In India, getting a massage starts on day one. Mothers have been giving babies daily massages for thousands of years. Kids start giving themselves daily massages at early ages, and continue this as a lifelong practice. In fact, it is common in India to talk to an eighty-year-old person and find out that they have done a self-massage every day of their life – that’s pushing 30,000 massages!
In the west, daily massage is just not on anyone’s radar, at least not yet! Recently, researchers have found that certain types of massage can actually trigger the release of many beneficial brain chemicals. The results are so compelling, you just might run home and start a self-massage practice today!
Bonding through Touch
The sense of touch, whether it be a handshake, a hug or a peck on the cheek has long been an accepted medium for social bonding. Primates spend a lot of time touching, grooming and rubbing up against each other to maintain social bonds, decrease stress, and make up after a quarrel.
The sense of touch has also been linked to healing. The laying on of hands has been described in many traditions as a form of energetic healing. While the mechanism for this form of healing has yet to be fully understood, much has been written about the healing power of touch.
In Ayurveda, the sense of light touch directly corresponds to the element of air and an energy called prana or vayu, which is defined as life force. The Sushruta Samhita, one of the main Ayurvedic texts, states: “Vayu, (which is directly linked to light touch) which courses through the body, is self-begotten in origin and regarded as identical to eternal life or God itself.”
In Ayurveda, each of the five senses is understood to be an avenue of consciousness and a vehicle to elicit a self-healing response. The element of touch as a means of moving prana is used in Ayurvedic massage, marma point therapy (the massage of special points of concentrated life force on the body), and the feeling of the pulse as used in pulse diagnosis.
There are many ways of moving prana, including yoga and breathing. When we move our life force, it flows first into the body and then into the mind, bringing balance and calm to both and enhancing self-awareness. Only when self-awareness is cultivated can the system fully recognize underlying problems or imbalances and elicit the appropriate therapeutic response to heal them.
Light touch in particular as a means of moving prana is considered an effective tool of self-awareness and a trigger for a potent healing response.
Now let’s look at some of the latest research western science has discovered regarding light touch.
Lately, researchers have set out to discover if the “physiology of touch” could explain why people with healthy social networks typically enjoy less sickness and longer lives than those without social networks. It seems that healthy social networks may play a role in buffering stress and boosting immunity.
For example, prior studies have shown that people with hypertension and depression improve with massage therapy. Massage appears to decrease cortisol, a disease-producing and degenerative stress hormone.* It also increases dopamine and norepinephrine, which boost mood, reward, pleasure and wellbeing.* Massage has also been found to boost immunity and killer T cells in AIDS patients.*
In a recent study published in Alternative Therapies, 95 subjects had their blood levels evaluated for the following chemicals before and after a 15 minute massage:
- Oxytocin: the primary target; a bonding and anti-anxiety hormone
- ACTH (adrenocorticotropin): a hormone that increases with stress and decreases with relaxation
The primary target of this study was to evaluate the release of oxytocin following a massage. Oxytocin has been studied to increase when one feels trust and/or empathy. It is the giving hormone, released during acts of appreciation, gratitude, emotional connections and giving touch. Laboring mothers secrete large amounts of oxytocin at birth, which triggers an inexplicable oxytocin surge in the baby and dad as well, fostering the initial family bond.
Amazingly, research also shows that oxytocin*:
- Extends life in cancer patients
- Reduces cravings for sweets
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Increases sexual potency and desire
- Reduces cortisol and boosts immunity
Oxytocin levels increased by 17% for the group that received massage. The control group who just rested showed a 9% decreasein oxytocin.
ACTH (adrenocorticotropin) – which increases with stress – increased by 30% for the group who rested without receiving massage. Interestingly, it decreased by 20% for those who were in the massage group.
Light Touch vs. Deep Pressure Massage
In a previous study comparing oxytocin release during light touch or deep pressure massage, light touch massage (as used in Ayurvedic massage techniques), yielded a 27% increase in oxytocin and a 24% decrease in ACTH.
In my opinion, this is another example of the wisdom of Ayurveda. Thousands of years ago when the Ayurvedic healing system was designed, it incorporated many modalities employing touch and massage. As I mentioned, the vast majority of Ayurvedic massage is done with a light touch.
Ayurveda is set on creating a safe platform for which the body can do the deepest healing. Whether it be with regards to diet, exercise, lifestyle detox or the many touch therapies, the goal is always to first establish a balanced body and then to move towards inner silence and awareness. This platform of heightened awareness facilitates the free flow of prana and vayu throughout the body, which is a requirement for Ayurvedic self-healing.