woman massaging her own shoulderShare on Pinterest
Cavan Images/Getty Images

Abhyanga is a massage that’s done with warm oil. The oil is applied on the entire body, from the scalp to the soles of your feet.

It’s the most popular massage in Ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine from India. Ayurveda focuses on maintaining health through natural practices like massage and what you eat.

The oil is the central component of Abhyanga. When combined with massage strokes, it’s thought to promote overall health and wellness.

Abhyanga is typically performed by a massage therapist. But it’s also possible to do an abhyanga self-massage in the comfort of your own home.

Let’s look at the potential benefits of this Ayurvedic massage, along with how to do it yourself.

Though there isn’t much research on abhyanga specifically, it’s been practiced for thousands of years. Many people have reported therapeutic benefits and continue to use this remedy.

Research backs up the positive effects of general massage. This likely plays a role in the anecdotal benefits of abhyanga.

Reduce stress

In a small 2011 study, researchers studied how abhyanga affects stress in 20 healthy adults.

Before receiving a 1-hour abhyanga massage, the participants completed a stress-related questionnaire and had their heart rate measured. Both tests were repeated after the session.

The researchers found that, after the massage, the participants’ subjective stress levels and heart rate decreased.

While new, larger studies are necessary to understand how abhyanga reduces stress, other research has found similar benefits.

A 2018 study examined how rhythmical massage with aromatic oil influences the autonomic nervous system in 44 healthy women.

Stress negatively changes the autonomic nervous system, reducing heart rate variability. Low heart rate variability indicates higher stress levels; high variability indicates relaxation.

The study determined rhythmical massage led to long-term heart rate variability stimulation, a sign of relaxation. The aromatic oil also helped, but its effect was temporary.

This suggests that abhyanga, which also involves massage and oils, could potentially offer similar benefits.

Lower blood pressure

In that 2011 study, researchers also evaluated the participants’ blood pressure. After abhyanga, blood pressure decreased in those with prehypertension.

This could be related to the way massage affects the circulatory system. During a classic massage, the blood vessels expand. This speeds blood flow and reduces resistance in the arteries, which helps improve blood pressure.

Still, additional research is needed to clarify how abhyanga specifically affects blood pressure.

Improve skin health

According to abhyanga practitioners, healthy skin is a main benefit of the massage.

The oil is used to nourish the skin, which supposedly improves its overall appearance. The massage strokes are believed to:

There’s some merit to these claims. For example, a 2018 study determined that facial massage rollers increase skin blood flow. Another 2018 study also found that massaging scars can reduce their appearance and thickness.

But there’s limited evidence on the skin benefits of massage. Further research is required to prove how massage, like abhyanga, may help the skin.

Reduce muscle stiffness

Another purported benefit of abhyanga is better flexibility. It’s thought to decrease stiffness and increase mobility by loosening shortened, tight muscles.

For instance, a 2017 study found that ankle massage improves ankle joint flexibility. Similarly, in a 2019 study, researchers determined that self-massage before stretching improves range of motion in the lower legs.

As a type of massage, abhyanga could have similar benefits. Additional studies are needed to understand how abhyanga affects flexibility.

Promotes lymphatic drainage

Lymphatic drainage is an established benefit of any type of massage. While scientists haven’t explicitly examined abhyanga and lymph flow, proponents claim it has a positive effect.

Your lymphatic system removes your body’s waste. If you have surgery or a medical condition, the fluid in your lymphatic system can accumulate and cause swelling, or lymphedema.

Massage can improve lymphedema by encouraging lymphatic drainage. The physical pressure expands lymphatic vessels, which promotes lymph flow.

Massage has been used to reduce lymphedema after surgery, injury, or radiation therapy.

If you have a painful calf, see your doctor before you begin massage. Massage isn’t right for some conditions.

Other benefits

Abhyanga is also said to:

  • improve vision
  • increase energy and alertness
  • increase physical strength
  • delay age-related changes

However, these outcomes are anecdotal. They haven’t been tested or proven by researchers.

Receiving abhyanga from a trained massage therapist can be a relaxing experience. However, it’s also possible to enjoy abhyanga as a self-massage. This lets you enjoy the massage whenever it’s convenient for you.

During abhyanga, you’ll need to wear minimal clothing or wrap a towel around your body.

Here’s the general technique of an abhyanga self-massage:

  1. Pour 1/2 cup oil in a clean, empty shampoo or squeeze bottle. Put the bottle in a pot of hot water until the oil is warm.
  2. Apply the oil to your whole body, including the top of your head. Start at the top of the head, massaging the oil into your scalp, moving in circular motions.
  3. Continue to your forehead, ears, cheeks, and jaws.
  4. Massage your chest and abdomen, moving in clockwise and circular strokes. On your trunk, massage inward along your ribs.
  5. Continue to your back and butt. Massage in straight, long motions on your arms and legs. Move in circular motions on your joints.
  6. Massage your feet, including your toes and soles.
  7. Relax for 10 minutes to let your skin absorb the oil.
  8. Take a warm bath or shower. Use a gentle cleanser to remove the oil.

For an enjoyable self-massage, follow these tips:

  • Make sure the oil is warm but not too hot.
  • Consider using an electronic oil warmer. It’s convenient and portable.
  • Use an old towel to catch the oil stains.
  • Take your time on each body part.
  • After massaging your soles with oil, be careful when walking. The oil could make you slip.
  • Use a clean towel when you get out of the shower.
  • Do an abhyanga self-massage daily for optimal results.

The best oil for abhyanga depends on your “dosha,” or body type. In Ayurveda, there are three doshas that determine which oils you need to encourage balance and health.

Here’s a general look at the doshas, along with their skin qualities and recommended oils:

  • Vata (dry skin). Use heavy oils like almond, sesame, or avocado oil.
  • Pitta (sensitive or overheated skin). Apply a neutral oil like ghee or sunflower oil.
  • Kapha (oily skin). Use a light oil, such as safflower, sweet almond, or flaxseed oil. Typically, less oil is needed for kapha.

Each carrier oil can be used by itself or blended with another oil.

Another option is to infuse your carrier oil with herbs. Herb-infused oils are thought to provide added benefits. Popular herbs used in abhyanga oils include:

  • waterhyssop
  • turmeric
  • lotus root
  • basil
  • cloves

To infuse your own oil:

  1. Warm 1 cup carrier oil in a small saucepan.
  2. Add the herbs. Mix and remove from the heat.
  3. Cover the saucepan. Let sit for 24 hours.
  4. Strain the herbs with a cheesecloth.
  5. Store in an airtight container.

You can also buy pre-blended oils at massage supply stores or Ayurvedic spas and centers.

While there’s minimal research on abhyanga, the massage is an ancient practice. It’s believed to promote wellness and balance, along with stress relief and healthy skin.

The technique involves applying warm oil to the entire body and massaging each part.

Massage can improve relaxation, blood flow, and general health.

Self-massage may not be safe if you’re pregnant or have a skin infection, broken bone, or chronic illness.

If you’d like to try an abhyanga self-massage, talk to a doctor first. Massage isn’t right for some conditions.