodges accumulated toxins, which then move out of the body through the digestive system. The result: all the three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—gradually regain their balance. 

  • Massage stimulates circulation and improves the flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen throughout the body. This makes you feel wonderfully energized. 

  • A regular oil massage is an excellent beauty treatment because it replenishes the skin with moisture, so essential for that youthful glow. 

  • The gentle action of massage relaxes the nerves, making you feel calm while simultaneously filling you with energy! 

The Practice

Choose a cold-pressed, chemical-free, organic massage oil. Sesame oil, neither too heavy nor too light, suits all types of skin and body.

First, “cure” your massage oil by heating it. The warmth makes it easier to absorb and enhances its antioxidant qualities. The method is simple: pour about a quart of the oil—which should last you about two weeks—into a pan, and put it on a low flame until it begins to boil. Now sprinkle a drop of water into the oil. Do you hear a “pop” sound? If yes, the oil is cured. Let it cool a bit, and then pour it into an easy-squeeze, flip-top bottle. Take care: do not leave the oil unattended while it is heating, do not heat it on a high flame, and do not pour hot oil into a bottle. 

When you are ready for the massage, reheat the oil by holding the bottle under the hot water tap for about two minutes. Now remove all clothing and jewelry, and sit down on an old towel so that you don’t slip or make a mess. Take a deep breath, and get ready for a wonderfully healing experience.

Start at the top: massage your head first. Pour a small quantity of oil into your cupped palm, and raise it to your scalp. Then, swiftly opening your palm, let the oil kiss the top of your head with a light “chapp” sound. This is your introduction to bliss. Now move your palm in circles, rubbing the oil gently but thoroughly all over your head. Part your hair from time to time so the oil seeps right into the scalp. Ayurvedic healers recommend spending maximum time on head massage, and for good reason—ayurveda identifies 107 vital points just beneath the skin. Called marmas, they are believed to be connecting points between mind and body. Of these, 37 marma points are located in the head and neck area; so give lavish time and attention to this region.

This is your introduction to bliss.

Move down to your face, the outer part of your ears, your neck—both front and back—your shoulders, and upper back. Rub gently, especially on the face. (If you are too rushed to wash your hair, your massage can start at this point.) You will find that massaging the ears feels particularly good.

Now dab some oil across the length of your arms, and then rub it along them in long back-and-forth strokes. Rub around your elbows and knuckles in a circular motion, applying gentle pressure.

Take some more oil, and rub it up and down your chest. The breasts should be massaged in gentle circular strokes. When you reach the abdomen, make sure your strokes are in a clockwise motion (right to left) for that is the direction in which your large intestine moves.

Treat the legs as you did the arms: back and forth along the bones, and circular strokes around the knees and ankles. Lavish some time on your feet—they are often the most neglected part of our anatomy and absolutely love the attention. 

By now you should be feeling deliciously rested and wonderfully refreshed. Take a few moments to allow the oil to soak into your pores. Relax your body and mind.

Then, using a mild oil-based vegetable or herb soap, wash the oil away in a warm shower. If your skin is not very sensitive, you can also use barley or chickpea flour to gently lift the oil—and with it, dead cells—from the surface of the skin. In that case, so that you do not clog the drain, gently wipe excess oil from your body (using your old towel) before you step into the shower.

If your skin is not very sensitive, you can also use barley or chickpea flour to gently lift the oil—and with it, dead cells—from the surface of the skin.

On a weekend, for even greater relaxation, you can treat yourself to a warm bath instead of a shower. But take care: the hotter the water, the drier it will leave your skin, so let the water be as cool as you can tolerate. Also, leaving the oil on the skin for more than 45 minutes can clog the pores and make you feel sluggish, so take your bath within that time. 

All the Time You Need

How much time should you spend on your daily massage? Ancient ayurvedic healers pondered this question deeply. Dalhana, a sage, recorded the calculations of Sushruta, one of ayurveda’s founding fathers, thus: “300 matrakalas are needed for oil to seep into the roots of hair. In 400 matrakalas, oil penetrates the rasa dhatu. Similarly, oil requires 500 matrakalas to seep into the rakta dhatu, 600 matrakalas to reach mamsa dhatu, 700 for medha dhatu, 800 for asthi dhatu, and 900 for majja dhatu.”

When you learn that a matrakala is one-third of a second, and the dhatus are essentially the principles that sustain various body tissues, this seemingly unintelligible calculation becomes clear:

  • Rakta dhatu supports blood plasma.

  • Rasa dhatu sustains the channels of nutrition—such as red blood cells. 

  • Mamsa dhatu supports muscle tissue. 

  • Medha dhatu supports adipose or fatty tissue. 

  • Asthi dhatu upholds bone tissue.

  • Majja dhatu sustains the central nervous system and bone marrow.

  • There is a seventh dhatu called the shukra dhatu, which sustains reproductive tissue, but that is not penetrated by massage oil. 

So, in effect, the sage is saying that a thorough massage should last 5 minutes at the very least. Ideally, 10 to 15 minutes are perfect, but if you are rushed for time, give it 5 minutes. This is better than skipping it altogether.

About the Teacher

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Shubhra Krishan
Shubhra Krishan is the author of Essential Ayurveda: What It Is and What It Can Do for You and Radiant... Read more