I tried abhyanga in my wellness routine and it was a revelation

Image by Twylamae
Words by Hannah Cole

Not ayahuasca.

Self-care has become a concept more obsessed with the Instagram veneer than genuine timeout.

We slave away online trying to prove to ourselves that we are, in fact, *zen* and love the outdoors or painting or yoga. But there must be no confusion between self-centredness and self-love, and I was beginning to lose that distinction.

It was entirely fortuitous, then, when I came across abhyanga – or Ayurvedic self-massage – during the frantic wellness deep-dive I had turned to in a moment of soul-searching. The practice is rooted in Indian tradition and has been around for over 5,000 years, existing to calm the mind, body and soul in synchrony.

Abhyanga literally means “self-massage with oil”.

Traditionally, the practice consists of a (recommended) daily 15-minute self-massage, which claims to result in smoother skin, lustrous hair, a healthy nervous system and improved sleep. Select your oil (untoasted sesame oil appears to be the consensus) and gently warm it up. Set up shop – i.e. somewhere in the bathroom – and begin to massage, starting from the crown of the head down to the feet and moving in circular strokes.

It is important to massage vital stress points such as your scalp, temples, cheeks, jaw and earlobes. These points all contain nerve endings, and can be particularly susceptible to tension. When you reach the limbs, most guides suggest elongating your massage strokes, running the length of your arms and legs and always in the direction of your heart.

Once massaged and self-pampered, follow with a quick shower rinse-off and dab of the towel, allowing any residual oil to moisten and soften the skin.

Despite thoroughly reading the steps (and taking handwritten notes) in my preparation, my first abhyanga experience was unsettling. Fifteen minutes felt like a lifetime, and I got distracted analysing every lump, bump and blemish on my body in the mirror. Instead of freeing my mind and connecting with my body, I became consumed with my reflection.

The only element of self-discovery was realising I had no knowledge of the correct technique to massage oneself. Years of demanding/begging/paying someone else to massage my sore body rendered me skill-less and lost.

Though my skin felt supple, my mind remained active and very far from chill.

The second time around, I pre-planned a little better. YouTube proved to be my discomfort antidote and a useful research tool in how one should actually massage their stomach, arms and back.

It was also important to find the oil that worked for me – one that’s not too expensive and easily attainable. Improvise if you don’t have health store-grade sesame oil, and stick to the basics. This time I went with fractionated coconut oil – it’s a notch above cooking oil and felt a little more lush.

I planted myself on a towel atop the toilet lid, closed my eyes and let my hands do the work while attempting to go with the flow.

I started at the crown of my head, massaging my furrowed and stressed brow and keeping my eyes closed. 

Next stop: the hands and arms. It turns out some self-hand holding is soothing and incredibly underrated. 

I continued around my torso until I got to the feet. For too long I had ignored the daily pain I inflicted on my poor little trotters. They’re abused by often-inappropriate footwear choices and daily steps goals. As I had realised with my hands, my self-foot-massage was close to life-changing.

All this self-soothing led me to one big revelation: I don’t genuinely care about my body.

I’m too quick to judge her, hurl horrible words at her and make her work incredibly hard. The Instagram version of ‘self-care’ would have me painstakingly compose a chill bath or trek a mountain – with the added pressure of inventing a witty caption, too.

The act of self-massage has encouraged me to appreciate my body – visible flaws and all. An action so simple – so quaint – has led to sincere enlightenment: my body (and every body) is a pretty amazing thing.

I can’t remember the last time I spent so much time comfortably in my head. During my self-massage, I had unplugged my headphones and my eyes weren’t glued to a screen. My many rambling thoughts were left to breed in peace and quiet.

The modern, oversaturated cult of wellness has attached itself to consumerism. We’re encouraged to purchase the latest tonic or drink bottle or retreat in the name of a healthy mind, body and spirit. Wellness seems to be reserved for the wealthy alone, while the rest of us are left with failed attempts at a holistic self.

So, maybe abhyanga is the solution. You don’t need to be rich and famous; no expensive jade face rollers, nannies or cleaners are required. All you need is some oil, access to a bathroom and 15 minutes. It’s time I’m sure we can all manage to spare in the name of self-love.

The question I can feel you burning to ask: but what about the beauty benefits? Did I notice any changes? Has my skin, hair or sleep improved? I’m still learning how to incorporate this into my weekly routine, but if gut feels are to go by, it’s working. I have slept like a baby after each massage and my skin is returning to its former suppleness after a dry winter. I expect that soon my locks will be overflowing and luscious.

Regardless, a newfound self-appreciation outweighs any potential physical improvement, IMO. 

Find more information on abhyanga here.

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