The other night I pulled out a pair of socks. They were special socks – colorful, striped, worn-out Smartwools, with just a slight smell of sesame. What I did next was simple.
The amazing powers of Abhyanga
I sat on the edge of my bed, massaged my feet with sesame oil, and slid on those socks. Then I laid down, and sleep found me quickly. The next morning, my experience of the world was completely different than it had been in months. All of the dreaded fear and anxiety had disappeared and, in their place, were those yummy feelings of creativity, comfort, and support.
You see, this whole summer was a whirlwind for me, as it is for many. Tis’ the season. I’m a pitta, meaning my body/mind are mainly composed of the fire element, and that extra summer sun stimulates and supports my natural drive to act and accomplish in the world. Internal or external heat constantly fuels me to do more, be better, and push my limits until all of a sudden I burn out physically, mentally, and spiritually.
And this is exactly what happened to me the other day. At noon in full sun, the first fall gust brushed past my skin and whispered to my biological rhythms that fall was on its way. First came the relief — we will soon be released from the intensely hot bondage of high summer. I thanked the Gods of the coming Vata season. But my gratitude didn’t last long before the fear set in: that deep seated anxiety arising from exhaustion that I had been pushing down inside for months, refusing to face, so that I could finish up this project, start that next endeavor, or socialize with a new group of people.
Finally it all burst free, like a broken damn contained within the limits of my body, and just as quickly my muscles tensed in stress while my mind began to race frantically, and everything around me suddenly felt threatening to my system.
I had experienced this before – the whirling of autumn that stirs up anxiety from somewhere deep inside. But this was the first time I had experienced it with the knowledge of Ayurveda embedded in me. I found a comforting sensibility to it all. Even more, I knew what to do. I knew to get out those socks, smother my feet with oil, and rest deep…real deep. Even though I had practiced abhyanga on and off for the past year, this time felt different.
This time my body responded, like a dry limp plant finally receiving a good gulp of water, to the nourishment of oil that it had been missing for months. The ease, the comfort, fluidity and protection that I felt the next morning inspired me to write this post, to share the amazing powers of abhyanga and, more specifically, how to use it to cool down your body and mind from that summer fire (and possible burnout), while preparing and protecting against the physical and psychological pitfalls that can sweep in on the autumn gusts. A good abhyanga practice, started now, will allow you to support yourself to make sure that you have a healthy, wholesome, cozy, and creative fall season.
The Elements and the Seasons
First off, it is useful to view the current season from an elemental perspective to best know how to harmonize your internal environment with your external environment. According to Ayurveda, the elements – ether, air, fire, water, and earth – exist in everything in nature. Within every season, particular elements dominate. The sun (fire element) brings the summer, and with the sun, comes the heat. The heat builds the thunderheads that cycle the water ‘round the Earth. This can be referred to as high pitta season – major fire with a little water. High heat and moisture. By the end of the summer, the long durations of heat eventually dries everything out. End result: crispy brown grass, shriveled flowers, and dried up streambeds. At this time the Westward winds begin to bring in the cool crispness of fall, adding to the dryness of late summer. This season is saturated with the elements of air and ether. Currently we are in that in-between state — dried out from summer with further drying on the way. And though we still sit with the heat of the summer, we know deep in our bones that the cold is on its way.
Our bodies undergo the same process. With more sunlight around us, we feel more energized, which possibly leads us to working harder and playing harder and going on picnics and gardening and doing yard work and hiking and having dinner parties. If you feel exhausted from summer, you’re not alone. It feels so lovely to expend all of that excess energy that it’s easy to overextend oneself. And if you have, you’ll be feeling it right about now…
As we leave pitta season in late summer, we are easing right into vata season. From high fire present in the atmosphere to more air and eventually more ether. In healthy proportions, the elements of vata – air and ether – can create the light clean spaciousness needed for creativity, inspiration and even spiritual insight. But if you begin to take on too many of these qualities, symptoms like dry skin, cold emotions, fear, worry, and anxiety can arise. Therefore, no matter your constitution, if your body is burnt up and dried out from summer, you will be at a greater risk of developing vata imbalances on top of your pitta imbalances, leading to unnecessary dis-ease.
Cooling the fires of pitta
Does this resonate? If so, now is definitely the time to get to the root of your imbalance so as to protect against more extreme imbalances this coming fall. Since the root of the issue is too much heat leading to a lack of moisture you will want to bring in cooling substances with a moistening nature. Even if you’re not experiencing any imbalances now, the cool and moist qualities, in moderate amounts, will be beneficial from a seasonal standpoint.
There are many practices that you can cultivate to bring more moisture and coolness into your life. One of the most potent and simple practices is called abhyanga or self-massage. Abhyanga is usually done by applying oil to the body with different techniques as to what oil to use and how to apply it.
Regular practice keeps the muscles and joints of the body fluid, stimulates circulation and improves the functioning of the immune system. Self massage also increases energy, creates lustrous skin, regulates the digestive system, removes toxins from the body, calms the nervous system, and stabilizes the mind. Its side effects include becoming more intimate with your own skin and becoming deeply aware of how your body’s doing. Therefore, it’s important to cultivate a space of self-compassion for yourself, especially if you’re new to all of this. It may be a little (or a lot) uncomfortable at first. Perhaps it may feel like a greedy indulgence that you don’t deserve. Or you may experience resistance to feeling into your body and becoming more deeply aware of possible imbalances. I’ve been there…but I can attest that it’s worth it. Just overnight the effects on psychological well-being can be incredible. And within just a few days abhyanga affects physical well-being in subtle yet powerful ways.
Fall in Love with Abhyanga
In an ideal world, you awaken slowly and take your well-deserved, sweet time to love up your body, applying the perfect oil infused with the exact herbs your body needs. Next, you practice asana in a candle-filled room filled, connecting your mind to your body through your breath. Finally, you sit in a steam room to allow the oils to absorb even deeper into your skin while washing off any excess oils. In reality, your daily life may be more hectic. You awake after pressing snooze a couple of times, with 20 minutes to put on oil, do a couple of yoga postures, and take a quick shower before heading off to work. Honestly, it’s all good. What’s important is to try out a few of these practices, plant seeds for some good healthy habits, and see what grows. Here are some quick tips to start a short and sweet yet extremely powerful personal abhyanga practice just in time for high vata season.
- Synchronize abhyanga with your shower, whether in the morning or evening.
- If that’s morning for you, you can to wake up and drink warm to room temperature water while applying oil to your body. Afterwards, the 20-30 minutes that it takes for the oil to absorb into your body is a great time for an energizing movement practice – whether it’s yoga, tai chi, or a sunrise walk. This time of year, something not so intense is perfect. Afterwards, a shower will wash away any excess oil.
- If you bathe in the evenings, I like to make a cup of tea, turn on the bath, and play calming music while I oil up. Then I go straight to the bathtub to let my mind unwind from the day, while the warm water enhances the body’s ability to absorb the oil. If you feel extra heated physically or mentally from the day, make the bath room temperature.
- Not much time at all? No problem! Take 30 seconds to rub oil on your feet and slip some socks on right before your head hits the pillow.
Different Doshas, Different Techniques
- Use sesame or almond oil as a base
- Add a couple drops of sandalwood or cinnamon essential oil to the base oil
- Use large amounts of oil
- Start at the head and work down towards the feet
- Rub vigorously to create extra heat
- Use coconut or sunflower oil as a base
- Add a couple drops of rose or sandalwood essential oil to the base oil
- Use medium amounts of oil
- Start at the head and work down towards the feet
- Use longer strokes which are cooling and calming in nature
- Use safflower or mustard oil
- Add a couple drops of cinnamon or patchouli essential oil to the base oil
- Use small amounts of oil
- Start at feet the and work up towards the head
- Rub vigorously to create extra heat
Note: If you’re dealing with a combination of doshas, feel free to mix oils. For example, if you had a pitta/vata imbalance or wanted an oil best suited for the current late summer season, mixing ½ coconut oil with ½ sesame oil with a couple drops of cinnamon and rose would be a great choice.
Applying oil to the body is a potent practice that can take as little or as much time as you need. The more mindful you are in your abhyanga, the greater the benefit. That said, even after long days when your time is really limited, a quick abhyanga practice could create an entirely different experience this fall for you. Happy oiling!