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Abhyanga, Self-Care, and Oxytocin
Abhyanga is Ayurvedic oil massage. It’s an Ayurvedic ritual and traditional Indian practice that has been used for thousands of years to balance vata, or the nervous system, and now research backs the benefits of warm oil massage for calming sensory nerve receptors.
Abhyanga is a form of sneha, or oleation, in which the body is softened, healed, and detoxified with oil. The word sneha is also a word used in Sanskrit for maternal love and affection.
The suggestion here is that abhyanga should be performed with affection, intention, and love. When this happens, whether it is a self-massage or you are giving a massage, the affection triggers the release of the body’s loving, giving, bonding, and longevity hormone oxytocin.
It is the combination of massaging the body with herbalized oils and mindful love, affection, and intention that separates an Ayurvedic massage from other types of massage.
The Science Behind Abhyanga Benefits
The time-tested notion that humans can benefit from giving themselves a loving daily herbalized oil massage is now concretely backed by science.
Decades of studies have supported the benefits of massage for a host of concerns including stiffness, muscle recovery, low back ache but the benefits go way beyond the bones and muscles. In a meta-analysis of 11 different studies on massage, there were significant improvements in the study subjects’ ability to breathe through their noses. Nose breathing is a practice with boundless benefits for healthy aging, athletic performance, oral hygiene, and more.
The researchers also concluded that massage support healthy back function in nurses and stress reduction in infants and children,
In a much larger review of 65 massage therapy studies, published in the journal of Complimentary Therapeutic of Clinical Practice, regular massage therapy was compared to getting no massage in a variety of conditions. Massage therapy supported healthier mood, immunity, breathing, cognitive function, cellular replication, blood pressure, and complexion and skin health, along with the general health of infants and seniors.
The mechanism cited in this review was from the massaging or stimulation of pressure receptors on the skin that lead to enhanced vagal parasympathetic activity and reduced cortisol, or stress hormone levels. In other words, massage is vata-balancing.
In a 2021 Harvard University study, researchers discovered the mechanism of how massage helps speed up muscle recovery—something athletes have known from experience. In this study, just two weeks of massage doubled the rate of muscle regeneration after exercise, along with reducing tissue scarring.
The researchers also looked at the kind of muscle fiber that returned after normal muscle fiber damage due to exercise. The post-exercise massage group laid down higher performance IIX muscle fibers that were stronger and more resilient than the IIA muscle fiber laid down post exercise in the group that did not receive massage therapy. The massage group was able to remove inflammatory cytokines and neutrophils from muscle faster, experiencing faster and more efficient recovery.
See also 5 Reasons for Self-Massage
Self-Massage and Ayurvedic Philosophy
According to a review of the Ayurvedic texts, daily abhyanga improves your complexion and the elasticity of your skin, and promotes healthy aging, strength, and stamina. Daily warm oil self-massage protects against stress and anxiety, while inducing sound sleep. It supports healthy immunity, detox, eyesight, and muscle recovery, while fighting fatigue and rapid aging.
Remember, a warm herbalized daily oil massage (abhyanga) is a powerful vata-balancing therapy. Vata is governed by air, which is light and dry. Massage oil is warm, heavy, and unctuous, helping to calm vata imbalance.
Studies have shown that daily abhyanga supports a healthy response to stress, which is perhaps vata’s most aggressive aggravator. In a small study published in the journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20 healthy adults received a one-hour abhyanga after completing a stress-related questionnaire. After the massage, they took the stress questionnaire again. The researchers found that both heart rate and blood pressure were reduced after the massage. They concluded that abhyanga was a promising therapy for reducing subjective stress.
In another study published in the journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 64 adults with a low back discomfort were divided into two groups. One group received three hours of Ayurvedic massage per week for two weeks and the other group received standard care thermal therapies for the same amount of time. Both groups experienced relief in their low back discomfort, showing that Ayurvedic massage is an effective external treatment for low back discomfort.