Abyanga. A form of solitary Indian massage using warm oil.

This is one of those things which—if you do it regularly—can change your life. You might be interested to know.

When I first started meditating half a generation ago (you know you're old when you don't measure anything in years any more) I was particularly taken by how attractive everybody in the ashram was. Particularly the women, a sex of which I have always been fond.

It goes without saying that being in a spiritual place in the first place is healthy and, unquestionably, diet and exercise play an important part in feeling good to look good, but these folks were awesomely shiny, and they must have had a secret.

It turns out that in addition to good old-fashioned meditation twice a day, three vegetarian meals, no drugs, no alcohol, and copious exercise through dance and sex, they all practiced a method of self-massage called abyanga.

I am by no means an expert in a satellite regimen of Indian culture as old as the Hindu Kush, but I was taught a simplified form of abyanga that certainly made me feel better, and that, I believe, will get you half-way to anywhere you want to go.

Strictly speaking this is an ayurvedic holistic health technique, and ayurveda is over 5000 years old. The extant literature dates back over a thousand years, so chances are good nothing I'm writing about is going to hurt you. The object, remember, is feel good to look good.

Abyanga is one of those hard-to-get-into first thing in the morning deals. I gather it's important to place this ritualistic behavior in its proper sequence, which would be:

  • Get your lazy bones out of bed early; as early as you possibly can. This is hard, I know, but it's essential. If you hear morning birdsong, get up.

  • Greet yourself in the mirror: Yep. Still here. Good. Respect that face. Learn to love it.

  • Go to the bathroom. The whole nine yards. You can train yourself to do this, after all, your pet does. It's nature's way.

  • Brush your teeth and your tongue, particularly if it has a while coating. You're going to become aware of your breathing as part of this ritual, and the threshold of your lifebreath should be presentable.

  • Are you breathing easily through your nose? You should be. Trying breathing gently through one nostril and then the other. If there is dryness, a drop of sesame oil applied with a fingertip is a traditional aid.

Interesting isn't it? We've already spent WAY more time on ourselves than we usually do and we haven't even gotten to the abyanga yet. That sesame oil you're holding is key. It's a traditional massage oil in India, particularly when used in this fashion. There are, however, some caveats:

  • Don't use oil on your skin if you're pregnant or have a medical condition, without your physician's knowledge and consent.

  • Don't use oil over any area that is painful, similarly.

  • Don't use oil on broken, infected, or damaged skin.

  • Don't use oil within an hour of eating.

  • Don't use oil if there is a thick coating on your tongue. The ayurvedics call this a symptom of ama and consider it a major cause of illness.

  • This one's important: Sesame Oil is Heavy and MESSY. It's hard to get it out of man-made fabrics particularly. Put down an old cotton towel. Be careful walking, and in the tub, if you're using it on your feet. I repeat: SESAME OIL IS MESSY. If you live with other people they're going to appreciate some thoughtfulness. Other oils, particularly coconut and sunflower, will work, but I've always been partial to the traditional. Whichever you use, it should be organic and cold-pressed; available in health food stores everywhere.
This is where you're going to start feeling good every time you practice abyanga, because you want to heat the oil by placing it in a container of hot water. Not too hot. Not too cool. Juuuust right. Do it while you're brushing your teeth maybe.

And then you're going to begin. Abyanga is really nice on a cold morning. In fact there's nothing like it. You're going to want to treat yourself now. Maintain a good, nurturing attitude towards yourself, and keep your mind on the part of your body with which you're working.

  • Work the oil in small amounts into your fingers and hands. Breathe easily. Feel how miraculous the muscles, joints and tendons are. Get to know your hands.

  • Massage oil into your arms, the forearms, the biceps, the back of your elbows, up to your shoulders and into your armpits. Warm, soothing, healing sesame oil. Breathe easily.

  • The Best: Oil your feet; your toes, especially around the nails; the bottoms of your feet. Feel those acupressure points. Work the ankles and all the way up your legs.

  • Sitting, standing, or lying on that special towel, oil your abdomen, one hand over the other, up the right side (the way your colon works) across your ribcage, stomach, down the left side, hip, and across to the right. Oil everything. It's your machine and you want to keep it healthy.

  • Alternate strokes horizontally across your body, first one hand and then the other, from your hips to your shoulders

  • Work your collarbones, your shoulders. Get to those parts of your back you have trouble reaching. After a while it won't be so hard.

  • Work the oil, in very small amounts, into your scalp. Across your forehead, your nose, your mouth, your ears. Relax. Move the muscles beneath the skin gently. Oil your neck; your throat. Again, be good to yourself. It's your self.

  • Relax. Breathe. You're done.

Now jump in the shower or bath and notice how hard it is to get that oil off. BE CAREFUL if the bottoms of your feet are still oily. You don't want to be TOTALLY awake now only to crack your skull in a stupid fall.

That's it. Of course you still have exercise and meditation and a good breakfast to look forward to, but it won't be long before you notice a difference in your skin and your life, partly because of the oil, partly because of the new habit, but mostly because of the right mindfulness that must attend this sort of thing.

Abyanga. Old as the hills. Refreshing as all-get-out. The only thing better than a solitary massage with warm sesame oil in the morning, I reckon, would be a massage with a friend.

I bet they have a name for that too, those clever Ancients of South Asia.

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