Acclaimed yoga expert Shiva Rea calls the ayurvedic practice of self-massage, or abhyanga, “befriending yourself.”
Shiva Rea calls the ayurvedic practice of self-massage, or abhyanga, “befriending yourself.” She is the founder of Prana Vinyasa, an ambassador for Banyan Botanicals, and a globally renowned instructor. “The self-love aspect is so unique in Ayurveda, because more than in any ancient system of health, Ayurveda emphasizes the importance of love. And I can riff on that forever.”
Abhyanga is also an important way of gaining body knowledge, she points out. “It helps you receive information from your body, understanding where you tune out and where you may have some disconnection, where you may have anything less than positive support circulating through your body. As a tool for self-healing and balance, it brings the power of touch to your nadi flow.” In Ayurveda, nadi refers to energy channels.
“Even though you are massaging your muscles and around your joints, you’re affecting your whole-body flow,” explains Rea. “We are flowing. Our spine is like the central river, and our arms and legs are the tributaries of that river.”
Rea says, “I’ve been teaching for over 25 years, and I can tell you that when people start to feel stiff or have a little tweak somewhere, the negative self-talk starts. Then there’s usually some withdrawal from self-care.” As a daily tool for body awareness, abhyanga “can transform the stiffness we can feel as the weather gets cooler or with aging.” It can also help transform body image, “as we spread love to every cell in our body,” says Rea.
You may be familiar with abhyanga as a practice done prior to showering, using coconut oil, sesame oil, or ghee, depending on your dosha (constitution) and season. “Six months of the year, this is your No. 1 immune system practice,” explains Rea. “But spring and summer are not the oily times; that’s fall and winter when it’s dry.” However, even then, you don’t have to apply oil, she notes. “The oils create flexibility, but your hands can create nervine flow, just massaging over your clothing with the cross-lateral motions: Left, right, front, back, inner, outer. Consider it a massage for living in rhythm.”
Rea explains a basic flow sequence she created that incorporates abhyanga: Start standing, and bend forward. Reaching back with your arms, massage across your sacrum, down to the gluteus maximus, then down the backs of the legs; then come up the front of the legs, using long strokes. While your head is hanging down, “which is so great for you, bringing blood flow to your spine, to your brain, relaxing the muscles along your spine, and all the tension in your neck with gravity,” you can bend your knees and massage around your knees with circular motions. If you prefer, you can also sit down to apply circular strokes onto your knees. (Joints receive circular movements; long bones receive long strokes.)
After you stand, come up through the upper body. Use clockwise strokes around the navel, massaging the belly gently, then clockwise circles around the heart. “This part brings awareness to the areas of digestion and elimination, the gut-brain connection,” says Rea.
You can sneak in a little of this abhyanga flow any time. “If you are in your workplace or in a workout, for example, you can take a quick break with massage over your clothes,” says Rea. “Just be aware, you will be in a forward bend, so you turn your backside or booty to a wall.”
“You are letting your system know that you’re in tune with it,” she says. “From what I’ve learned in my own anthropological study with my own students, for example with people with back issues, there is often some type of disconnection or not listening to the signals or something happened and they have been ignoring it. Abhyanga becomes a way of life where you are more like a cat or a dog—if there’s something going on, you bring love and presence right away. Maybe it’s supportive touch, maybe it’s increasing circulation in that area. Parents have that instinct. A kid falls, you’re there with your touch, with your love. Once you start with abhyanga, it’s like, ‘What was I doing before?’