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The Ayurveda Self-Care Practice You Need Now
Learn why an ancient technique from India is the secret to maximizing workout recovery and promoting inner calm.
Chronic muscle soreness often debilitates runners chasing race goals or hammering through tough workouts. By nature, exercise breaks down the body so it can heal and strengthen over time. But painful trigger points and muscular inflammation—the byproducts of an intense fitness regimen—can inhibit performance or even promote injury if athletes don’t prioritize recovery.
There’s a secret to soothing the soreness. Abhyanga massage is a self-care practice stemming from Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old system of natural medicine that originated in India. It not only works wonders for tender muscles and joints but also supercharges the mind-body connection—a win-win when it comes to cultivating a functional rehab regimen and strong mental game.
If you’re curious about abhyanga, check out the benefits of the practice, as well as a few DIY tips for incorporating this self-care technique into your own fitness recovery routine.
Basics of Abhyanga
Quick lingo lesson: The Sanskrit word abhyanga translates from “abhy” (meaning “to anoint”) and “anga” (meaning “body part”). In short, this self-massage practice employs natural oils and specific stroke motions (circular for the joints, linear for the muscles) to rub the body down and release tension. The practice aims to stimulate blood flow, improve lymphatic response, decrease inflammation, and hydrate and soften skin. It’s essentially myofascial release on steroids—sans foam rollers—with a whole lot of oil and mindfulness baked in.
“You’ll feel radiant,” says Larissa Carlson, an Ayurvedic yoga specialist based in Manchester, VT. Carlson, a lifelong athlete, discovered Ayurveda 18 years ago and made the switch from traditional sports massage to abhyanga, incorporating organic oil instead of lotion into her post-workout rub-down. She’s never looked back. “It’s one of my daily non-negotiables,” Carlson says. “As I travel teaching yoga and Ayurvedic wellness practices, abhyanga has become essential for slowing down after a busy day, releasing tension, calming my mind, rejuvenating tired muscles, and boosting mental endurance. It’s easily my favorite Ayurvedic self-care tool—simple, safe, doable daily and incredibly effective.”
Unlocking the Power of Abhyanga
Abhyanga has several physiological health benefits, starting with your body’s largest organ—your skin. Your skin has its own microbiome, tiny organisms that rely on proper nourishment to produce a radiant glow. This microbiome feeds on naturally produced oils, like those used in abhyanga, whereas commercial lotions and soaps can kill it, causing breakouts, dryness and irritation, according to John Douillard, DC, a specialist in natural health and sports medicine in Boulder, CO. Additionally, vitamin E is a key nutrient for healthy skin, hair and nails, and over 90% of Americans are D-deficient. However, by infusing a carrier oil with vitamin E and using it in abhyanga, the skin may absorb enough of it to improve the appearance of your hair and skin.
As for your muscles, the massage technique plays a key role in speeding the recovery process. Exercise causes tissue breakdown in your body; typically, proteins that are stored in synovial-fluid sacs surrounding the joints are recruited to rebuild these tissues. “But if that fluid gets dried out, the joint does not have its natural lubricant and it begins to deteriorate,” says Douillard. “In abhyanga, you’re massaging joints in a circular motion, so you’re actually pumping the synovial sacs to keep them lubricated.”
Similarly, massaging muscles with long-strokes away from the heart—core to the abhyanga practice—increases arterial blood flow and encourages transportation of protein to help decrease inflammation and promote healing. “Meanwhile massaging in long strokes back up toward the heart also helps your body drain the lymphs through the venial system,” he says. This helps remove toxins from your body, promoting a quicker recovery while also improving your skin.
It gets better, though. When you combine abhyanga massage with positive intention (that’s code for thinking self-affirming thoughts), it may trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone that makes you feel good, says Douillard.
Giving Abhyanga a Try
The beauty of self-massage is that you can do it any time you feel especially sore. The technique isn’t hard, but it does take a little practice to get the strokes right. Start with these tips:
Prep: While skin brushing (a.k.a. dry brushing) is an entirely different Ayurvedic self-care technique, Carlson says it can act as a precursor to abhyanga. “Think about it as exfoliation first, lubrication second,” she says. “Skin brushing is fabulous for sloughing off dead skin, improving circulation, and stimulating the release of accumulated toxins.” Once or twice per week, slip on gloves made of natural fibers (Carlson recommends raw silk) and brush the skin briskly (but gently) for two minutes for a softening, brightening effect. Then move on to abhyanga.
Self-massage: Place a small seat inside your hot shower (you can also sit on the floor if space allows). Pour a quarter-sized drop of organic oil into your palms and rub hands together. Apply the oil head to toe in a light coat the way you would sunscreen, recommends Carlson. Then rub it into the skin using circular motions for the joints and long, sweeping linear motions for everything else.
Re-up oil as needed and cover every surface on your body including the ears, face, armpits, breasts, limbs, core, low back and each individual finger and toe. Massage slowly and breathe deeply, paying extra attention to sore spots and cracking joints. Use your thumbs to work the bellies of the muscles in both directions for maximum benefits.
When you’re done, towel dry and cozy up in soft sweats, a flowy tank, and a comfy top—loose-fitting items allow your skin to absorb the oil without it sticking to your clothing. Breathe again. Let the calm sink in. And voilà, recovery just went from a battle to bliss.
Note: As a precaution, avoid using abhyanga when sick with a fever or the flu, and consult your health care provider with specific concerns.