My experience was but a fancy version of a practice that all of us, regardless of constitution, oughta add to our morning getting ready ritual. Abhyanga is daily self oil massage done before your shower and doesn't have to be as extreme as my adventure in India.
Abhyanga improves circulation, calms nerves, lubricates joints, alleviates arthritis pain, softens skin, aides elimination, improves sleep, increases metal awareness, and in a general and lovely sense balances the elements of which we're made.
Ayurvedically speaking, oils and fats are some of the yummiest substances we can ingest and utilize - ghee and whole milk are often used as a medium for ingesting healing herbs and medicine. Your skin is the largest organ in the body and the healing properties of the oil are absorbed through the skin-think about what happens to a car engine with little to no oil in it. I'll admit it took me a while to get on board with oil and fat being healing substances. But once I understood that the 5000 year old practices of Ayurveda seek to achieve balance throughout the body system and that imbalance is the precursor to disease, it was easier to consider butter and milk as healing substances. And let's be honest, who doesn't want permission to eat some butter?
So here are my results after one month of daily abhyanga. My finger joints were less cricky-cracky, my joints and muscles in general felt better, after showering I felt relaxed and energized. My mood throughout the day was better. Lately I haven't had sleep troubles so no change there.
Which oil to use? Sesame oil is a go to for all constitutions, and particularly since we live in a vata-deranged culture sesame is sure-fire way to balance vata. Olive and coconut oil work too. Sesame is nice when the weather gets cold, coconut is good in the summer because it's cooling.
Here's a general rule for choosing an oil by dosha:
Sesame for vata
Almond or coconut for pitta
Sunflower for kapha
(I think personal health practices should be affordable and easy so I don't use fancy and expensive oils like jojoba or wheat germ. If I was gonna splurge on oil though I'd purchase an one infused with Ayurvedic goodness like Mapi's Moisturizing Herbal Massage Oil.)
How much oil?
My wife and I like different amounts of oil for our massages. She likes to use a quarter cup of oil or less for her entire body and I like a quarter cup on each arm. You choose the amount of oil you use. Less oil is more user friendly but if you have crackly joints or tend towards vata imbalances like me then your body is probably craving the lubrication. Also, if you use a lot of oil know that this can potentially become a very slippery endeavor- be careful moving around your bathroom please. And remember, you're not washing off the oil. Our skin doesn't need to be washed with soap daily. In fact, that's a good way to imbalance and dry out your skin. The oil will penetrate deeper because of the warm water so you won't be greasy after your shower but do not soap off the oil.
How to Get Your Abhyanga On
You will need-
About 15 minutes (or more if you have the time) before your shower
A towel dedicated to this experience (don't use the good towels)
Oil of your choice
Heat your oil on the stove a little bit till it's comfortably warm. (Confession: Even though I know I should do this I don't lately because as you might know I just opened a new business and mornings go by very fast these days.)
Stand or sit on a towel in your bathroom and rub the oil into your skin starting at your head and working your way down. I like to apply oil all over first then begin the more focused massage. Massage in circles around joints (3 circles in each direction) and strokes on long bones. Pay particular attention to your scalp (usually I put very little oil on my scalp) ears, belly, and feet. You know those charts where your whole body is mapped out on your ears and feet? Yep, that applies here too. Massaging ears and feet thoroughly is a full internal and external massage. On your belly go in sun-wise circles (clockwise) because this is the natural direction of the intestines.
Now you're supposed to let it soak in for 10-15 mins. Again I'm usually squeezing this in so 5 mins is what I do if I'm in a hurry. Then hop into a nice warm shower or bath.
Like many empowering health habits, this isn't a one-off practice. We're in this life for the long-haul as I like to tell my yoga students and, like our asana practice, we should think of this as a life-long beneficial habit. Commit to abhyanga at least 4-7 times a week for at least a month (better yet 3 months) and then decide if you like it or not. Our individual health is a lifetime practice and Ayurveda- The Science of Everyday Living- is all about the daily practices adding up over years to balance and bliss. Though the results of abhyanga come over time you'll probably feel great even after your first go.
Let me know how this practice goes for you or if you have any questions.