Revitalizing Touch: Massage


What with walking a half hour a day, doing some of the yoga positions, and doing a little Vedic breathing, you enrich and purify your body without exerting a lot of effort. Another subtle form of exercise with high-impact benefits is massage. You knead away at knots of stress in your body and feel good doing it.

There is a Vedic form of massage, known as abhyanga, that maximizes the benefits of massage—namely, awakening the intelligence of the body and eliminating impurities. And you can perform it on yourself.

We’ll explain a bit more about it in a moment, but first we’d like to address a certain widespread skepticism about whether a little massage is going to do anything at all.

Well, think about it a little bit. Massage involves, first of all, the skin. The skin has pretty much gotten a bum rap until recently in most medical circles. The skin, we all used to think, was just a coating to hold in the body—as if it were armor plating or a plastic bag or something.

The skin is actually an organ, just like the brain, the heart, the spleen, the liver, or, you know, lots of organs that have gotten a lot more favorable ink than the skin until recently. The skin is intelligent. It has all kinds of nerves. One square inch of skin has 78 yards of nerves. Those nerves wouldn’t be there unless they were transmitting information, and sending and receiving information involves intelligence. The skin also has pores—20,000 of them in that same square inch of skin that has all the nerves. Pores are for bringing substances into the body (like enriching, rejuvenating oil) and for removing impurities. There are also sweat glands (650 of them in that inch, for coating the skin with water to cool it down), and there are oil glands (one oil gland per hair follicle, with our square inch having 65 hair follicles, on average). Hardly just a coating or cover, the skin is a beehive of activity to benefit the rest of the body.

Skin is one element in massage. The second is oil. You can use a number of different oils in your massage. The massage we recommend for maximum purification utilizes sesame oil (also coconut oil and olive oil on occasion, but today we’ll stick with sesame oil). Sesame oil has a number of health-promoting qualities. First of all, it soaks through the skin really well, so it can work inside the body and not just on the skin. Sesame oil also has antibacterial properties. Linoleic acid makes up 40% of the sesame oil, and is anti-inflammatory, which is good for keeping your joints working smoothly and helping avert arthritis. The oil as a whole is good for your joints. It lubricates them, which is something that joints really appreciate.

Studies have found that sesame oil actually has anti-cancer effects (particularly anti-skin cancer, which makes sense, and also anti-colon cancer effects. The second one doesn’t make as much sense right off the bat, but the oil seeps in to reach beyond the surface of the body). Japanese researchers have found that sesame oil contains antioxidants, which, of course, are front line warriors in the fight against cancer.

If you are allergic to or have trouble with standard sesame oil, you can use other oils. Ayurveda recommends different oils based on the individual’s constitution.

How does massaging the skin with potent oil purify the body? You can see right off that the massage would be good for the skin, and it does make your skin soft and lustrous. For purifying the body, just like exercise, oil massage stimulates your body’s tissues. When they get active, they refresh themselves. There are channels in the body. Ayurveda calls them shrotas, but Western medicine has nice, familiar names for them—arteries, veins, capillaries, lymphatic channels. The massage loosens impurities, and they then flow out through the channels and the pores conveniently located in the skin. A warm bath after your oil massage is a good way to open the pores and channels even more and really get the benefit of purification. A warm shower is a second best option.

If you’re going to go sloshing oil all over your body, maybe you’d like to have some method to your madness.

Here’s the traditional Ayurvedic way to do self-oil massage:

To begin, “cure” a quantity of sesame oil that you’ll use for the next week or two (curing makes the oil easier to absorb and increases its antioxidant potency): Heat the oil in a pan over a low flame. Splash a tiny bit of water into the oil. When you hear the first “pop” of the water, your oil is cured. Let it cool a little, then put the oil into a squeeze bottle to use in your daily abhyangas. (Oh, by the way, don’t leave the pan and go off to change the baby or watch the morning news on TV. Wait right by the pan. It will “pop” quickly, and we don’t want any random fires from people reading this book.)

Here’s how to do the actual oil massage: 

1.   First warm up the oil a little bit. (Warm oil feels better and penetrates better.) Simply place the squeeze bottle in a sink filled with hot tap water for a few minutes. Don’t use a microwave. It’s fast, but it confuses the molecular structure of the oil.

2.   Sit somewhere where you won’t cause too big a mess—like in the bathtub or on a towel or a piece of oilcloth. Start with your head. Put a little bit of oil in your hands, then—with your hands open and flat—gently rub your head. Mmmmm. Feel that? It’s good. Massage in a circular motion. Spend extra time on your head if you like. According to Ayurveda, massage to the head and the soles of the feet is the most valuable. (In those places there are the most vital points for connecting with the rest of the body and enriching it.)

3.   With a little more oil, gently massage your face, also with your hands flat. Go easy on the face. With your fingers, massage your ears. Again, be gentle, but spend some time on the ears. According to Ayurveda, the ears also influence the whole body. (So they’re right up there in importance with the head and the feet.)

4.   Massage your neck, front and back, and also the upper part of your back.

5.   Massage your arms. (At this point you might think you have a long way to go before you’ll finish your whole body, but it only takes a few minutes to do the whole procedure.) Use a straight motion over the long bones but a circular motion over the joints (yes, even the knuckles. You can do it fast.)

6.   Massage your chest and stomach. Use a straight motion over the chest and a circular motion over the abdomen. Here, as with your face, don’t be too vigorous. Easy is good. Here’s a little inside information from ancient tradition—go clockwise over your abdomen. (Your large intestine moves in that same direction.)

7.   Rub your lower back and your spine. (Keep getting more oil at each stop.) Here you can be as vigorous as you want. Do your hips, too.

8.   Massage your legs the same way you did your arms—straight on the long parts, circular on the joints.

9.   Massage your feet. Spend as much time here as you like. As we mentioned, the feet, like the head, connect with all the rest of the body. Close your eyes and enjoy.

10. Keep the oil on your body for 20 minutes, then if you want you can wash it off. For the bathtub or shower, it’s a good idea to use some type of grease-cutting detergent (for example, Dawn dishwashing detergent) and let the hot water run a little to flush the oil down the drain.

Oil massage is great in all kinds of ways. It’s balancing for the physiology, great for the skin, relaxing, fun, and invigorating. Make the oil massage a regular part of your daily routine. At first it might seem messy and annoying, fun as it is. After a few days, though, it can become as welcome a part of your routine as your stewed apple in the morning and your warm milk at night.

This modified material was taken with permission from: The Answer to Cancer, by Sharma and Mishra, with Meade, SelectBooks, New York, 2002.

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